Monday, September 29, 2014

Am I in Technical Rhetoric?

The calls for papers and conference invitations on technical communication I receive seem to construe "tech comm" narrowly… broadly, yet narrowly. My passions are outside virtual worlds or instruction manuals. I want to push in a new direct.

First, there's the tendency to group any and all "new media" or "digital" studies within the rhetoric and tech comm. That leads to an obsession with all things virtual, even though a lot of what has been studied under this umbrella faded away before the scholarly papers were published. Our rhetoricians spent a lot of energy studying what was, to be blunt, pointless: MySpace, Second Life, MOOs/MUDs, USENET newsgroups, instant messaging, and more.

They will argue that even what proved ephemeral was important because something was revealed about communication, at least in that moment, in that medium that was studied. Personally, the only value I see in a study of SecondLife is that it might reveal something about the little group of people who could tolerate the lousy interface and mediocre experience.

I read the discussions of these scholars and am frustrated by how disconnected they seem to be from the online, digital lives of "average" geeks — and even most people. They might be the only people I know using Twitter. None of my students use Twitter. Young people don't even "surf the web" anymore. They use apps to get information. The idea of buying music or films on a plastic disc? Not my students. They stream the world, renting content. The entire "Napster" and "copyright" debate strikes young people as weird.

After the online rhetoricians, you get the "instruction manual" crowd of tech comm. These scholars view user manuals, online help, and technical documentation as their domain. Sometimes, they stray into cookbooks, crafting, and other fun topics. (I love cultural anthropology.)

A few brave rhetoric and tech comm people dive into medical texts, public policy, and legal issues. I appreciate those boundary pushers, working in the fringes. We can debate how this brings rhetoric back to more classical roots, away from the "technical" component, but I'm all for classical studies when they shed light on existing conditions.

The STEM rhetoricians focus on engineering and technology as understood by scientists. These are the "rhetoric of science" scholars. The philosophy and rhetoric of science fascinates me because the people with expertise are often not included in policy debates. The STEM experts struggle with public rhetoric.

My passion is the rhetoric of economics. It's technical, but ignored. We need a rhetoric of economics, especially at this moment in history. Economics unifies philosophy, psychology, history, and mathematics. Economics is not quite a science, yet it relies on scientific analyses.

I worry I'd be alone at a rhetoric or tech comm conference. I'd be the one author of a paper on the rhetoric of economists, the one person wanting to analyze Federal Reserve reports for hints on policy trends.

Then again, maybe the Fed is as mythical as SecondLife and reading the Beige Book is as practical as MySpace.

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