Kendall Kelly

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From Sophists to Plato and Back Again: The Effect of Classical Rhetoric and Postmodernism on the Technical Communication Curriculum

Kendall Kelly

Texas Tech University

August 6, 2006

From Sophists to Plato and Back Again: The Effect of Classical Rhetoric and Postmodernism on the Contemporary Technical Communication Curriculum


In his article entitled, “Relocating the Value of Work,” Johnson-Eilola (2004/1995) laments that technical communicators have not taken their rightful place as symbolic-analytic workers in the new economy. Technical communicators’ skills as information synthesizers and organizers would seem to place them firmly in the realm of symbolic-analytic workers, but all too frequently they remain information line workers. Johnson-Eilola puts part of the blame for this situation on an educational curriculum that responds slavishly to industry demands and teaches only transient technical skills like software applications. Jim Henry speculates that many technical writers were trained in English departments by New Critics. New Critics subjugate the author to the text while glorifying complex and original word play. Such values obviously marginalize the technical communicator and the work she does.

Consequently, technical communicators and society frequently do not value the work that technical communicators do even as they increasingly rely on their work to run the information economy. More importantly, this disempowerment results in ineffective organizations at best and creates dangerous situations at worst, because communication functions are left to non-professionals that frequently perform such tasks badly. I believe that by investigating the beginnings of rhetoric and philosophy, we will begin to see the hegemonic values in Western culture that result in the phenomenon that both Henry and Johnson-Eilola have identified. Furthermore, once we understand the basis for these beliefs, we can adopt the theories and values that will allow technical communicators to become symbolic-analytic workers not only to improve the lives of technical communicators but society at large.

Consequently, this paper will first examine the nature of miscommunication and how miscommunication endangers lives. Then I will look at some of the reasons that technical communicators are disempowered. In order to explore the underlying hegemonic values that undercut the work that technical communicators I will also consider the historical beginnings of rhetorical and philosophical thought and trace it through to the 21st century. Hopefully such investigation will uncover new, more productive values that will ultimately empower technical communicators. Finally I’ll suggest some strategies to foster the adoption of these new values.

Communication and its Contribution to Organizations

Although poor communication practices persist in business, usually they go unnoticed unless they result in tragedy like the Challenger, like Three Mile Island, and like many mining accidents. These tragedies create an investigative apparatus that draws the attention of scholars in an attempt to uncover their causes and ultimately informs more mundane communication practices (Herndl 1991, p. 279-280). The investigative work of review commissions on the Challenger tragedy and the Three Mile Island accident have provided researchers with a rare, detailed look at communication processes in the form of the Presidential Commission on Challenger and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission report on Three Mile Island. The Presidential Commission on the Challenger tragedy states that NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center ceased, “to function as part of a system…communicating with the other parts of the system” (Presidential Commission 1986, 1:104). Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s report on the Three Mile Island accident stated that a “breakdown of communications” and “crucial misunderstanding” within Babcock & Wilcox, the manufacturer of the nuclear reactor involved, were precursor events to that disaster (Rogovin and Frampton 1980, 161). In the case of mining accidents, the ethnographic work by Beverly Sauer gives technical communicators an unprecedented look into the workings of mines. She notes that the courts found that mines could be found liable for poor communication. In the mining accident in Consol’s Blacksville Mine No. 1 in which four miners died and two others were injured the courts found that the “’confusion resulting from…inadequate communication’ contributed to the disaster” (Sauer 2003, p.61). After examining these accidents and the communications surrounding them, it’s not surprising that they resulted from poor communication. Communication constitutes and informs a large part of the activities of these organizations discursively assembling the organizations themselves. In other words, an organization is the thing that its written documents create. Documents are the things that such organizations create.

Written documents contain the collective history and institutional memory of an organization. Documents in the forms of standards, procedures, logs, accounts, regulations, transactions etc. shape the work that occurs within an organization (Sauer 2003). And these documents shape the organization moving forward. Consequently, documents act reflexively in an organization’s life both being created and creating the organization.

