Category Archives: Teacher Responses to Student Writing

Teacher Response to Module #4: Theory as Disciplinary Infrastructure

Grades on Blackboard, as per the norm.

If you have learned one thing: Theory helps a field understand itself

A photo of a famous philosopher in front of a tax form
Top Google search result for “Beard Infrastructure”

The real purpose of theory, as I have tried to explain in this class, is to help a field understand itself. Theory is what we use when we’re trying to figure out who we are as a discipline, in other words.

Are we writers? Empirical researchers? Professionals? Project managers? Designers? What kinds of objects do we write about and research? Do we build things? If so, what?

A healthy discipline keeps asking these questions over and over again in collegial conversation. There are rules of discourse, but the rules shouldn’t squelch new ideas, and they should always be up for debate.

I think we have something to learn about the latter point in TPC, but I think we do a pretty good job of asking questions.

Teacher Response to Module #3: When Is An Argument Not An Argument?

Grades on Blackboard.

Everyone got the same feedback:

“This is really getting somewhere. Now you need to identify a journal and write to the conventions of that journal/editor of that journal.”

This is a very good thing

In every graduate class I’ve taken or taught, students reach a certain point of theoretical density that is sufficient for a “term paper,” which is still the dominant genre of graduate seminar paper in our field. A term paper is not a publishable paper, however, because it doesn’t necessarily interact with a specific venue for publication.

In order to get published, in other words, you have to write an article that is publishable within a specific journal. This means:

  • Catching the eye of an editor with a compelling argument and timely idea
  • Matching your writing style to the style most prevalent within that journal
  • Making a persuasive case for why your particular theoretical argument belongs within the conversation present within that journal
  • Submitting a manuscript that is well-written and matches the editorial guidelines for the journal (e.g. length, preferred citation system, formatting, etc.)
  • Successfully incorporating reviewer feedback, should you get a revise and resubmit
  • Seeking assistance from the editor of the journal if you have questions about formatting your manuscript, or if you are unclear how to incorporate reviewer feedback, including asking them for a phone call or Skype call to ask in-depth questions
  • Starting this process over with a new journal, should your manuscript ultimately be declined
  • Learning from early publishing mistakes and improving your writing continuously until it is of publishable quality

Teacher Response to Homework #4: Theory Is Hard Because of the Death of Theory

Grades on Blackboard.

The death of Theory; the birth of theory

One effect of the trends identified in this week’s readings: the death of expertise, the backlash against local-only approaches to culture, the shift from communication to content, etc. is that theory is now much harder. During the early days of our discipline we could talk about something called “technical communication” that was relatively coherent. It was largely technical writers translating specialist jargon for lay audiences.

This was technical communication, in other words:


Now, however, that is no longer an accurate description of the objects of our discipline, which range all over the place.

So, now our discipline is like:


This is actually a good thing, however, because it creates agency for new members of the field.

Teacher Response to Homework #3: From Agenda to Framework

Grades and additional feedback on Blackboard. Please read the feedback, as it is highly individualized and important for the progression of the class, as is the feedback from your peers.

The difference between an abstract and a framework

The first module asked you to predict what kind of theory you might develop, and now you’ve created a foundation for that theory. The only difference is a difference of certainty, meaning how certain you are that you want to explore a particular direction. All theory-building takes, in other words, is time, effort, and creative thinking. And like most skill sets, under the right guidance, you get better at it the more you do it.

The last stage: Making an argument

Though there have been attempts to avoid agonism altogether in academic writing, these attempts have arguably not caught sufficient traction to make them an advisable course of action. The last stage of this class is called a “theoretical argument,” because this is how the statistical majority of your fellow researchers will see your theory: as an assertion of particular assumptions. Again, the only difference is that by the time you are ready to deploy a full-blown argument, you should be very certain that your theory is tenable, meaning a contribution to the field that you are willing to cultivate, no matter how long that takes.

Teacher Response to Homework #3: Fixing the Field

Grades on Blackboard, as per the norm.

My agenda in this class is becoming clear

I have joked in this class that your job after the class is to go out and fix the field, but actually I am completely serious about this. In order for TPC to continue to grow, future generations of scholars must do better at theory-building than we have thus far. As Alvesson-Karreman state, a lot of what we call “theory” in our field is perhaps better characterized as “conjecture.”

This is because the working assumptions behind our theories are not always clear. Take the ANT vs. AT divide, for instance. Each of these theories has a long history of development and carries with it very specific assumptions about what conclusions theorists can draw from using them. It’s not that we can’t continue to use these theories, or hopefully extend them, it’s that folks seem to see them, and many theories, as interchangeable.

This is a huge problem for our discipline. A theory is more than just a working assumption, you see, it’s a way of constructing a discipline. Theory is what we use to communicate the norms of our discipline to each other, including how we conduct research, how we teach, and how we make knowledge. We need to make these norms much more apparent, probably through meta-level research that looks at all the published works in our field. Without this kind of apparency, our field is a minefield of theoretical factions that don’t talk to each other.

Teacher Response to Homework #2: Theory Wars, Take 1000

Grades on Blackboard, as per the norm.

