The Rhetorical Self Fashioning of Technical Communication, 1984-1994 by Chris Werry San Diego State University
In the last fifteen years technical communication has undergone an explosive phase of growth both as a professional practice and as a field of academic inquiry. In industry, U.S. labor department reports show technical communication to be among the fastest growing professions in the country. Within the university, the increase has also been marked. In 1976 only 19 institutions were listed as offering academic programs in technical communication (Kelly et al, Academic Programs in Technical Communication). By 1985 that figure had almost tripled, reaching 56. Since 1985 this rate of growth has only increased. In the last few years alone the number of doctoral programs in technical communication has quadrupled. According to a study by Theresa Enos, technical communication has become ‘the fastest growing area in English departments, if not the fastest growth area in the entire university curriculum’. (Enos, page 95)
The field’s growth has been accompanied in recent years by a struggle to achieve disciplinary legitimacy. Technical communication provides a striking example of an academic field in the midst of disciplinary self-fashioning, fighting to establish and shore up the core components of disciplinarity. As such, it has tended to exhibit a remarkable degree of self-consciousness about the mechanisms by which disciplinarity is achieved. In journals and academic forums, discussions about professionalism and disciplinarity have been in the foreground for some time now. However, little attention has been paid to this process, despite its relevance to the fields of Rhetoric, Composition, and English studies. This paper begins the job of constructing a historical sketch of an important period of transformation in technical communication. In particular, the paper focuses on a series of key moments between 1984 and 1994 that represent significant shifts in the constitution if technical communication as an academic field.
David Russell has argued that it is really only after WWII that technical communication in the U.S. emerges as an identifiable field, both inside and outside the academy (Russell, 250). Rapid technological growth coupled with the postwar economic boom led to a strong demand for technical writers in government and in industry, fueling an increase in technical communication courses and teaching staff. Russell notes that it is in the 1950’s that the first professional organization (the Society for Technical Communication), the first journals and the first graduate program came into being. In the decades that followed the field continued to grow at a steady pace. By 1973 there were 3 main journals (Technical Communication, Technical Writing Teacher, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication) and an academic professional society (the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing). Wilcox cites a 1973 survey which found that 32.9% of English departments in the U.S. offered courses in technical communication, (Wilcox, page 59) and it is also in the early 1970’s that the first majors in technical communication are offered in English departments.
However, while a certain degree of growth is evident in the decades after the war and some noticeable changes in the field do occur, I would argue that the character of knowledge production remains largely unchanged until around 1985, and that the central components of a disciplinary apparatus are absent. Until the mid-1980’s there were no doctoral programs in technical communication, and relatively few Masters programs. There were few professional meetings at the academic level; there was no body of research and hardly any theory. The field’s journals contained significant percentages of articles by nonacademics and consisted largely of tips, teaching pointers and other forms of what North classifies as ‘lore’. Furthermore, even academic authors of journal articles tended to see their audience as located as much outside the university as inside it, and it is perhaps significant that most university libraries only begin holding the field’s major journals from around 1985 onwards. As a field, technical communication held a precarious institutional position both within the university and the English departments (where it was most often housed), lacking an established system of promotion, tenure and certification. In short, the condition and forms of knowledge production identifiable prior to the mid-1980’s are best described as ‘pre-disciplinary’.
In the early to mid-1980’s the field underwent some profound changes. To begin with, there was a radical increase in the number of professional writers, (caused in part by new computing technologies) and in the number of courses offered in Rhetoric programs and in English departments. By 1984, 63% of all English departments offered undergraduate courses in the subject, 31% offered degree programs and 3% offered doctoral programs (Huber, 173). MLA surveys in 1983-4, and 1986 show technical communication as the highest growth area for English majors (cited in Porter, 400). Of some significance is the role English departments start taking in the accrediting of technical communication specialists during this period. In 1971, only 15% of members of the Society for Technical Communication were English majors, and 40% were without any university degree at all. By 1988, 65% of STC members had degrees in English (often with majors in technical communication or Professional Writing) and only 8% lacked university degrees. This stronger departmental affiliation with English was added to through an increase in programs offering a major in technical communication (roughly one third of English departments in 1984). The growth of the major enhanced the curricular status of technical communication and marks a significant point in the field’s development. Porter goes so far as to argue that the establishment of the undergraduate major at this time was crucially important to the disciplinary trajectory of technical communication. He writes:
The status of major is institutionally and curricularly important. When a group has a major, it can develop and control content of a series of courses for undergraduates, it can argue for new staff and determine their qualifications, it can defensibly conduct research in the area for the purposes of tenure and promotion, and it can argue for graduate programs to educate the faculty to be hired in other like majors. (Porter, 406)
Porter is certainly right to identify the major as helping provide a firmer institutional position for technical communication in the mid-eighties (406), a position that was indeed important in enabling research, greater academic security and the demand for more graduate courses. However he perhaps overestimates the extent to which the growth of the field can be linked to the emergence of undergraduate majors alone. A number of other factors must be taken into account. For example, also of importance was the success of Rhetoric and Composition during the eighties in establishing a research base, a body of theory, a set of doctoral programs (from which many of technical communication’s best known writers came), and in legitimating the study of nonacademic writing as a serious field of academic endeavor.