Beyond controlling and shaping the everyday operations of an organization, Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) claim that written documents construct the community that provides the foundation for organizations. Doheny-Farina (1991) explains how the texts associated with new organizations essentially constitute the creation of an organization, although he admits that organizations do require some non-discursive creation. Finally, Doak, Slack, and Miller (2004/1993) explain how texts fix reality in the post-modern, articulated model of communication. Quite simply, these organizations rely on their texts, their written communications, to create the reality that allows their organizations to operate. James Paradis (2004/1991) explained it best when describing the function of user’s manuals. He writes, “Together, these elements help to construct a teleological view of reality, by which I mean a reality subordinated to human purpose” (p. 367). Texts work by creating a vision of reality filtered through the lens of human purpose.

Unfortunately, sometimes the reality created by the discursive structure of these texts doesn’t match the reality outside the discursive structure. Such a situation can easily result in disaster (Feldman 2000 and Sauer 2003). Clearly these accidents were examples of this situation. More specifically, the O-rings did not represent an acceptable risk as the management team at both the Marshall Space Center and Morton Thiokol asserted. The emergency core-reactor shut-down sequence did not prevent disaster. And Consol’s Blackville No.1 mine was not safe to work in. These inconsistencies resulted in tragedy. The salient question is: how did organizations focused on safety and knowledge construct texts, dangerous texts, that didn’t match the non-discursive reality? The answer is communication, but not in the traditional sense.

How Communication Fails

Communication failures in written texts allowed these tragedies, but not because the audience did not understand the text. Herndl et. al (1991) when examining the communications both from Three Mile Island and the Challenger Tragedy as well as Sauer (2003) contend that audiences understand the documents. The documents generally adhere to recognizable standards of grammar and diction. The audience in these incidents chose to ignore or discount the documents and information that would have prevented disaster. They weren’t examples of miscommunication, but rather misunderstanding. Furthermore, these examples of misunderstanding tend to fall into two categories. First, communication tends to break down when trying to communicate across fields. Secondly communication fails when trying to convey bad news (Winsor 1988, Sauer 2003, Herndl 1991).

Apparently, workers have difficulty “speaking” across disciplines and, in particular, engineers can’t “speak” to managers or workers. In the Challenger tragedy, engineers repeatedly tried to impress upon managers the dangers of launch when temperatures were below 50 degrees. The engineers stopped trying to convince managers to halt the launch when it was clear that “no one wanted hear what I had to say” (Winsor 1988, p.106). Furthermore, one manager at Morton Thiokol convinced the lead engineer to agree that the launch was safe by asking him to take off his engineer’s hat and put on his manager’s hat (Winsor 1988, p.106). The lines of reasoning that convince engineers are not the lines of reasoning that convince managers. Consequently, when required to frame their concerns into speech that managers could understand, the engineers at Morton Thiokol could not. Similar although not as dramatic deliberations were occurring simultaneously at the Marshall Space Flight Center (Riley 1993 and Herndl et al 1991 and Winsor 1988). Likewise, in the Three Mile Island failure an engineer at Babcock & Wilcox wrote a memo to the safety manager at Three Mile Island outlining a new procedure to shut down the core reactor should a problem arise. Once again, the peculiar management perspective at Three Mile Island would not allow the safety manager to adopt this new procedure, because it required an emergency shut-down of the reactor core. His perspective about the financial as well as public-perception costs of such a shut-down would not allow him to adopt such a procedure (Herndl 1991). Finally, Sauer notes that engineers also don’t speak well to workers either. Miners were frequently unable to follow instructions produced by engineers because the descriptions they presented did not match their field knowledge (Sauer 1993). Obviously, trying to communicate across disciplines is problematic at best.