You understand, but you do not yet comprehend

It may seem as though I am presenting TPC in this class as more of a battlefield than an academic field. I am satisfied from what I’ve seen in this module thus far that you all are very prepared for understanding key TPC theories, but understanding is only the first step.

The problem with TPC that makes it such a contested discipline is lack of regularity and too much regularity. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Too much regularity: The theories you’ve learned about in this module are some of the main theories of TPC that scholars in the field reference over and over again. They are the theories, stated or unstated, that gird our discipline.

Lack of regularity: At the same time, these theories are not consistently applied. They shift and move constantly. There is very little shared understanding as to how they are applied, especially when writing for different venues (those more geared towards the academy vs. those most geared toward industry).

Other fields usually have one or the other of these problems. The social sciences get accused all the time of being too regularized, too exclusive. But at least they have shared methods that anyone can use.

In most humanities disciplines, there are no methods, by which I mean “shared understandings of how to produce valid, repeatable knowledge.” I’m thinking of art, philosophy, literary studies, the disciplines where subjectivity is high.

TPC is thus a schizophrenic discipline, and this is a huge problem for the growth of our field. A problem new scholars will need to solve ;-).

Teacher Response to Module #1: (Precis)ely

Grades and additional feedback on Blackboard. Please read the feedback, as it is highly individualized and important for the progression of the class, as is the feedback from your peers.

A reminder about the genre system of a precis

So, as I said in class, you all knocked these out of the park. As a precis is obviously a confusing term for everyone but me, however, I think I will call this assignment a “theoretical abstract” the next time I teach this class.

I mentioned one use of this particular genre: when you go on the job market and have to summarize your 200+ page dissertation in a couple paragraphs. There are many other instances of this genre in academic circles, however:

  • Any application for funding, internal or external, requires this kind of concise statement of what you plan to do
  • Typically this genre exists as a kind of sub-genre, a literature review or theoretical framework, in any research article you’ll write for a peer-reviewed academic journal
  • Research articles also require you to write an abstract that precedes the rest of the article
  • When I query an editor about a potential article, I often compose the email as a very brief abstract of what my article would accomplish
  • Many job applications, in addition to requesting a dissertation abstract, will ask for a research agenda, which is closely related to the theoretical abstract: it’s a statement of what you will do during the tenure process, and what gaps in the literature you will fill with your research
  • Any time you are planning a research project, of any kind, you need to do one of these, at least as a mental exercise to make sure your project will add recognizable knowledge to your discipline
  • I think that many conference presentation proposals are versions of these
  • Most institutions require an annual review of faculty (and often their graduate students as well), and this review is typically accompanied by a narrative that links all the things you’ve done in the past year together, as well as explaining what you hope to accomplish the following year
  • An application for tenure similarly requires you to link up what you have contributed (both to your field and to your specific institution) during your time in the tenure stream with any projects you have that are ongoing

Teacher Response to Homework #1: When is a field a field?

All grades will always be posted to Blackboard. Check for them there.

These responses are more qualitative in nature and are meant to help push our classroom conversation forward.

Great summary of state of the field:

Technical and professional communication (TPC) problems typically involve technology either as a process or as a product. TPC problems are rhetorical in nature; many TPC problems are complex, multidimensional, locally situated, and dynamic (or perhaps kinetic would be a better description considering the term’s technical connotations and its opposition to the term static). In general, TPC problems are hard to solve because of their complexity, subjectivity, social construction, and involvement of multiple stakeholders. Some TPC problems are so difficult—if not, impossible— to solve that they are considered “wicked” problems. Heuristics are helpful tools because they provide a systematic, process-driven approach to problem solving; heuristics interact with problem solving in a recursive process of analysis, application, and revision. Heuristics “connect abstract theories to individual, concrete problems” (Johnson-Eilola &Selber, p. 7). Johnson-Eilola & Selber describe heuristics as “rules of thumb,” whereas problem solving is “a higher-order activity” (p. 8).

Problems we’ve identified with this approach:

What we’ve been talking about in class is how this approach, as exciting as it is, potentially creates more problems for us as a field. Specifically:

As an example of this, a client I’m working with on a mobile app recently asked me for an explanation of what UX and how he can translate it for potential investors.

I could’ve easily said, “Well, you see, UX provides a systematic, process-driven approach to problem-solving. Many of the problems associated with UX are ‘wicked’ problems in that they can never definitively be solved.”

This is what I actually said:

Current UX works like this:

Series of principles/guidelines (UX Strategy) + customer personas + code = current UI

The UI is just an outcome, not the whole thing. This is hard for most folks to get, but it’s really the easiest thing to change.

Now, the caveat here is that the client is familiar with all the key terms I used. Is my response reductionist? ABSOLUTELY.

But that’s okay, because every response worth sending is reductionist, meaning purposefully reduced from a greater whole. So, my approach is in line with Johnson-Eilola and Selber, but goes one step further: it translates this approach into an actionable, understandable response to a specific problem.

The client wasn’t looking for a philosophical response, in other words, but a practical, understandable one. What would it look like if we did this in tech comm? Reduced every response to a problem to a practical, understandable one? What would tech comm theory look like then?

We’ll talk more about that soon.