By the mid-eighties a number of changes are also identifiable in the field’s journals. There is a pronounced decrease in articles by nonacademic writers, and an increase in those by academics. An intensive period of discussion takes place concerning technical communication’s status and how it might best be transformed into a ‘proper’ discipline. And most obviously, there is a dramatic turn towards theory, rhetoric and research as means of authorizing the field’s practices. Particularly striking is the shift toward research that takes over the field. Symptomatic of this is a 1985 edition of Technical Communication which announces a significant change in direction for the journal. It begins with an address by the president of the Society for Professional Communication, Frank Smith, who writes:
From the earliest days of our profession (discipline? occupation?), practitioners have been solving problems the direct, brute force way…Typically, we work on the basis of intuition and folklore, and when a client asks us why we want to change his expression or his table or his organization, our only answer is that we THINK it’s more effective our way. The client is perfectly justified in that case to say that HE thinks it isn’t. We need to be able to say that…research has proven conclusively that our recommended approach is superior (4-5)
Smith’s piece immediately registers a tone of crisis in its uncertainty about what to call the field, and dramatizes nicely the anxiety felt by many at this time about the field’s status. Smith makes it clear that what is at stake in the elaboration of a body of specialized theory and research is the power and control it affords professionals over their clients. In Smith’s article the production of research based academic knowledge is seen as essential for claims of professional legitimacy, expertise and jurisdiction. Smith goes on to complain that such professional control is impossible due to the ‘infantile’ state of the field, and concludes that the addition of research will help significantly in this respect. (5)
The presidential address is followed by Thomas Pinelli’s editorial, which begins by echoing Smith’s argument about the status of technical communication:
At present, technical communication is considered to be a field of endeavor to many and a profession to some, but not a discipline. It is time for technical communication to assume its rightful place with the other academic disciplines. A body of knowledge derived from research is the key to attaining that position. To make this transition in status, members of this field must begin to apply the scientific method. (6)
While Smith and Pinelli’s articles differ in emphasis (Smith is more concerned with how an overhauled technical communication will benefit practitioners in industry, while Pinelli focuses more on its status in academia) both seem to share a similar vision of what a ‘respectable’ discipline is. Both associate true disciplinary status with having a unified research base and following ‘the scientific method’ (4-7). Both see disciplines as automatically maturing over time through the accumulation of research. For example Smith talks about disciplines as going through states of infancy, adolescence and finally maturity, which is achieved when a ‘critical mass’ of research exists (5). Pinelli provides a similar account, but couches it in more explicitly inductivist language. He writes that ‘each investigation contributes to the expansion of the overall knowledge of the discipline. The cumulative effort of this gradual process leads to verification; spurious information is identified and replaced by more accurate information’ (6) Such assumptions about what disciplines are and how they function are evident throughout much of the literature in the field at this point in time.
Both Smith and Pinelli’s articles mark the beginning of an assault on lore in the journal. Smith complains that too much work in the field is ‘intuition and folklore’, little more than the ‘collected experience of a generation of cut-and-tryers’, as opposed to ‘facts and data based on controlled scientific research.’ (4) Pinelli writes that too much of what appears in journals and conference proceedings is based on ‘personal and often limited experiences and preferences.’ (6) This complaint against lore becomes an increasingly common refrain in technical communication circles from this point on.
