A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Solving Problems in Technical Communication

Review of Solving Problems in Technical Communication
edited by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber 2013; University of Chicago Press

Luke Thominet, Wayne State University

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/solving-problems (Published: May 15, 2015)

In Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Johnson-Eilola and Selber feature chapters from many of the main voices in the field. Each chapter focuses on a specific problem that students of technical communication will likely encounter—finding methods for becoming effectively situated in organizations or anticipating users’ needs, for instance—and provides flexible strategies for addressing those problems.

While Solving Problems in Technical Communication may be a textbook at heart, it is useful for non-students as well. In their introduction, Johnson-Eilola and Selber note that “both newcomers and people with some experience” will benefit from reading their collection (1). A handful of pages later, they go even further by saying that the structure of the book “depicts an approach you can use as a student in a technical communication program or a professional interested in keeping up with new developments in the field” (9). This diffuse audience feels atypical among contemporary textbooks, which typically target student audiences and are further specialized to address a particular level or course. Yet throughout all facets of Solving Problems in Technical Communication, from the selection of problems to the language of the discussion, it is apparent that the authors aim to address a range of students and practitioners. Despite recent trends, this type of focus is not without precedent: in “An Informal Survey of Technical Writing Textbooks: 1950-1970,” Thomas Warren notes that a sizable segment of those textbooks were also intended for both university students and practicing technical writers (159). So, whether Solving Problems in Technical Communication is an intentional throwback or is organically addressing a continuum of learners, it responds to a need often voiced by those in the field.

While many of the contributing authors do cast a wide net, the text is held together by a careful and consistent structure and by a body of cross-referenced research. The contents of the book are broken into four parts, each of which covers one piece of a general framework for entering the field: from trying to define the range of professional activities and workplaces of technical communicators in “Part 1: Mapping the Field,” to an eclectic exploration of the field’s foundational theories and history in “Part 2: Situating the Field,” to a similarly broad look at common concerns related to practice in “Part 3: Understanding Field Approaches,” and finally a specific investigation of the day-to-day activities of technical communicators in “Part 4: Developing Field Knowledge.” Each section contains four to six chapters that focus on posing and answering questions that a learner might have in the area. The chapters themselves are also carefully structured. Each is broken into (1) an abstract, (2) an introduction that describes a situation in which a person might need to pose the question addressed by the chapter, (3) a brief literature review, (4) a heuristic that spells out a methodology for approaching the problem, (5) an extended example of the heuristic being applied, (6) a brief conclusion, and (7) a series of discussion questions and/or activities. This strongly controlled structure limits the book’s appeal for prolonged reading because it works against the book’s ability to make a sustained argument. However, the structure is very beneficial for anyone turning to the book as a reference point because it makes the process of scanning chapters for pertinent information significantly easier.

Johnson-Eilola and Selber use their coauthored introduction to discuss this structure and to stake their claim on the value of heuristics for technical communicators. Their justification here is fairly well-trodden in the field, but one that still deserves some attention. The authors begin their justification with the assertion that technical communicators will not be valuable to organizations if they only follow strict guidelines for action (4). Instead, they say that, as solvers of complex problems, technical communicators need to be able to adapt to various situations while still maintaining a productive relation between theory and practice (5). (It is worth a brief aside here to note that this is one of only two points in the book where problem solving as a method of pedagogy and practice is given extended attention, the other being Brad Mehlenbacher’s chapter, “What is the Future of Technical Communication?”) Johnson-Eilola and Selber suggest that the solution is heuristics, which as abstract, revisable frameworks can lead beginners toward productive action without being overly prescriptive (7-8). This focus on heuristics is not only a reasonable approach to poorly defined real-world problems, but also one that has been shared by much of the field in recent years (for example, see the February 2013 special issue of Technical Communication on heuristics for technology-mediated communication).

“Mapping the Field,” the first part of the book, best represents the broad audience for the text. Contributions in this section range from William Hart-Davidson’s “What Are the Work Patterns of Technical Communication?” to Jim Henry’s “How Can Technical Communicators Fit into Contemporary Organizations?” However, the dichotomous audience can probably be best seen by comparing Richard Selfe and Cynthia Selfe’s “What Are the Boundaries, Artifacts, and Identities of Technical Communication?” to Kelli Cook, Emily Cook, Ben Minson, and Stephanie Wilson’s “How Can Technical Communicators Develop as Both Students and Professionals?” Selfe and Selfe open their chapter with a literature review of past attempts to map the field that focuses on the affordances of different methods such as skill maps and historical maps. From this conversation, which would be of interest to both graduate students and practitioners, Selfe and Selfe introduce a mapping heuristic (how to create text clouds) that would be most useful for beginning students. Cook et al. also set out to create a chapter useful to a broad audience. However, they open with a somewhat perfunctory literature review that primarily focuses on giving a quick description of essential areas of study for technical communicators. From there, they offer advice for a range of readers from students to job seekers to practitioners. Yet this section is very focused on the first of these groups, and it provides such practical guidance as, “Look for courses that … require you to think about developing or designing information in new ways” (108). As should be evident from even this brief sketch of the section, the conversation can vary dramatically from one chapter from another, which suggests that any instructors considering this text explore it thoroughly in advance so as to tailor selections appropriately.

