This Technological Life: My Technology Literacy Narrative

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Google’s Blogger, aka Blogspot, one of the blogging platform I have used in my teenage years.

In his most recent work, Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice, Douglas Eyman (2015) began his survey and critique of digital rhetoric as a field and methodological approach with his own technology literacy narrative. A variation to the traditional personal literacy narrative, the technology literacy narrative focuses on the writer’s experience with various technologies that support their acquiring of digital literacies.

As I spend more time this summer thinking about the theoretical landscape of digital rhetoric, I have decided to write my personal technology literacy narrative as I believe it might help with my understanding and locating of “digital rhetoric”––that my views and evaluation of digital rhetoric are rooted in the practices and disciplines through which I have traversed. So here goes.

My early encounters with computers happened both in school and at home. Along with other 10-year-olds, I was led into our school’s brand new computer lab back in 2000. At the turn of the millennium, Malaysia (my ancestral home) was picking up its pace in scientific and  technological development––especially within schools and governmental infrastructures––and there was a pervasive national narrative that promoted science education and computer literacy. Thanks to generous donors and state endowments, my friends and I were among the first few lucky groups of students who got to learn programs like Microsoft Paint, Kid Pix, and the Windows 97 Office suite while attending grade school. As part of the curriculum, we had about two hours each week dedicated to lessons on computer hardware and software, as well as typing and navigating the computer interface. While I don’t exactly remember much of what I did in the then-new computer lab, I cherish the memories when I “painted” abstract graphics on the computer, saved them on a 3.5” floppy diskette, and exchanged it with other classmates so we could view one another’s “artwork.”

Back at home, my parents bought our family computer soon after I turned 15, and I vividly remember how my brothers and I had spent the whole weekend figuring how to get the speakers hooked up to the CPU. We even drew up a who-gets-to-use-the-computer-when timetable so we would not fight over one another for some early versions of Solitaire. It was also then when my parents decided to get us Internet connection through a dial-up modem. Because the family phone would be disrupted when the computer is connected to the Internet, our use of the Web was quite limited. Nonetheless, it was then that I was introduced to the idea of blogging (around 2006) and I used the Web mainly for that purpose. I would write about my day in school, my feelings about the latest anime story on TV, and everything and anything that I thought someone out there might be interested in reading through my blog. In retrospect, it was since I began blogging that I developed a sentiment for writing. I was writing more than ever before and my vocabulary grew as a result. More than that, blogging also kept me reading (other blogs) and participating in a virtual community of bloggers who share common passions. I was so indulged in the act that at one point I thought I could make blogging my career. Sadly, that idea was given a pass after my teachers told me that it was not feasible. (Of course, they didn’t see Google and social media coming.)

The latter part of my technology literacy narrative wends its way into personal computing mainly for writing and communicative purposes, and then a deep dive into using the mainframe systems in college after I transferred to an American university. Before entering the second decade of the new millennium, computers were almost ubiquitous on campus. Email and online dashboards like Desire2Learn learning management system and e-Services portal were (still are, I think) regarded as “official channels of communication” between administrators, faculty members, and students. To my surprise, I became well versed in all these modes of writing and communicating rather quickly, and I was very watchful for communicative conventions and ethics across these platforms.

Continuing my studies at a comprehensive American university also gave me the opportunities to meet with people from different cultural backgrounds, education, and interests. Especially during my days in the student residential hall, where students would exchange and explore ideas in the middle of the night, play games, and share their respective interests with each other, I got to learn about computer programs and sites that I have never heard before (as most of them are popular within certain regions of the world). Although I did not get involved with computer games as much as most of my colleagues in digital and techno-rhetorics do, but I have always had a keen interest in visual display and computer programming. It might have been for this reason that I enrolled in a media studies undergraduate major with a focus in advertising and minor in psychology. Though not directly computer-related, most of my term papers share a common topic of technology and social behaviors. Upon completing my senior year, I went on to work in the madman industry for one short year, and returned to complete two master’s degrees––one in advertising and public relations, the other in rhetoric and composition, where I was first (or finally) introduced the concepts of writing and rhetorical theories.