Furthermore, the Challenger tragedy also explains how bad news was less likely to be “understood” by the audience. In the case of the o-rings, Marshall engineers had changed the safety rating of the o-rings from 1 R (a risk with redundancy) to 1 (a risk without a reliable redundant back-up) as early as 1982, because joint rotation had prevented the secondary o-ring from seating properly (Winsor 1988, p.102). However, managers and engineers testified that they were unaware of the change in risk rating for the o-rings despite being on the distribution lists for such information. Additionally, when a new engineer at Morton Thiokol wrote a memo explaining the extremely compromising nature of the low temperature on the o-rings’ ability to seal, several managers and engineers testified that they really didn’t know what the memo meant (Winsor 1988, p.106). Even though they understood that the memo wished to convey the idea that the o-ring wouldn’t be completely reliable in low temperatures, they didn’t understand that such a situation would result in complete o-ring failure and the loss of a launch. Clearly the memo’s recipients simply didn’t want to understand the bad news. In a sense, they didn’t want to hear it, so they didn’t. The messages were further compromised by the writers’ use of implicature to convey their message in an effort to mitigate the bad news (Riley 1993).

Three Mile Island is even more interesting. The engineer at Babcock & Wilcox also relied on implicature to mitigate his bad news. However, the safety manager took offense at the memo despite its clear attempts at politeness and non-confrontation. So, even though the engineer blunted his message with implicature, his audience still refused to hear it (Herndl et. al 1991 and Riley 1993).

These lessons serve to illustrate that communication failures generally do not come from routine failures of grammar and syntax. Rather communication failures result from the complex nature of communication that relies not only on the words themselves but the context that those words reside in. Obviously an expert that understands the contextual and inter-disciplinary nature of communication is required to navigate the subtle and complex pitfalls inherent in communication. Clearly, organizations require a technical communicator that understands how words gain meaning and create systems that influence the decisions and actions that people take. Technical communicators could oversee communication processes, assist in the resolution of misunderstandings, and train employees to communicate more effectively. Allowing engineers, managers, and workers complete control of their communication processes without oversight is the equivalent of insisting that they enter their own entries into the company’s double-entry bookkeeping system, create their own accounting reports, and complete their own taxes and SEC filings when necessary. Engineers, managers, and workers are no more qualified to manage the communication functions of a company than they are its financial functions. Unfortunately, society doesn’t readily recognize that technical communicators have professional skills to facilitate communication. Furthermore, technical communicators themselves have adopted an industrial view of their work that won’t allow society to appreciate their abilities or even understand the nature of communication. Why is that?

Writers Not Valued

Traditionally society has praised the author while de-valuing the “authority” of the writer. Ancient western culture valued the “author,” because authorial status frequently acted as a guarantee of truth according to Aristotle…(Foucault “Author”, p.109). However authorial status declined with literacy in the middle ages so that many texts were handed down without authors, although some texts did survive with their authorial status intact. (Most of the texts that did survive in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the renaissance tended to be religious texts, but that may be because such texts were the ones primarily being produced and reproduced.) However, during the renaissance, the secular, literary author gained prominence. This prominence afforded the author and his, usually his, texts special status. However, in The Order of Discourse, Foucault claimed that technical documents typically don’t have authors, or privileged status (2001/1981 p.1465). In “What is an Author?” the cultural status of literary works requires named authors so that readers may culturally construct the author as they do the text.

For Foucault certain texts do not have authors because they lack the style and the originality that named texts warrant. However, in the postmodern age, concepts of style and originality have been completely turned on their heads. When Marshall McLuhan proclaimed, “The medium is the message,” he essentially moved originality in postmodern art and communication from original thought to the style, arrangement, and medium. For communication this idea means that language is the message. The originality and style are inherent to the message. In the 21st Century repackaging ideas is the most powerful claim on originality. As for style, technical communicators focus on style—admittedly a clean, transparent, and unself-conscious style—at least as much as any other form of communication.

