Thursday, August 23, 2007

Facebook meets the Good Book

Faithvine is a social networking site, "a safe, online community in which Christians from all backgrounds can grow together socially, intellectually, and spiritually, with a greater sense of connection through the central figure of Jesus Christ." It's not anchored to any particular denomination, and Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and the unchurched are all invited.

I'm not particularly surprised that social networking is taking off in the Christian sphere, especially given the success of the Willow Creek model and its emphasis on cementing large communities through small groups and culturally and community specific features. That theme is extended on Faithvine via blogs and discussions. Sometimes there's a bit of dissonance, such as this blog post worrying that Powerpoint makes church too much like business.


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Reading :: Communicative Practices in Workplaces and the Professions

Communicative Practices in Workplaces and the Professions: Cultural Perspectives on the Regulation of Discourse and Organizations
by Mark Zachry (Editor), Charlotte Thralls (Editor)

I received this book in the mail a couple of days ago, and was really glad to see it. I was fortunate enough to be invited to publish a chapter in it (Ch.3, a really fun chapter to write), but more importantly, the other chapters are written by really smart people and held together by the notion of the regulation of discourse -- an elastic and broadly applicable topic. The book's editors are also top-flight, which I suspected would translate into a more even collection than is typical.

I was right. The collection is much more even and coherent than most tend to be, particularly in professional communication. Authors have very different perspectives and draw on different theoretical frameworks, but they are working toward what is identifiably the same phenomenon and (mostly) doing a good job of it. The spread of authors is good, including many in writing studies, rhetoric, and professional communication, but also psychology, sociology, managment, and information studies. And the unifying concept of regulation works, even as it is articulated in very different ways across chapters.

As Zachry explains in the introduction, regulation in this collection refers to the ordering of "communicative practices in which people in workplaces and professions engage," and it is in turn "always constituted and sustained by communicative practices" ( Here, regulation is defined in terms of relationality and contingency (p.vii). And as we study regulation, Zachry argues, three issues become important: relationality, situatedness, and agency (p.ix). These three issues, not coincidentally, are foci of the subsequent chapters.

I won't review every chapter, but let's look at a few standouts.

Dorothy Winsor's chapter, "Using Texts to Manage Continuity and Change in an Activity System," continues the longitudinal study of four men who Winsor first met as freshmen at an engineering college. Drawing on activity theory, Winsor asks: How does a heterogeneous assembly of people agree on a common object and act in concert? And her short answer is that texts create common objects and coordinate activities over time, especially generic documents or "charter" documents (p.4). Such documents (her examples are requests for quotes (RFQs) and labor contracts) function as central stable texts that lend the appearance of stability but impart flexibility to the activity by accommodating subsidiary reinterpretations. In doing so, they merge contingency and change (p.6). Through her interview and artifact work, Winsor concludes that an activity system may have multiple objects; texts help these objects to cohere, but flexibility of interpretation is what makes the enterprise work (p.18).

Catherine Schryer, Lorelei Lingard, and Marlee Spafford continue their careful work with genres in their chapter, in which they use genre theory to examine case presentations by health care students. They emphasize that genre includes not only replicable structures, but also "regularized improvisations" (p.26). "Genres are constellations of regulated and regularized improvisational strategies triggered by the interaction between individual socialization, or habitus, and an organization or field" (p.31).

Dave Clark similarly leverages genre theory and activity theory in his empirically based examination of empowerment narratives in the new economy. After reviewing some of the most common narratives of empowerment, he describes how they were leveraged in an internet startup in which he was a participant-observer. "Using a cultural approach," he concludes, "we can build understandings of organizational power that do not view empowerment as a simple hierarchy but that seek instead to understand the broad array of discourses, technologies, professions, traditions, and capital that regulate the ways that workers receive financial rewards and build or lose the authority and value attached to their work" (p.176).

But for me, perhaps the most interesting chapter was David Boje's discussion of "antenarrative" -- which is a precursor to narrative, "a bet that a proper narrative can be constituted" (p.219). Drawing heavily on Deleuze and Guattari's notion of rhizomes, Boje identifies several destabilized antenarratives in the rise and fall of Enron. My one nit is that even as Boje draws the obvious implication ("analyses that refer to a unitary universal narrative ... should be seen as reductionist taglines," p.235), he mobilizes a unitary universal narrative to make sense of his identified antenarratives ("Capitalism will once again put on its magic mask and use the strange hypnotic power of spectacle to delude the 'spectator'," p.234).

Overall, this is an impressive and thoughtful collection, and I anticipate using and citing these chapters. Again, I'm impressed by the level of conceptual coherence compared to so many other collections. And it's also gratifying to see rhetoric and professional communication represented so ably in this interdisciplinary mix.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Reading :: Writing Software Documentation, 2ed.

Writing Software Documentation: A Task-Oriented Approach (2ed)
By Thomas T. Barker

I've always liked textbooks that present coherent approaches or methodologies, since they provide a framework within which students can work. Even if that framework is deficient, it holds together enough for students to work out ways to improve it. Tommy Barker's book presents a coherent approach, one without obvious deficiencies. I was introduced to it during my time at Texas Tech, where Tommy teaches, and was immediately impressed with how well it holds together and how carefully it leads students through the steps of developing software documentation. So when I committed to teaching a software documentation course this spring, I looked up Tommy's book and was pleased to discover that he had put out a new edition.