It was through my rhetoric and composition MA program that I began to apprehend the facility of rhetoric and shifted my disciplinary identity from media studies to rhetoric. Two of the classes I took as a graduate student that made explicit the relations between the digital and the rhetorical were Matt Barton’s “Digital Rhetoric, Culture, and Discourse” and Judith Kilborn’s “Digital Rhetoric and Pedagogy” (which I completed fully online). It was then that my interests for digital rhetoric began solidifying and becoming a core of my research today.

Of Truth, truths, and Ways of Knowing

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Religions, beliefs, and worldview aside, we subscribe to different camps of epistemology. That is, we have varying methods and levels of acceptance to methods of acquiring knowledge. With the recent tragedies involving people committing lawless wrongdoings in the name of righteousness, it is simply frustrating to hear what these people deem as the only truth–and using it as justification for their transgression.

It begs the question, then, what is truth?

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I know it is oversimplistic, but there is a continuum. We need to see that there are ways to acquiring knowledge–truth–than just plain doctrine or opinion (capital-T truth). Those are not the only kind of truth. In a pluralistic society, we are constantly creating and negotiating multiple truths (lowercase-T truth). Through language and other modes of communication, we use different means to ascertain meanings. What is true to one may not always be the case for another.

A pluralist approach to understanding of truth maintains that truth requires different treatments for different kinds of subject matter. 

My aim here is not to argue for the subscription to a pluralistic view of truth, although that would make me very pleased, but the goal is to reveal that there’s underlying assumptions to how we come to know as true or not.

A quick Google Search would yield helpful definitions like these:

Objectivism: Reality exists independently of consciousness.

Positivism: All knowledge regarding matters of fact is based on the “positive” data of experience and that beyond the realm of fact is that of pure logic and pure mathematics.

Empiricism: All knowledge is derived from sense-experience.

Rationalism: Reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.

Relativism: Knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

Constructivism: People actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality. New information is linked to to prior knowledge, thus mental representations are subjective.

It is important for us to examine where our conviction resides. The way to choose to acquire truth impacts how we treat truth. For what it’s worth, I just hope that those of us who seek to confess truth would examine where/what our epistemology is subscribed to, and what we can do to be more receptive of others. I am just too tired of things people to justify their iniquity, especially, “I am right because I know the truth.”

P.S. Please pardon the poor spirit in this writing. I am really saddened by the Orlando tragedy and what that has become of in the news media.

Coursework: Checked. Next Steps!

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The trees are green and the grades are in!

As of this morning I have completed the coursework requirements for my doctoral studies. This is a little milestone to celebrate as I won’t be taking any classes for formal degree purposes in the foreseeable future. Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that.

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So, what happens next? Friends and families alike are curious about my plans following the completion of coursework. Here’s a snapshot:

Exams

This summer I am reading and preparing for three exams that will take place this Fall in October. The three papers will be on rhetoric, technical communication, and a specialty area on pedagogy, respectively. I plan on posting my reading lists on my blog here soon-ish so you might look at them and recommend resources for tackling them!

Prospectus, or dissertation proposal

In the Fall, I will also start drafting my dissertation proposal, also known as the prospectus. I have been wrestling with different ideas for my dissertation project and various collaborative works in the past few months have helped me think about the direction for the dissertation. In terms of timeline, the prospectus will be submitted to my dissertation committee  (chaired by the wonderful Dr. Ann Hill Duin) and there will be an initial “defense” session for the prospectus. Once approved, I will proceed to outlining the dissertation and work closely with my committee members in the drafting, researching, and writing of the actual dissertation.

Researching & writing

I plan to begin the research process in Spring 2017. The research and writing should take about one year to complete.

Defending

By Spring 2018, I should be ready to defend my dissertation and complete any final formatting requirement for the work. Since my department will continue funding me through my fifth year, my goal is to go on the job market by Summer 2018 and spend the year looking for a job.

There you have it, a quick glance over my next three years. Meanwhile, I will continue to teach and work on smaller projects–individual and collaborative–and publishing them to keep up with the competitive PhD grad market.