Smith and Pinelli’s articles also announce the start of several new measures that will have a significant impact on both the journal’s trajectory and that of the wider field. To begin with, Smith describes a new section to be added to the journal, called ‘Current Research in Technical Communication’, edited by Steven Doheny-Farina. This section marks the start of a new emphasis in the journal, one that will expand significantly over time with the addition of other sections devoted to research. Further, Pinelli’s editorial lists a series of steps to be taken by the journal and by the Society for Technical Communication to produce the research necessary in the coming years. He suggests that the society increase funding to scholarly research in the universities via the research grants program set up in 1983. He argues that STC start lobbying for more graduate programs in technical communication, for more research oriented courses in these programs, and that Technical Communication increase its publication of the products of such programs. He also proposes the establishment of a category of awards for scholarly research, and that STC start accrediting technical communication programs. As far as I can tell from examining the following issues of Technical Communication, most of Pinelli’s proposals were carried out in some form or other over the next few years (a notable exception being STC’s attempt to set up a formal system of accreditation for professional writers, which was abandoned in 1987) and had an important impetus on the field’s move towards a research orientation. Finally, Smith and Pinelli’s 1985 articles make it clear that during the mid-eighties the push towards establishing a research literature was driven to a significant extent (in the early stages, at least) by practitioners working outside the university as well as by those inside it (thus differentiating it from the situation in Composition Studies described by North).
If one looks again at Technical Communication four years later, in 1989, the results of the shift in direction announced by Smith, Pinelli, Doheny-Farina and others is visible. Graduates from doctoral programs in technical communication and rhetoric have taken up key positions in the journal. Practical, lore-based concerns have given a large amount of ground to theory, empirical research and issues relating to the disciplinary status of technical communication. Scholarly research appears to have been successfully installed as the dominant practice. An important figure with respect to this last development is Stephen Doheny-Farina. During the eighties Doheny-Farina, in his capacity as editor of the ‘Current Research in Technical Communication’ section had done much to advocate the importance of research. In the third issue of the 1989 volume he and his collaborators John Beard and David Williams wrote an article analyzing the results of a survey of STC members they had carried out. The aim of the survey was to find out just how important research had become to working professionals since it had started being published in the journal in 1985. Doheny-Farina et al claim that ‘the results of this study strongly support the view that practitioners do value and use research’. They go on to argue for the importance to the field of developing a clearly defined research agenda, and end the study with the following conclusion:
Smith and Pinelli have argued that technical communication will evolve into a substantial discipline only when it develops a substantial body of research. They call for an accelerated research program in technical communication. Clearly, the respondents in our study see the value of research and would concur with these authors. (193)
While I would argue that the survey itself was as much part of an ongoing attempt to actively shape the perceptions of readers as it was an accurate measure of their perceptions, it does go some way to showing how widespread acceptance of the research focus had become in the 4 years since Smith and Pinelli’s initial call to arms, and how successful the struggle against lore had been.
The following issue of Technical Communication (30, 1989) features Karen Schriver as guest editor. The focus of the edition is on Document Design. Schriver’s article brings together a set of issues and concerns that had been gaining increasing attention in Technical Communication, as well as in the field’s other journals. For example she stresses the importance of rhetoric as a source of theoretical knowledge for technical communication. Schriver writes that rhetoric ‘is providing us with a very powerful historical and theoretical framework for considering how people construct meaning.’ (317). She goes on to cite Richard Young’s analysis of the shortcomings of technical communication:
The teaching and practice of technical writing has been by and large an ahistorical, atheoretical enterprise, with only the weakest of ties to rhetorical studies. (323)
Schriver’s article makes the argument that it is precisely by strengthening the ties between the two fields that such deficiencies will be overcome. She also notes the support rhetoric and composition offer the field: ‘Faculty members from Rhetoric have always supported research in both academic and non-academic writing. Thus, with the rise in status of rhetoric and composition, document design has been nurtured’. (324)
In line with previous issues of Technical Communication, and with Doheny-Farina et al’s survey, Schriver’s article defines the field in terms of an evolving research agenda. Her review of the decade long history of document design in the US is presented exclusively in terms of theory and research. Everything else simply drops out of the account. For example, talking about a previous review of the literature she and some others had done at Carnegie Mellon a few years earlier (and on which her article is based) Schriver writes that ‘we excluded anything that did not have an empirical base’. (318) Schriver’s article ends by proposing a unified agenda for the 90’s, oriented around rhetorical theory and a coherent set of research questions that will ‘put document design on the research map’, and concludes optimistically with the assertion that ‘before long other disciplines will look to our work for ideas.’ (325)
The articles by Schriver and Doheny-Farina provide examples of an emerging set of concerns and directions that technical communication is firmly oriented around by the early 1990’s (while momentum for these developments had gathered in the eighties, they do not appear to become significantly widespread at the level of practice until the end of the decade.) They also nicely illustrate the strong institutional influence exerted by Carnegie Mellon and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at this time. During the late eighties and early nineties articles by people coming out of CMU and RPI become an increasingly common occurrence, not only in Technical Communication, but in the field’s other journals. It is worth noting that when Doheny-Farina (who is from RPI) leaves as section editor of ‘Current Research in Technical Communication’ in 1991, he is replaced by Davida Charney, a graduate of CMU.