Ironically the postmodern world that Foucault built has allowed the people that he specifically denied authorship to claim it on the grounds he defines. Slack, Doak, and Miller (2004/1993) claim that technical communicators are authors. They explain that “whether they desire it or not, technical communicators are seen as variously adding, deleting, changing and selecting meaning (p. 172).” They confirm that, “technical communicators are authors, even when they comply with the rules of discourse that deny them recognition (p. 172).” Johnson-Eilola (2004/1995) explains…”As cultural theorists Jean-Francois Lyotard among others has argued, originality in a postmodern era is of declining value. Technical communication theorists have recently begun applying this worldview to technical communication theory and practice” (p.186). The “originality” in postmodern work is in the selection and arrangement and technical communicators have just as much claim on that as any writer, designer, developer, and producer.

Technical Communicators’ View of Themselves

Unfortunately, technical communicators continue to reinforce an outmoded, devalued view of their own work. In an extensive ethnography that Jim Henry (2000) conducted on technical communicators he suggests and observes several things. First, many technical communicators were educated in literature and, more specifically, New Criticism. New Criticism insists that nothing exists outside the text. Just as Foucault claims that texts invent authors, New Critics insist that authors don’t exist outside the text, or perhaps more precisely the author’s existence separate from the text has no bearing on the text itself (p. 31). My extremely gifted new critical poetry professor, Dr. Joseph Malof, would barely allow us to mention the name of the author in class and certainly not mention the author’s profession, personal life, or the circumstances under which he or she wrote the poem even when the poem alluded to them. New Criticism sought to deny the author’s existence within the text. Consequently, technical communicators seek to deny their existence vis a vis the text as well.

Furthermore, Jim Henry (2000) notes that technical communicators tend to take on subordinate social roles within organizations. For example, he observed that several technical communicators likened themselves to children in small organizations, while technical communicators in larger organizations complained that hierarchically superior members of organizations frequently coopted the technical communicators’ ideas for their personal gain (p. 78-79). Finally, Johnson-Eilola (2004/1995) notes that “Practicing technical communicators themselves also tend to downplay the complexity of their discipline” (p. 178). Technical communicators do little to elevate their status as a profession within an organization.

Historical Views of Truth and Language

Jim Henry, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Michel Foucault, and other thinkers clearly identify the phenomenon that devalues the work of technical communicators in the 21st Century, but they don’t adequately explain the roots of this devaluation. I believe this attitude arises from historical Western beliefs about truth and language. An overview of the history of the relationship of language and truth will shed light on these beliefs and even provide some suggestions for repairing the situation.

Classical Period

Although presumably humans considered the relationship between language and truth before the Sophists, the Sophists were the first people to do this and create a few written texts that survived. Since they valued oral culture over written culture and later scholars vilified their ideas, not many texts have survived representing their work. We mostly know them from their detractors. Sophists believed in the power of language to uncover knowledge and persuade. Unlike later philosophers of the classical era, they didn’t subscribe to a universal Truth, but rather believed truth to be conditional and something one arrived at through language. In the Dissoi Logoi, a fragment of one of the few Sophist texts to survive, the now anonymous writer explains how no thing is entirely good or bad. Rather good depends on the situation. He then delivers a litany of bad things that still have good for someone. For example, he writes, “And illness is bad for the sick, but good for the doctors. And death is bad for those who die, but good for the grave digger. Farming also, when it makes a handsome success of producing crops, is good for the farmer, but bad for the merchants….” (2001/1979 p. 48). This list of things that are both good and bad continues on, and clearly makes the point that good and bad depend on the situation, your position in the situation, and your interpretation. Good and bad depend on the frame one paints around it. Consequently, he claims that, “For the man who intends to speak correctly must speak on the topics of which he has knowledge; and he will, one must at any rate suppose, have knowledge of everything. For he has knowledge of argument skills, and all arguments are about everything that is” (2001/1979, p. 54). Argument, or rhetoric, is knowledge of everything, because argument allowed the arguer or the rhetor to place the situational frame around the information and give it interpretation, make it good or bad, transform it into knowledge. Learning rhetoric was the key to learning everything, because the ability to use language effectively gave one the ability to understand and shape everything. Argument allowed one to create knowledge. Knowledge is language and the crafting of the language created knowledge. The idea sounds quite contemporary.

