Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Reading :: Reshaping Technical Communication

Originally posted: Tue, 26 Oct 2004 09:18:36

Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century

by Barbara Mirel, Rachel Spilka

My brother in law has a map on his wall depicting the Republic of Texas between its secession from Mexico (1836) and its annexation by the US (1845). In that map, Texas overflows its current boundaries; a long tendril stretches northward into what is currently Colorado.

map of the republic of Texas

The story behind this improbable configuration, as my brother in law tells it, is that a group of Texans went northward to claim as much land as possible in the unsettled territories. So this expedition genuinely traveled that far, turned around, and came back -- losing heavy casualties along the way. That is to say, the map is a fiction: the long tendril northward was traveled by, but never held by, Texans.

I kept thinking of this map and this story as I read Reshaping Technical Communication. Technical communication is an interdisciplinary field (though some people regard it as a jobs program for surplus literature PhDs) and technical communicators seem to be forever going on forays upriver to claim more and more territory for their field. Graphic design? Check. Usability? Check. Information design, user-centered design, participatory design, document design, typography, color theory, project management, database management, content management? Sure, why not.

This problem of claiming vast swathes of territory based on small expeditions, though endemic in the tech comm literature, highlighted in this book to a startling degree. That's because the book is, above all, about reshaping tech comm: figuring out what it is now and what it should be next. The results are inconclusive, a fact that perfectly mirrors the state of the field. This is, after all, a field in which people with literature PhDs talk animatedly about how Melville's chapter on cetology makes a model text for tech comm students (no, I'm not making this up -- it's happened at two separate conferences) -- and simultaneously the single-sourcing crowd is claiming that you have to know XML if you're going to be a member of this profession. (See Borland's chapter, p.194.) In short, it's a field with a serious identity crisis. The book reflects this crisis quite well, but I don't think it explores, critiques, or diagnoses the crisis incisively. One exception -- and it is glancing at that -- is provided in Faber and Johnson-Eilola's chapter, in which they charge that "practitioners would be hard pressed to identify a robust core body of knowledge" (p.140).

One way that crisis manifests itself, of course, is through the familiar and comfortable academy-industry split, a split that shows up in a number of chapters. (Full disclosure: my second article, published in 1996, discusses the split as well and talks about how to "bridge" it. This is the only article of mine to be reprinted in a collection.) This split begins to address the varying expectations and interpretations of our fractionally coherent field, but it provides only one axis, whereas I am convinced that the variations are multidimensional.

Despite the fractioning/fragmenting of the field, some of the chapters really stood out. Faber and Johnson-Eilola's essay was interesting in that it brought in the economic dimension and tried to engage it in a way that we usually don't. Pare's chapter on participatory research was valuable. And Mirel's discussion of usability was, as always, engaging.

Overall, I found this book to be thought provoking. I think we'll look back at it in ten years and find a summary of the embryonic trends in technical communication.

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