1990-1994: Disciplinary self-fashioning
By 1990 a Masters degree in technical communication was a serious requirement for certification in the work place, (this can be seen in many of the job listings for technical writers) thus increasing the demand for Masters programs, strengthening the field’s role in training and credentialing future practitioners, and providing a stronger base for the establishment of graduate work in technical communication. It is also at this time that graduates from doctoral programs in technical communication and rhetoric take up positions in universities across the country in significant numbers, and begin making their presence felt in the field’s leading journals, conferences and associations. Between 1989 and 1992, 6 new doctoral programs in technical communication were initiated (Michigan Tech, New Mexico State, Ohio State, Purdue, Iowa State, Minnesota). Furthermore, it is around this time that sections devoted to technical communication begin to appear with increasing regularity in academic conferences such as MLA and CCCC. A significant number of changes (most with their beginnings in the mid eighties) that bear on technical communication’s disciplinary configuration start becoming more widely visible. Four areas that can be identified are: the construction of a history of technical writing; closer alignment with rhetoric; a questioning of the way technical communication defines itself in relation to its traditional audience in industry; the reconstruction of the field’s leading journal. Each of these areas will next be examined.
Since the late eighties, many in the field have argued that it is necessary to produce a history of technical communication. These calls often make an explicit link between producing a unifying historical account of technical communication, and its status as an academic field. One of the most ambitious attempts to take up the challenge was produced in the second issue of TCQ by Tebeau & Killingsworth. In ‘Expanding and Redirecting Historical Research in Technical Writing: In Search of our Past’, the authors present what they describe as a first step in the production of a history of technical writing.
Tebeau & Killingsworth begin their article with the often made observation that ‘we do not yet have either history or historiography of technical communication’. (5) They propose to begin this task by producing a historical analysis of technical writing as it existed in the English Renaissance, 1475-1640. To this end they examine all manner of works on medicine, gardening, beekeeping, navigation, household maintenance, etc. While they do not explicitly address the disciplinary importance of producing such a history (given the context of statements regarding the importance of this it can perhaps be taken for granted), their history makes a number of claims that have obvious relevance. To begin with, they identify an object that can form the stable center of the disciplinary enterprise. They claim at the outset of their article that ‘technical writing is oriented toward performance: it is writing that adapts technology to its users. Thus, technical writing, in any age, will be writing that enables readers to perform tasks associated with their work in a particular society.’ (8) Given the circularity of such a claim it is not surprising to learn that they discover remarkable similarities between past examples of technical writing and present day material. They divide their analysis of the Renaissance texts into a series of section headings that clearly reflect modern categories (‘Listing and Spatial Diagrams’, ‘Headings’, ‘Page Design’, etc.), which tends to make the texts seem more familiar and related to present day technical writing than they otherwise might (especially since the categorizations don’t come from handbooks of the periods but are inferred from their appearance). The article argues further that ‘as all the figures in this article reveal, many of the works’ presentation techniques parallel methods used by modern technical writing’. (11) (The awkwardness of this phrasing in its juxtaposition of ‘all’ and ‘many’ perhaps indicates the stretch that is involved). To further isolate a disciplinary object they spend quite a bit of time pointing out how technical writing during the entire period can be distinguished from other types of writing such as scientific and religious discourse. They argue that one of the research questions that a historiography of technical communication must ask is ‘how technical writing differed from other forms of writing of the period..how did it differ from literary, scientific, and religious discourse’ (27) Here one can ascertain an example of what Shumway and Messer-Davidow call ‘boundary work’, in the construction and regulation of a division between what is a ‘technical writing text’, and what lies outside this concept. Such work is evident in passages such as the following:
Therefore, we can see that technical writing was a distinct kind of writing and that many concerns of English Renaissance technical writers – page design, format, style, readability, and clarity – that would be shared by technical writers in later centuries had already been established (10)
Such a history has the effect of constructing a distinct subject matter and a stable set of concepts around which scholarly work in the discipline can be organized. In spite of a few gestures toward contextualization, a continuous, uninterrupted narrative is set up whose telos is technical communication’s present. The teleological character of the project is evident both in the title of the article, as well in its conclusion: ‘We will continue our research using the same methods to locate, define, and analyze technical writing in the remaining seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, and then the nineteenth century. We invite you to join us in a search for our past’ (29) Their approach would seem a good example of what Foucault describes as ‘traditional’ history, in that it involves above all the ‘consoling play of recognitions.’ In Tebeau and Killingworth’s account the past is just ‘there’, waiting to be recovered like a sunken wreck. There is little sense of it as something that must be actively produced within specific institutional and disciplinary conditions.