Technical Communication at the Crossroads

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This post is inspired by Jefferson Pooley’s recent article in Social Media + Society, a commentary critiquing the distinct yet overlapping cultures informing media studies in the US. Pooley’s article can also be found on his personal site, where he has enriched the article by embedding external links to sample degree programs that demonstrate the cultures he has identified.

Pooley’s commentary leads me to think about the similar problem in technical communication, a growing field that is seemingly struggling with a sense of disciplinarity due to the lack of national recognition and the muddling of approaches to teaching and research in the field.

Full disclosure: I contribute to that muddling of our field.

A Personal Anecdote

My college experience began with a double-major in communication and psychology. My first two years of undergraduate studies focused on a survey of the major contexts of communication: interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, listening, and organizational communication. I also took classes in cognitive psychology, child psychology, developmental psychology, and counseling. When I transferred from Malaysia to the States, my focus shifted from general communication studies to mass media studies. I enrolled in a mass communications program, renewed my major to reflect an advertising emphasis, and minored in psychology and communication studies (offered through a communication studies program that emphasized speech communication).

Later, when I continued on to graduate school, I was enrolled in two distinct programs: MS in mass communication and MA in English. The reason behind that decision was to keep my doors open for mass media-related job opportunities, but I was lured by the professional communication track in my then rhetoric-and-writing MA program. So I completed the MA and the MS concurrently, while constantly challenging my colleagues from both programs to think more like one another. My media studies colleagues would call themselves social scientists, while my friends from English insisted on being humanists. Torn between the two, I had used the scientific approach to research in my English courses and brought the humanistic rationale into my mass communication seminars.

As I came near to the end of my master’s studies, I knew I had to specialize in one field. I decidedly chose rhetoric because I found myself doing two things: 1) attending conferences where people call themselves rhetoricians, and 2) being attracted more toward books and writings that cite Aristotle, Michel Foucault, Kenneth Burke, and the like.

So, I applied to rhetoric and writing programs, and accepted the offer from a rhetoric-and-scientific-and-technical-communication doctoral program. Like many of my cohort members, we had little idea about technical communication. Most of us came in with interests ranging from visual communication, health and scientific communication, environmental studies, and internet cultures. What brought us together was the acknowledgment of rhetoric as a core of these subfields.

Now, as a second-year doctoral student in a department that is energized by faculty members of diverse expertise, and as I take greater interests in writing and technical communication pedagogies, I begin to realize the increasing challenge facing the field as it tries to establish its core culture(s). And as someone who has migrated from an associated field––versus those who are homegrown English/rhetoric majors––I am interested in learning more about the constituencies surrounding technical communication.

As evident in my quick Google search below, the most common terms associated with rhetoric and technical communication include professional communication, composition studies, digital and visual rhetorics, and the rhetoric of science.Such is an apparent divergence happening within the technical communication discipline, that the discipline’s image is unclear and, more often than not, removed from the true works it does.

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Search returns for “rhetoric and technical communication wiki” on Google.

Following Pooley’s footstep, I take a shot here to identify the (more) visible strands that make up technical communication as a discipline, and attempt to distinguish these strands from one another. While I am not motivated by any goals to unify the discipline under a particular culture, I would like to clarify the distinct paths that depart from what we fondly know as rhetoric into camps that organize themselves into incoherent silos.

Surveying the Landscape

Perhaps a good starting question might be this: What are the leading technical communication programs in the US and how are they structuring themselves? 


Caveat: This is not a comprehensive study of the field of technical communication. My hope for this entry is solely to initiate conversations around the kinds of culture I see going on within the field. What I am presenting here/below are not born of a systematic study but rather based on personal observations and some informed instincts. In other words, take everything here with a grain of salt.


Among the most popular (not necessarily the largest) technical communication degree-offering programs under my radar have named themselves as the following:

A majority of these programs is housed in English departments, with few in engineering departments and some standalone or multidisciplinary programs.For a comprehensive listing of technical communication programs in the US, visit the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication’s website.

Based on my own review of the degree requirements for these programs, I see four big camps governing technical communication studies: 1) English and rhetoric, 2) science and engineering, 3) media and communication technology, and 4) business.

