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 ;-).

An example of effective medical communication

“Funny” story: so, at the time of this post, I have technically overdosed on acetaminophen, at least according to the label on one pill bottle. Basically, I took two Acetaminophen PM (generic for Tylenol PM), but what I didn’t realize is that one of my cold medications I had taken in the same 24 hour period also contained acetaminophen.

Of course, as soon as I realized this, I rushed to the Internet and such sources as WebMD, drugs.com, etc.

Why the information I found there was ineffective

  • All the initial sites I found essentially say the same as my pill bottle: you may die.
  • They provide no indication of how their information is intended to be used. Should I panic now? Am I feeling the symptoms listed? Am I going to die?
  • Essentially, their message is: you took one pill too many, and now you’ve been poisoned and are going to go into liver failure. Right now. You might already be dead and not even know it.
  • They provide a bolded list of symptoms that may occur due to overdose, but their tone emphasizes you’re screwed.
  • They provide no actionable directive beyond panic. And contacting a doctor, which is not realistic in the middle of the night.

Fortunately, one of the top search results was also this link: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002598.htm

Why this link is effective

  • I’m already assuming it’s more authoritative because it’s linked to a government agency meant to inform medical practitioners.
  • It tells me what the real “you may die” level of acetaminophen is, on average. Turns out to be 5x the recommended dose.
  • Tells me how long on average symptoms from acetaminophen overdose take to occur. Seems useful if you’re already panicking or think you’re out of the woods because you haven’t yet died.
  • Makes it clear that the information provided is not to be used for diagnostic purposes (read: self-diagnostic purposes), but only to inform people about common effects of acetaminophen overdose.
  • Provides a list of symptoms that may occur due to overdose, but tone emphasizes that they may occur.
  • Provides a national poison control hotline that is the same number for every city, that is available 24/7, and that I didn’t even know existed until now.



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.