Since the early 1980’s occasional attempts had been made to import (and sometimes export) rhetorical theory into technical communication. By 1990 rhetoric had become secured as the central source of theory for technical communication. Along with empirical research, which rhetoric provided important models for, rhetorical theory played an important role in authorizing work in technical communication (Porter, 399). Moreover, the connections between rhetoric and technical communication had become increasingly strong at the curricular level, with many graduate programs in both fields linking the two areas (for example Minnesota’s PhD program in ‘Rhetoric, Science and Technical Communication’, and Iowa State’s program in ‘Rhetoric and Professional Communication’). The model that becomes most commonly invoked to describe the relationship between rhetoric and technical communication is that of theory and application, or ‘science and engineering’ (Sides, 4). While the subordination implicit in such a relationship has been resisted by some, it remains nonetheless the dominant one. Michael Mendelson’s article ‘Professional Communciation and the Politics of English Studies’ clearly marks out such a position for the field. He describes technical communication as a subsection of Rhetoric (‘Our subject is essentially Rhetoric: the study of discourse and the complex of activities that surround the creation and reception of meaning within working cultures’ 10). Furthermore, he describes technical communication’s fate as inescapably tied to the ‘parent discipline of rhetoric’ (13), which leads him to claim that it ought thus to be accorded the same disciplinary respectability:
This essay is based on the proposition that professional writing belongs on equal footing with other courses in the English curriculum. Distilled into its most compact form, the proposition rests on the logic of the following syllogism:Rhetoric embraces writing in the workplace; English Studies includes rhetoric as well as literature; Therefore, English studies extends (or ought to) to writing in the work place. (7)
Mendelson proposes an ‘integrated’ curriculum in which technical communication and rhetoric work out a tighter relationship between their courses. According to Mendelson, this will help provide a disciplinary anchor for technical communication, which otherwise may ‘float about in some ignored eddy of the writing program, totally without mooring in the curriculum and without causeways to an from other courses.’ (9) The metaphors he uses to describe both the status of rhetoric and technical communication’s relationship to it are redolent with images of colonization and struggle, with technical communication occupying a curiously double position: as both a ‘territory’ that rhetoric can explore, and as an ally in the cold war between poetics and rhetoric. For example, Mendelson cites Donald Stewart’s comment that programs in advanced study of rhetoric are ‘islands in the wilderness far ahead of the frontier of the profession and in danger of being destroyed by hostile forces’ (13) Having acknowledged the precariousness of this situation, he goes on to outline a formula by which the situation can be made less precarious. This consists largely of integration between the two fields, the adoption of curricula reform, and the production of theoretical research coupled with historical work. The article ends on an optimistic note by remarking that what is perhaps most appealing is that the field is a kind of disciplinary New World.. Mendelson writes that latter day explorers will find that there is a
whole continent of composition practice out there waiting to be mapped…What we need to do now is to take the additional step of opening up English department curricula to a range of discourse that our research has identified as exciting territory for rhetorical studies. There is no longer any reason to declare such territory off-limits to our own majors nor as too alien to be surveyed by our tenure-line faculty. (16)
The way technical communication has defined itself in relation to its traditional source of authority, the workplace, can be seen to run into increasing conflict with the effort to build its disciplinary authority. This has become an important issue in discussions about the field’s future. In the 1990s writers have started questioning technical communication’s focus on the occupational world (for example Tebeau, page 15). This trend is perhaps best epitomized in an article by Gerald Parsons entitled ‘Why I don’t Believe in the “Real World” any more’. Parsons argues that the term ‘real world’ is to be found everywhere in technical communication circles, from journal articles and textbooks to student-teacher dialogues. He stresses that this usage and the dichotomy it implies severely damages the authority of technical communication as a discipline. Talking about ‘the real world’ betrays not only epistemological naiveté, but also, in its positivism, makes writing seem merely a process of transcription, and thus a largely trivial affair. Parsons states that talking about ‘the real world’ privileges the world outside the academy, making it seem as if teachers of technical communication want to disassociate themselves ‘from the very community of which we are part’ (45) He argues that in positioning itself ‘mid-way between the “intellectuals” of academia and the “pragmatists” of the business world’ technical communication risks ending up in no-mans land, and of undercutting its avowed aim of producing respected scholarly research. (45) The worst problem with the term is that it:
