The Value of Technical Communication in Enacting Social Justice
Kristen R. Moore
In the CFP for the 2015 Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) Conference, scholars were called upon to discuss the "value" of technical communication. The field of technical communication has diverse origins, but it is most readily conceived of as field that brings clarity and efficiency to the function of discourse. This instrumental view of discourse has been widely contested in technical communication and its sibling fields of rhetoric, composition, and writing studies. Nonetheless, in locating the value of technical communication, it might be tempting to rely on the "usual suspect" topics and sites—and looking at the conference sessions, it seems many ATTW participants did. But I, along with colleagues Natasha Jones (University of New Mexico) and Rebecca Walton (Utah State University) believe that the predominantly narrow context of technical communication—Western business environments—is insufficient for framing the value and influence of our work. Indeed, we argue that to limit the legitimate sites of technical communication research and practice to for-profit industry is to disregard much of our heritage, to overlook relevant work occurring in a wide range of contexts, and to dismiss important opportunities to more fully understand and convey the value of our field.
In accordance with this belief, we proposed a roundtable for the ATTW 2015 conference that brought together scholars from eight universities around the nation to articulate the value of technical communication as a site of social justice. In doing so, the roundtable discussants contended that social justice scholars, in working towards inclusive (rather than exclusionary and oppressive) approaches to technical communication, demonstrate a central value of technical communication: to bring about social and/or institutional change.
Our roundtable session aimed to create a shared space for discussion among scholars in our field who are working in or interested in social justice, and it did just that. Drawing from a range of perspectives, scholars reported on strategies that technical communication scholars and practitioners might use to work for social justice. Walton and Jones offered a working definition of social justice: "Social justice research in technical communication investigates how communication broadly defined can amplify the agency of oppressed people—those who are materially, socially, politically, and/or economically under-resourced. Key to this definition is a collaborative, respectful approach that moves past description and exploration of social justice issues to taking action to redress inequities."
Each discussant then posed a problem or position that considered how the field might engage with social justice work. These positions ranged from institutional to cultural enactments of social justice, signaling that technical communicators can and should work from all positions to advocate for those who might be marginalized or oppressed.
Dawn Opel (Arizona State University), for example, noted the need for mentoring with an awareness of social justice perspectives. She argued, rightly, that junior scholars (grad students and pre-tenure faculty) who work towards social justice are often discouraged by senior faculty members for being either unhirable or unpromotable because of their overt politics. Opel asks for mentors to expand their view of what technical communicators can and should do. Opel demonstrates the ways that even professors whose work is not overtly positioned as social justice might enact social justice in their mentoring of students and junior faculty.
Godwin Agobka (University of Houston) argued that technical communication has widely ignored the Global South as a context for technical communication, suggesting that the dismissal of the Global South from our scholarship is also a refusal to tend to concerns of human rights that technical communication could address. Where Agobka suggested both programmatic and scholarly approaches to redressing this inequity of representation, Julie Gerdes (Texas Tech University) reported on her experience in working in the area of global health, suggesting small ways to enact social justice even when social justice isn't the end goal of the project. As a junior member of a global health team, Gerdes reported strategies for increasing the representativeness, diversity, and inclusiveness of her project in light of opposition.
And still others presented more incriminating positions, as they called on the field to wake up to its blinders about issues of difference. Marcos Del Hierro called for more listening in the name of expanding the field's ability to address cultural difference, claiming that conversations about intercultural communication [a common buzzword in technical communication] and the like cannot happen until listening happens. "Listening makes white supremacy and colonialism visible while simultaneously decentralizing whiteness from scholarship and the classroom. Part of situating oneself culturally requires the acknowledgment of how systemic white supremacy and colonialism frame many of our understandings and interactions. This happens because these forms of oppression, along with sexism, ableism, classicism, and others, are made normative in our society, and academia is complicit in these systems. Listening identifies these systems and allows us to see how they operate. I am not saying this is easy. I am saying this is what is necessary."
In his position statement, Michael Faris echoed del Hierro, questioning why queer theory has made such a poor showing in technical communication scholarship. In identifying queer theory as a social justice-minded position, Faris concluded the discussion with a series of provocations, calling for more inclusion of queer theory, more questioning, more problemetization of the binaries that so often dominate our classrooms and scholarship.
The panel discussions demonstrate that some technical communication scholars are ardent advocates for social justice and advocacy work in their scholarship, teaching, and membership in the field. However, it also indicated that we still have so much further to go. While the panelists hoped that discussants would offer their own strategies, we were disappointed to find that most were stuck, still asking: but how? how can I do this in the required classes I teach? how can I convince my adviser that this is worthwhile? how might I incorporate this into my "already existing" frameworks. It wasn't so much that attendees were resistant to the notion of social justice -- after all they were at our panel. Rather, their responses indicated the institutional and disciplinary difficulties of enacting social justice in technical communication. I can relate. Such difficulties reflect my own experiences and Savage's position statement: that we need more programs and textbooks to support the social justice objectives laid forth in the panel.
As the spearheads of the panel, Walton, Jones, and I left enthused and ready to work. The field of technical communication is a particularly powerful site of social justice because its ties to STEM can cause ripples in fields that traditionally remain siloed from more humanistic values. These ties make the stakes high, the risks many, and the need for social justice perspectives urgent.
Read more about our roundtable discussion HERE:
Godwin Agboka, University of Houston
Jared Colton, Utah State University
Marcos Del Hierro, University of New Hampshire
Lucia Dura, University of Texas @ El Paso
Julie Gerdes, Texas Tech University
Michael J. Faris, Texas Tech University
Sara Beth Hopton, University of South Florida
Natasha Jones, University of New Mexico
Kristen Moore, Texas Tech University
Dawn Opel, Arizona State University
Gerald Savage, Illinois State University
Rebecca Walton, Utah State University