Plato attacked this view of language and truth vehemently because he believed it encouraged rhetors to use language for their own ends. He believed that some truth outside language had to be the yardstick that harnessed language to serve some higher Truth not one’s selfish ends. In the Phaedrus the character of Socrates states:

A man must know the truth about all the particular things of which he speaks or writes, and must be able to define everything separately; then when he has defined them, he must know how to divide them by classes until further division is impossible; and in the same way he must understand that nature of the soul, must find out the class of speech adapted to each nature, and must arrange and adorn his discourse accordingly, offering to the complex soul elaborate and harmonious discourses, and simple talks to the simple soul. Until he has attained to all this, he will not be able to speak by the method of art, so far as speech can be controlled by method of art, so far as speech can be controlled by method, either for purposes of instruction or of persuasion. This has been taught by our whole preceding discussion (2001/1914, p.167).

In other words, the rhetor must know the truth before he or she can speak persuasively or even teach someone else. The ability to speak effectively is dependent on one’s knowledge of the truth first and then one’s ability as a speaker may come into play. Language is subjugated to truth. Furthermore, each of us already knows the truth, but have forgotten it in our human state. Education and discourse serve to help us remember the truth. Plato as Socrates in the Phaedrus explains,

But that the best of them [written discourse, education, and oral discourse] really serve only to remind us of what we know; and who thinks that only in words about justice and beauty and goodness spoken by teachers for the sake of instruction and really written in a soul clearness and perfection and serious value, that such words should be considered the speaker’s own words legitimate offspring, first the word within himself, if it is found there, and secondly its descendants or brothers which may have sprung up in worthy manner in the souls of others, and who pays no attention to other words (2001/1914, p.167).

Consequently we see that words absolutely work to help others uncover the truth within themselves for themselves. Clearly it’s a mistake to believe that Plato distrusted words and rhetoric. He believed that words and rhetoric helped one person help another person to remember the truth, but the words themselves didn’t contain the truth.

Plato explains his attitude towards truth quite clearly in his allegory of the cave. Most people spend their life looking at shadows not truth. A few people manage, using their mind, to get free from the cave and see the truth. Those people attempt then to use language to help others to free their minds from the cave and see the truth as well. However, it’s important to remember that language and truth have no direct relationship. Language is a method that a wise person uses to help an unenlightened person to see the truth. Truth is completely outside language.

Almost immediately philosophers, most notably Plato’s student Aristotle, began to chip away at this notion that truth was something completely outside language and the sensed world. However, Plato had already managed to cripple the power of language just in the manner that he framed the debate. Truth and language were separate things. He had used a rhetorical strategy to frame the debate in such a manner as to doom the Sophist’s idea of argument and language as truth. Ironically by framing the debate to be about truth as separate from language, Plato had used a sophistic framing strategy to cut the Sophists’ beliefs about truth and language completely out of the picture. Truth was completely subjugated to language.

The idea that truth, knowledge, and reality are all something outside language and language was the vehicle used to discover and share these things was so prevalent and remains so prevalent in present day thinking that even people who only know Plato as the guy the word “platonic” came from share this belief. This idea is so prevalent that it’s tempting to think that his idea that reality exists outside language and language only attempts to describe it is the “natural” order of things. However, many non-Western cultures have long believed in the power of language to affect reality. This idea is a socially-constructed cultural belief and constructed not just by Plato. For more than 2000 years each philosopher in his turn thought, discussed, and written about truth and could we know it and how do we know it and can we teach others. However, just as the Sophists had hundreds of years before, philosophers slowly (2000 years slow) began to come to the conclusion that language, the medium required to discuss truth, may influence truth.

Here’s a quick, skeletal overview of the progression of truth and knowledge in Western thought. Aristotle rejected his teacher’s idea of the Platonic forms and even believed one could discuss truth. In fact he believed that discussion is what helped people uncover the truth. In the Metaphysics he writes,

the investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed (2000/n.d.)