establishes as the evaluative norm of any academic course an external authority, rather than some internal, coherent standard of measurement, against which its mission and purpose will be judged. In short, academic institutions must be the most appropriate bodies for determining the value of any course offering against the larger purpose and reality toward which its curricula is offered. (49)
The answer for Parsons is to turn inwards, to stress the self-sufficiency and autonomy of the knowledge that technical communication deals in:
Locating the purpose for our teaching within ourselves gives us an autonomy and an authority that the notion of ‘teaching for the real world’ denies. (46)
One can imagine the reaction of high-tech professionals if literary scholars cum technical writing instructors tried to convince them that any interpretation of a Patriot missile deployment manual was possible, even valid. (3)
This issue remains a controversial one, and the field remains somewhat split on just how much it pays to go postmodern.
One of the most visible signs of the reconstruction that has gone on in the field can be seen in the changes that took place in the journal The Technical Writing Teacher in 1992. This was the field’s most important academic journal, the one in which the most ambitious claims for disciplinary status could be heard. In 1992 this journal was renamed Technical Communication Quarterlyor TCQ , and a complete overhaul was done of it. The first edition of the new journal both announces and embodies changes that are clearly aimed at making the journal appear more representative of a ‘proper’ discipline. To begin with, there is the change in title. The old title, ‘The Technical Writing Teacher’, is connotative of a pedagogical orientation, assuming an audience of teachers rather than researchers. The new journal title emphasizes instead the discipline. Furthermore, its subject is technical communication as opposed to technical writing, bringing together a set of related research topics into a single coherent agenda. Perhaps most striking however, is the change in the appearance of the old journal. The old journal is rather poorly designed; the title page displays the journal name in a large, low resolution sans serif font. In contrast, the new journal is well designed. The title page is rendered in a glossy, elegant, minimalist style. Inside, a number of significant changes in format and design have been made. The old journal’s table of contents had no section headings, just a single list of article titles and author names, whereas TCQ is divided into sections for the editor, articles and reviews. In the old journal book reviews occurred haphazardly, while they are a regular feature of the new journal. Technical Writing Teacher frequently began with ‘The President’s Message’, consisting of an address by the president of ATTW (the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing). This aligned it with a journal like Technical Communication (the industry journal) that begins similarly with an address from the president of STC. It thus acts as another sign that the journal’s focus is both pedagogical and centered around an organization, as opposed to a discipline. In contrast, TCQ opens with the editor’s column. The older journal is not peer reviewed, while the new one is.
In terms of content, a number of important changes also take place. While The Technical Writing Teacher had been getting more theoretically sophisticated during the 80’s and early 90’s, it continued to contain many articles with titles such as ‘Teaching Technical Communication in Two-year Colleges’, ‘Applications of Kenneth Burke’s Theories to Technical Writing’ and ‘Using Case Studies to Teach Courtesy Strategies’ (all in the winter 1990 issue.) Articles of such a practical, pedagogic character become extremely rare in TCQ, and the words ‘Applications of’, ‘Using’ and ‘Teaching’ start to disappear. Also of significance, the first couple of editions of the new journal feature papers presented at the 1990 MLA conference, which had begun to devote a larger number of sessions to technical communication around this time.
The changes evident in the field’s leading journal indicate one more dimension of moves made in the 90s aimed at strengthening technical communication’s status as a discipline. Recently, the journal has published articles that not only describe the path to disciplinary respectability, but which argue that the day has arrived. For example at the end of 1993, Ornatowski and Staples, guest editors of TCQ could argue that ‘the increasing theoretical sophistication and scope of technical communication have brought the discipline a new respectability’ (245). The articles featured in this edition of TCQ, and the language used to talk about the field are a long way from the insecurity and despair that could be heard all across the field in the mid eighties, and suggest that a significant change has indeed taken place.