The second part, “Situating the Field,” broadens the conversation, moving away from defining the field to the underlying theories of the field. Chapters here include James E. Porter’s “How Can Rhetoric Theory Inform the Practice of Technical Communication?”, Jason Swarts’ “How Can Work Tools Shape and Organize Technical Communication?”, and Bernadette Longo and T. Kenny Fountain’s “What Can History Teach Us about Technical Communication?” Perhaps the most interesting chapter for a more advanced student of the field would be Brad Mehlenbacher’s “What is the Future of Technical Communication?” In this chapter, Mehlenbacher develops a concise but well-researched literature review that charts current concerns of the field, including wicked problems and the “death of expertise,” as a means of approaching a broad heuristic on problem solving in complex systems (193). Mehlenbacher’s heuristic is among the most difficult to apply as it only provides a brief outline of the different types of activities that problem solvers engage in (such as accessing and navigating information and reflecting on experience), but it is also one of the best heuristics in terms of providing a useful structure for reflecting on practice. His heuristic isn’t so much about providing specific advice as it is about helping students critically reflect on the work that they are already doing. Pedagogically speaking, his heuristic seems like an effective way to provide students some structure in approaching a problem while also avoiding the pitfalls of a too-specific process pedagogy.

The third part, “Understanding Field Approaches,” turns the conversation to more immediate concerns of technical communication work. Contributions range from “How Can Technical Communicators Work in an Ethical and Legal Manner” by J. Blake Scott to “How Can Technical Communicators Study Work Contexts?” by Clay Spinuzzi. Also included is “How Can Technical Communicators Manage Projects?”, in which R. Stanley Dicks develops a heuristic that looks very similar to the traditional composing process taught by college composition instructors but with a stronger focus on user interaction and putting the document to use in the world through the steps of production and dissemination. Among all the chapters in this section, though, two in particular stand out. First, Antonio Ceraso’s “How Can Technical Communicators Plan for Users?” discusses a flexible system for adapting user testing to various situations. He builds on Karen Schriver’s models for audience analysis to discuss methods of testing, especially in situations where direct interaction with the intended audience might be constrained. His heuristic tries to cover a range of methodologies, including building systems that anticipate audience needs and systems that help the technical communicator adapt to audience feedback (250). Two chapters later, Barbara Mirel takes up the related question of “How Can Technical Communicators Evaluate the Usability of Artifacts?” Her brief literature review covers a lot of ground and would probably be a little dense for beginning students, but her heuristic is very accessible, offering a range of questions that technical communicators might ask themselves when developing an effective approach to usability-testing situations.

The book concludes with part four, “Developing Field Knowledge,” which provides the most direct advice for beginning technical communicators. Each chapter in this section addresses knowledge that technical communicators need in relation to a specific topic, which makes the chapters effective starting points for introductory courses. Contributions include Brent Henze’s chapter on genre, Kirk St. Amant’s on international environments, Karen Schriver’s on information design, and Rebecca E. Burnett, Andrew Cooper, and Candice A. Welhausen’s on collaboration. A few chapters stand out in this section, including Ann M. Blakeslee and Gerald J. Savage’s on writing. This chapter is interesting primarily because it reads more like a research study than a chapter in a textbook: the literature review serves to contextualize the authors’ study, while the heuristic and extended example describe methods and results from their survey of practicing technical communicators. While this chapter certainly offers a helpful depiction of how practitioners use writing in their daily work, it is probably more informative as an example of how to construct a study that could contribute to the understanding of the field. Another interesting chapter in this section is “What Do Technical Communicators Need to Know about New Media?” In this chapter, Anne Frances Wysocki does a particularly good job of breaking down the literature review so that the information is accessible for beginners. At the same time, she is able to cover a wide range of topics from defining new media, to discussing single sourcing and gaming, to arguing that technology use is rhetorical. Her heuristic is useful and straightforward if a little simple: effectively, it is a series of questions based on the traditional rhetorical triangle of author, text, and audience. While they might not help direct a true beginner, the questions do serve as a good measuring stick for projects in progress.

Overall, Solving Problems in Technical Communication achieves its goal of providing a comprehensive overview of concerns for a diverse audience of technical communication learners. Its heuristics consistently offer useful guides to reflective practice. For students, this book could easily become a valued piece of reference material that manages to act as both a jumping-off point for conceptualizing the theory of the field and a guide as new projects arise. And while this book might prove to be a little bit basic for academics and professional technical communicators, it could certainly be an effective aid in approaching unfamiliar aspects of our diverse field.

Works Cited

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart A. Selber. Solving Problems in Technical Communication. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013. Print.

Warren, Thomas L. “An Informal Survey of Technical Writing Textbooks: 1950-1970.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 26.2 (1996): 155-161. Print.