Tech Comm Luminaries: Dobrin, Connors, and Katz

A provocateur, a historian,  a rhetorician, and a pragmatist walk into a bar. Who breaks Godwin’s Law first?

Readings for this week look at how one defines Technical Writing/Communication and how the field of Technical Communication has been derived and constructed.

The Historian

Connors, R. J. (1982). The rise of technical writing instruction in America. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 12(4), 329–52.
Connors lays out a history of Technical Communications as a discipline, beginning in 1895. As editor Gerald Nelms notes, Connors wrote this piece in a historical time of its own, and it reflects the values and even the conception of history constitutive of the period it first appeared in the early 1980s. Connors conceived of history as a “grand narrative” to be discovered and told, and Nelms points out that there are counter-narratives and other histories that are left out here. But the article is still an excellent overview of the field’s development, and its parallel construction with the field of composition studies beginning immediately following the Civil War with the rise in land grant and agricultural and mechanical schools as a result of the 1862 Morrill Act and the second Morrill Act of 1877 and continuing as a result of the Gilded Age’s rampant rise in technology through the Industrial Revolution. He chronicles the development of an engineering curricula and the early mismatch between expected writing skills for engineers and their abilities. He also traces the contentious relationship between humanists and humanities-based education and skills-based learning, as well as the exploitation of labor in the academy for those teaching and researching in the technical writing area. Since neither the engineering departments nor the English departments claimed the faculty or valued them, the courses were assigned to graduate students, NTT, and generally seen as “professional suicide” (10). Interestingly, Connors notes that composition teachers were seen as emasculated: feminized or deemed homosexuals: “it was said in the thirties that many English teachers ‘appear to their critics as not of a sufficiently masculine type or of enough experience in the world outside their books to command the respect of engineering students’ and they were called ‘effeminate’ … one student was quoted in 1938 as calling his teacher ‘a budding pinko’ (10)
Connors details key dates in the field such as the founding of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education  in 1894, and IEEE in . He also lays out a history of seminal textbooks published in the field, studies conducted, and figures within it. Early centers of technical writing included Tufts, University of Cincinnati, Princeton, MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and University of Kansas. The first notable textbook of technical writing was T.A. Rickard’s A Guide to Technical Writing (1908), though Connors calls it a precursor to a true pedagogical book — more of a usage guide for practitioners. The first true textbook intended for college courses, according to Connors, was The Theory and Practice of Technical Writing (1911) by the “Father of Technical Writing Instruction”, Samuel Chandler Earle of Tufts College (6). This text used the “modes of discourse” (current-traditional composition) perspective, which has since fallen out of favor, Connors claims (though remains the predominant way FYC is taught in many cases, especially two-year schools). Connors claims the first “modern technical writing textbook” was in 1923 with Sada A. Harbarger’s (S.A. Harbarger, so her status as a woman was not revealed) English for Engineers, which was the first to be organized around “technical forms” or genres used by technical writers in the field, still the predominate method of organization for technical writing textbooks today. By 1938, Connors claims, corroborated by a comprehensive study by Alvin M. Fountain, that technical writing was a thriving industry.
By far the biggest rise in Technical Communication occurred in the years following WWII, and is again predicated on a rise in both technology, automation, an increase in the number of students attending college, and educational reforms to address both the apparent skills gaps they possessed and, in this case, a debate in education between a Dewey-inspired platform of social relationships and a practical techniques or occupations or industries approach (11). The Hammond Reports of 1940 and 1944 were instrumental in making reforms that lead to greater rise in technical communication. Connors notes that in 1954, with the publication of Gordon Mills and John Walter’s Technical Writing, the discipline began to take a rhetorical approach rather than a “types of reports” approach, and the ethos of “does it work” as the only good criterion for technical writing became established. Connors calls this the beginning of a user-based, “writer-reader relationship” approach to the field (13).
I definitely would like to have a visualization of this article so that I could see the timeline of events laid out next to each other and interact with them. Wish there was such a web interface. I tried searching for one, and found some unhelpful Rose Diagrams, as well as articles about the USE of visualizations in technical and scientific communication, but not a visualization of the field itself.

The Provocateur

Dobrin, D. N. (1983). What’s technical about technical writing? In P. V. Anderson, R. J. Brockman, & C. R. Miller (Eds.), New Essays in Technical and Scientific Communication: Theory and Practice (pp. 227–250). Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Publishing.

The Rhetorician

Katz, S. B. (1993). Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Hitler’s Program, and the Ideological Problem of Praxis, Power, and Professional Discourse. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 7(1), 37–62. doi:10.1177/1050651993007001003

The Pragmatists

Longo, B., & Fountain, K. (2013). What can history teach us about technical communication? In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Solving Problems in Technical Communication. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

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