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Brereton, John. ‘The Professional Writing Program and the English Department’, in Writing in the Business Professions, ed Myra Kogen, NCTE 1989.
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The names for the field I examine vary somewhat. In some articles the terms ‘technical communication’, ‘professional writing’, ‘technical writing’ are used almost interchangably. In the last few years there has been more of a tendency to talk about the field of professional or technical communication, thus broadening the scope from just writing to all kinds of visual and verbal text (indicated for example in the field’s leading journal changing its name fromTechnical Writing Teacher, to Technical Communication Quarterly.) I will thus use the term ‘technical communication’, in spite of the fact that a few of the articles I cite use different terms.
A number of reports have projected it as the fastest growing profession. For example see Carliner page 187.
Brereton provides an account of the first programs with a major in technical communication.
I rely on the definition provided by Foucault of what constitutes a ‘discipline’ (‘The Order of Discourse’, Foucault 1987, pp 58-62, and Discipline and Punish, pp 170-194. I also follow the elaboration of this definition as set out in Shumway and Messer-Davidow’s ‘Disciplinarity: An Introduction’.
Figures from Technical Communication 18, 1971 pp 4-8 ‘Membership Profile of the Society for Technical Communication.
For example Tate’s survey shows that by 1987 there were 53 doctoral programs in Composition and Rhetoric. To date, many of the field’s leading writers have come out of doctoral programs in Composition and Rhetoric. At schools such as Carnegie Mellon, quite a few doctoral students come out of Technical Communication backgrounds, and a significant number have produced dissertations in the area.
Although such changes are evident across a range of journals, I have chosen to look at Technical Communication , which is directed more towards professionals in industry, since this demonstrates two things: firstly, the extent to which the emphasis on research had permeated even a non-academic publication. Secondly, that the call for research (in its early stages at least) was not entirely ‘top down’, imposed on practitioners from above by a band of elite academicians.
One can see in Smith’s editorial evidence of Abbott’s assertion that ‘the ability of a profession to sustain jurisdiction lies partly in the power and prestige of its academic knowledge’ (53-4)
Doheny-Farina was (and is) one of the most important researchers in the field, and worked hard to raise the status of Technical Communication. In 1986 he became MLA liason officer for ATTW, in its capacity as an allied organization of the MLA.
Technical Communication, 30:4, page 7.
Doheny-Farina was becoming increasingly influential. He had just won the NCTE award for best article reporting formal research in technical and scientific writing, and in 1988 had published a book called Effective Documentation: What We Have Learned From Research which was one of the few book length works on research in the field.
For example CMU graduated only 2 Ph.D students between 1984 and 1986, but by 1989 had graduated 24 Ph.D’s. Several of these students (such as Rachel Spilka and Karen Schriver) quickly become some of the most important names in the field.
 Tebeau & Killingsworth’s article has received much attention, and is the first of numerous related articles that Tebeau has written on the subject in the last few years. Tebeau has a book in press that will provide a ‘complete’ history from the ancient Greeks to the present. Tebeau’s position in the field is significant – she is the chair of the CCCC Commitee on Technical Communication and vice president of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing.
Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, page 153.
Two examples of this tendecy are Edward Corbett ‘A Rhetorician Looks at Technical Communication’ Technical Communication Perspectives for the Eighties, 1981 and Ardner Cheshire, ‘Teaching Invention: Using Topical Categories in the Technical Wrinting Class’ Technical Wrinting Teacher 8, 1980.
It was also largely through rhetoric that theoretical work in other fields such as cognitive psychology was introduced.
Mendelson claims that curricular reform of technical communication courses will only be possible on a wide scale once the battle between poetics and rhetoric has been resolved (17).
Another common move made by writers in both technical communication and rhetoric is to argue that technical communication ought to follow the disciplinary blueprint drawn up by rhetoric. This often leads to a related claim, that technical writing is in fact just where these other fields were in disciplinary terms 5 or 10 years ago. In this scenario rhetoric’s history is seen as ‘anticipating’ the present of technical communication.
Compare for example Parsons comments with Foucault 1977, pages 59-61.
Foucault 1977, page 59.
Tebeau writes that ‘modern critical theory suggests ways that technical communication can become a legitimate, recognized member of English studies’. (25)