Monday, January 21, 2008

Reading :: Writing Workplace Cultures

Writing Workplace Cultures: An Archaeology of Professional Writing
by Jim Henry

Jim Henry's book Writing Workplace Cultures, published in 2000, has been on my list of books to read for a while. Henry's book is based on 83 workplace writing ethnographies, primarily autoethnographies, conducted during seven consecutive springs by masters' students in Henry's Cultures of Professional Writing course. The students in turn served as Henry's research subjects. Relying on Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge, Henry sees these autoethnographies as "shards":
This book seeks to support researchers and writers at other sites by displaying the shards collected over seven years of research, in the hope that these shards can be compared to those of other digs and that alternative unities can take form in other settings. To support such comparisons, I extend the narratological readings of student writers above to demonstrate readings that trace discursive contours of subjectivity, as discourses shape writers' schooling, professional writing backgrounds, organizational sites of work, and workplace cultures. (p.25)
Henry demonstrates the similarities and differences across ethnographies along several different categories, using tables to compare writers' skills (p.73), writers' status (p.75), kinds of writing (p.95), multiple discourses (p.99), and so forth. Many of these have to do with the question of symbolic-analytic work, or knowledge work (p.115) -- and for that reason I wish I had read this book a couple of years ago. Henry has some interesting meditations on symbolic-analytic work, based on the many stories that his students brought back from workplaces.

So the project is a really interesting one, broad in scope, and forming a sort of meta-analysis of the 83 autoethnographies and ethnographies performed by Henry's students. As a meditation on these narratives brought back by the students, it's a good read. But it has two limitations that make me unsure how much I'll use it in my own research and teaching.

The first limitation is methodological. The range of studies -- 83 -- is great. And the focus on workplace cultures is laudable. But these 83 studies are after all performed during a regular semester by MA students who are otherwise untrained for qualitative research. Henry doesn't go into how he trained them to collect and analyze data, to code, or to triangulate; he talks only briefly about their research designs, which sound pretty unstructured. So it's unclear how rigorous the individual studies were or how deeply the analysis was affected by class discussion and other influences. Consequently, it's difficult to determine how comparable these studies are, and without a reference point for comparison, how can a meta-analysis be reliably conducted?

The second limitation is in claims. Henry does analyze the 83 narratives along a number of axes. But the metanarrative -- the grand story that should emerge from these narratives -- is elusive. Perhaps it is because Henry covers so much ground, but I had a hard time discerning a concrete takeaway from this book that was significantly different from common knowledge in workplace writing studies. Even Henry's implications chapter works over well-worn bromides such as the notion that autoethnographies have power "for heightening collective consciousness among all of us who convey fundamental philosophies about writing subjects through the very conceptualization of courses" (p.167) and "part of our work in intervening in cultural reproduction should entail our working with these writers to probe how such writerly subjectivities take form as part of a professional class" (p.168). Henry conducted an 83-study meta-analysis, something unheard-of in writing studies, and theoretically this unique study should have allowed him to generate and support claims that no one else can. I wonder if this has to do with the methodological problem: If these really were relatively untrained qualitative researchers, conducting relatively undesigned studies, working with categories generated from class discussion, perhaps new and grounded insights were simply not being generated.

Despite these limitations, Writing Workplace Cultures is still a groundbreaking book, and I would love to see something like this done with more developed studies -- dissertations, perhaps.

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