When charted based on the programs’ emphases and their sponsoring departments, the landscape of technical communication studies looks something like this:

Landscape of RSTPC

The landscape of rhetoric, scientific, professional, and technical communication.

Divergent Constituencies

Like Pooley’s observation of the camps in media studies, each of the four camps diverging from technical communication studies is hermetically sealed from the other three counterparts. Technical communication delivered through an English or rhetorical tradition tends to focus more on the theoretical than applied. Their research and scholarly endeavors are usually informed by critical interpretive methods or qualitative approaches. Whereas, science and engineering folks would prefer to call themselves applied scientists who favor quantitative measures over other humanistic processes. These researchers usually study infrastructures of communication and usability issues. Over in the media and technology departments, scholars usually self-identify as social scientists who are interested in human behaviors and their interactions with communication technologies. Their research usually follows a sociological methodology and then to be more empirical than the English-rhetoric researchers but less quantified compared to their science and engineering counterparts. Lastly, the business folks tend to be more detached in terms of their object of study and research methods than the first three camps. Technical communication for business usually gravitates more toward professional writing, project management, organizational relations, and corporate identity.

Amidst this madcap, the four camps overlap through the discipline’s professional associations:

The IEEE PCS, ATTW, ARST, SIGDOC, and CCCC are populated by academics, whereas the rest of the list are more practitioners driven.

Scholars from English, rhetoric, and writing studies departments would also attend conventions from the following academic associations, given their often-interlacing interests in communication and rhetorical studies:

More recently, technical communication scholars are also seen dipping their feet into the emerging field of digital humanities and internet studies, going to meetings organized by:

As you can see, scholars are all over the place. Imagine the struggle for a new graduate student trying to find a group to identify with! What’s even more interesting is how technical communication scholars are comfortable with this kind of organizational madness. Many of us subscribe to multiple associations, present papers from one conference to another, and sit on committees that sometimes also represent areas we don’t consider as the core of technical communication. And as you would guess, scholars from the four camps of technical communication pledge allegiance to different professional groups, leaving students, and sometimes even newly-minted professors, perplexed by the fractal yet overlying cultures.

Beyond the Crossroads

To be fair, I admit there’s benefit to the plurality in technical communication studies and its curriculum. Scholars and students can study and practice a variety of interests and research agenda, not having to feel constrained by a disciplinary pigeon hole. Further, such multidisciplinary nature also adds colors to the field and helps in its expansion, making it easier to collaborate across departments and research centers. This interdependence leads to mixed methods in research, which can be benefiting to the overall advancement of academia.

Nevertheless, there a case to be made, I think. Something might be lost in the wrestling among four technical communication camps–something crucial to the value and public recognition of technical communication as a distinguishable profession. Without a centralized disciplinary arrangement to anchor itself, technical communication studies risks rendering its scholarship invisible not just to outsiders but between also the camps we have organized ourselves into. Worse, when these camps contest among each other to be the institutional face for the discipline, what gets affected first would be faculty jobs. When chemists or programmers start taking up tenure-line posts in technical communication programs, or when a business school overtakes writing courses for the college, the four-camps brawl would have a huge price to pay for their incoherence and indecisiveness. This would also give our would-be compatriots in media studies, design studies, and computer science a reason to stay away from our pretense.

Of course, there’s no quick and absolute solution to our sticky situation. In fact, what we need at this point is not a dismantling of the four campus–we still need these cultures to help support the legitimacy of the field. Rather, we need clear sign posts to mark up the terrains and give students a heads-up on what might be ahead of the path they choose to pursue. This is especially important for programs that embrace ambiguity and less-directive approach to technical communication scholarship. In the foreseeable future, my hope is to do away the camps by uniting them under a more prevalent umbrella of technical communication studies. Especially in an era of convergence and cross-disciplinary interests, we need to ask ourselves how we want to organize ourselves for a more productive future, and how much disparities can we tolerate for the benefit of academic divergence.


Useful Links

I am not the first to be troubled by the condition of our field; here are some links to articles and discussions on the state of technical communication (and writing studies/composition/rhetoric):