So by coming together and discussing the truth, we can collectively arrive at the truth. While his view makes truth dependent on language, quite different from Plato’s view that truth can’t even be described by language, he’s still far from the Sophist view that language creates truth.

Medieval Period

St. Augustine believed that language could absolutely convey truth. In fact, it was one’s Christian duty to develop one’s language skills so that one could spread the truth and defend the truth against falsehood. He writes, “For since through the art of rhetoric both truth and falsehood are pleaded, who would be so bold as to say that against falsehood, truth as regards to its own defenders ought to stand unarmed (2001/1930, p.456).” Language must work to spread and defend truth, but it isn’t actually truth.


By the renaissance, philosophers trusted language, both written and oral, to convey and store truth, but language was still just a storage and transport device. Bacon writes, “the custody or retaining of knowledge is either in Writing or Memory;” (“Advancement,” 2001/1955, p.741). Other subtle changes begin to shift truth. Truth and knowledge although certainly not interchangeable begin to conflate. And men begin to access such things not just through language and thought, but through empirical science. Even though science is beginning to thrive, Bacon warns men against turning to false notions. He writes,

the idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding, and have taken deep root therein, no only so beset men’s minds that truth can hardly find entrance, but even after entrance obtained, they will again in the very instauration of the science meet and trouble us, unless men being forewarned of the danger fortify themselves as far as may be against their assaults (“Novum,” 2001/1955, p.745).

This belief is a great departure from Plato’s belief that wise men thought about and felt the truth. Now truth is something someone arrives at through observation and experimentation. Still, language is just a medium to convey knowledge, but doesn’t affect knowledge itself.


During the enlightenment, philosophers began to understand that language influences knowledge, but only when it doesn’t store and convey it properly. Locke writes,

Now, since sounds have no natural connection with our ideas, but have all their signification from the arbitrary imposition of men, the doubtfulness and uncertainty of their signification, which is the imperfection we here are speaking of, has its cause more in the ideas they stand for than in any incapacity there is in one sound more than another to signify any idea; for in that regard they are all equally perfect (2001/1894, p.817).

In fact the language itself doesn’t matter much to Locke as long as the audience understands the meaning. He claims,

As to the first of these for he recording our own thoughts for the help of our own memories…any words will serve the turn….a man may use what words he pleases to signify his own ideas to himself: and there will be no imperfection in them, if he constantly use the same sign for the same idea: for then he cannot fail of having his meaning understood, wherein consists the right use and perfection of language (2001/1894, p.817.)

So for Locke, the right use of language is a clear understanding of vocabulary. As long as everyone understands the vocabulary in play, language is working perfectly presumably to store knowledge. Locke does introduce the idea that language influences knowledge, but only negatively when it fails.

Nineteenth Century

Finally in the late nineteenth century Nietzsche begins to suggest that truth may be constructed by and even be the language itself. He claims “What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms (2001/1979, p.1174).” Unfortunately while suggesting that language both creates and is truth, Nietzsche brings into question both man’s ability and motivation to find the truth.

20th Century

In the early part of the 20th Century thinkers continue to struggle with language’s relationship with truth and knowledge. Wittgenstein (1953) attempts one last time to salvage the idea that language represents truth and knowledge, but isn’t the truth and knowledge itself. He attempts to develop a theory of language and grammar that ties words to the things they represent. In his Philosophical Investigations, he claims that words represent things, but not some idealized form of the thing, but rather like family members resemble one another. While any one individual family member or word might not specifically represent another family member or its signifier, when one gathers up an entire family or a family of words and signifiers one begins to see the resemblance.