The new edition was necessary, of course, given the enormous changes in software documentation since the book was first published. Technical communication has been around a while as a field, but the boom in the 1980s and 1990s was largely driven by the explosive growth of the software market -- and, let's be honest, the importance of making those boxes heavy so people would feel like they were actually buying something. So paper manuals were incredibly important when Tommy wrote the first edition of the book. But in the 2000s, people have become comfortable buying CD-ROMs or just downloading software, and paper documentation is mostly sold in the form of third-party tutorials such as the Dummies manuals. Manufacturers' software documentation comes primarily in the form of online help, documentation on the website, and embedded documentation in the user interface. And let's not forget user forums, both official and unofficial. These changes are huge, and have really changed the landscape.

Tommy's second edition, released in 2002, gets us halfway through the changes above. I hesitate to say that he should already consider a third version, but another update would allow him to better address the question of user-generated documentation and forums, something that is touched upon in the second edition but not addressed to any great extent. The book is still manual-centric, but addresses online help as well. I expect that the solid foundation provided by the book's approach will allow me to build class components for the issue of user communities, though, so that's fine.

One major issue I had with the book has nothing to do with the author: The book's production values, like those of the series as a whole, are low. Allyn & Bacon has put together a fairly solid series here, but the pages look photocopied and the page design varies noticeably from book to book. If Tommy does come out with a third edition, I hope Allyn & Bacon can match the book with the high production values it deserves.

Netflix for books

In case your town doesn't have one of those things called a "library."

Books: Rent Books Netflix-Style with BookSwim - Lifehacker

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This seems like a positive development for the intelligence community

Spooks Get Their Own MySpace

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

One in four adults read no books last year?

According to the AP:
One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday. Of those who did read, women and seniors were most avid, and religious works and popular fiction were the top choices.
This is pretty shocking, especially given those interminable lines for the Harry Potter books this summer. But what does it mean? Are these people not reading at all? Are they reading parts of several books? Are they reading a lot of short stories, newspapers, or blogs?

Or to put it another way: Is it reasonable to make the book the most important metric for literacy (as the news article implies but doesn't state)? Let's ask one of the people in the survey:
"I just get sleepy when I read," said Richard Bustos of Dallas, a habit with which millions of Americans can doubtless identify. Bustos, a 34-year-old project manager for a telecommunications company, said he had not read any books in the last year and would rather spend time in his backyard pool.
So a highly literate professional who reads and writes texts constantly doesn't want to do any more reading on his off hours. That seems reasonable. That's part of the reason I no longer read fiction. But how typical is Bustos?
People from the South read a bit more than those from other regions, mostly religious books and romance novels. Whites read more than blacks and Hispanics, and those who said they never attend religious services read nearly twice as many as those who attend frequently.

Southerners represent! But notice that the author hastens to point out the specific genres favored by this group, genres that are typically not considered great literature.

There was even some political variety evident, with Democrats and liberals typically reading slightly more books than Republicans and conservatives.
In this case, it doesn't say what sorts of genres are preferred by each group. Oh wait, yes it does, later in the article:
Those likeliest to read religious books included older and married women, lower earners, minorities, lesser educated people, Southerners, rural residents, Republicans and conservatives.
Presumably wealthy people, liberals, Democrats, and more educated people are reading celebrity biographies and those Harry Potter books instead.

So what do you think? Is a book a meaningful metric of literacy? Can we regard Who Moved My Cheese, The Bible, a romance novel, and Tracing Genres through Organizations as roughly equal, and are they more or less consequential than a week of reading your favorite political blog, or a year's worth of text messages?

One in four read no books last year - Yahoo! News

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Reading :: Making Things Public

Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy
by Bruno Latour (Editor), Peter Weibel (Editor)

Making Things Public is based an exhibition in which Latour became involved, an exhibition of different artifacts that have to do with politics in the world of things. How do we think of a politics of things? How do we understand the public aspects of shared artifacts? This is a familiar theme for Latour, and in this edited collection, he convinces "more than 100 writers, artists, and philosophers" to join him. The result is a beautiful but massively thick book -- like an academic coffee table book, as a review at puts it, with wonderful production values and art.

Of course, with over 100 authors and artists jostling for space, even with a massively thick book, there's not much room for everyone's meditations. So the chapters are short. Reading it is like going through a buffet and grabbing small samples of everything. It's built for breadth, not depth, so we get samples of work from many different places, working on the same theme. It's not exactly satisfying, but it's still useful.

Unfortunately I never finished the book, and my copy is probably gracing someone else's coffee table right now. Last week I was carrying too many things on the bus and accidentally left the book on the seat. I can't imagine what its new owner thinks of it -- but if you buy this book used and you find that my email address is written on the inside front cover, now you know the story.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Academic is sued for blogging a negative book review. Please don't get any ideas.

Read your life like a D&D character

From TechCrunch:
Vancouver based MyProgress offers a service that provides progress monitoring features (generally used in computer role playing games) for life tracking.

MyProgress allows users to track their personal finances, skills, “knowledges”, wealth and health dynamics.

The site tracks every piece of information users enter, from a new purchase, capital gains, an hour of photographic or driving experience, or a rental price change, and provides a detailed overview on how fast they are progressing in comparison with the others across multiple categories, such as age, occupation, and location. The service provides analytics about user’s life and build forecasts based on past data.

MyProgress Lets You Track Your Progress

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