Even Wittgenstein’s loose tying of language to knowledge and truth, to the signifier outside language, would only last a few decades, because Foucault would declare an end to the “tyranny of the signifier.” Foucault explored how discourse reflexively interacted with events and society. For him, language is a social event described by language. He writes, “we must call into question our will to truth, restore to discourse its character as an event, and finally throw off the sovereignty of the signifier” (2001/1981, p.1470). Not exactly the same as, “for he has knowledge of argument skills, and all arguments are about everything that is” (“Dissoi Logoi,” 2001/1979, p.54) but the idea is the same. Knowledge is the discourse itself.

This idea that knowledge doesn’t exist outside language is powerful and useful. We come to understand that it’s not just the discovery of knowledge that creates it, but the discourse. Unfortunately for technical writers and audiences alike, this idea hasn’t quite caught on. And why should it? For over 2000 years we’ve collectively believed in and developed the idea that truth is outside language—an idea specifically designed to curtail the ethical abuses that a belief that truth was discourse allowed. We’ve only had forty years to believe otherwise. Such an about face is quite radical and difficult for an entire culture, but scholars, philosophers, and researchers have come to realize that such an about face will allow society and specifically technical communicators to function productively. How do we make this shift? Slack, Doak, and Miller do a good job explaining how this essentially classical idea influenced the economy and communication theory and Johnson-Eilola points to why we want to make the shift to this new yet Sophistic view of the relationship between truth and language.

The Implications of the Post-Industrial Economy for Technical Communicators

The post-modern, articulated view communication re-invents technical communicators as symbolic-analytic workers. Allow me to revisit Slack, Doak, and Miller’s (2004/1993) explanation of the theories of communication that technical communicators have operated under to put this discuss in perspective. At the beginning of the professionalization of technical communicators, we operated under the transmission view of communication or clear window view described by Carolyn Miller (2004/1079) in which technical communicators merely presented and/or created a clear channel through which information flowed. This view, very similar to Locke’s view of language, ultimately didn’t quite capture what technical communicators did. Consequently, the translation theory of communication came to the fore. In this theory technical communicators translate the information of SMEs, generally incomprehensible engineering-types, into language that the common man could understand. This theory is still quite recognizable in many technical communication textbooks. However, the 21st Century (as viewed in 1993) ushered in the articulated theory of communication. In this theory, the information itself has little to do with the meaning. The technical communicators themselves create the meaning of texts by selecting, arranging, phrasing, and framing content. The text itself fixes the meaning. Obviously this theory of communication places technical communicators in the category of symbolic-analytic workers and improves their status in society.

More importantly, this view of technical communicators gives them both the power and ability to act ethically. Johnson-Eilola (2004/1995) notes, that when technical communicators operate under the service model of their professions or under the transmission or translation theories of communication, users are disempowered. This disempowerment occurs because technical communicators are generally the only professionals trained and enculturated to consider the audience. Disempowering technical communicators disempowers audiences. Further, Slack, Doak, and Miller (2004/1993) state “their [technical communicators’] work is at least complicit in the production, reproduction, or subversion of relations of power (p. 172).” They also explain that:

The consequences of extending authorship to technical communicators are significant. With the recognition that the communicator articulates and rearticulates meaning comes the responsibility for that rearticulation. No contribution is really transparent; it is only rendered transparent in relations of power. So, just as the power of technical communicators is recognized (as they are empowered), so too must they be held responsible (p. 172).

Technical communicators must work towards the articulation view of communication and the non-service model of their profession. Such positioning simultaneously improves their status, but more importantly, allows them to act ethically.

Strategies for the Future

So what can we do to restore technical communicators’ collective self-esteem for the benefit of technical communicators and audiences everywhere? Research, education, and professionalization can further this end significantly.


First, we need more research that both demonstrates and explains how discourses create knowledge. We need to compare how audiences use texts not information as well as comparing effective and ineffective texts. For example, personal discussions I’ve had with computer support people has indicated a clear preference for the documentation of some companies over others. Specifically support personnel from one company admitted that they routinely used the documentation produced by another company when that company sold the same product under a different label. The support personnel believed that one company produced more comprehensive documentation. When I examined the documentation from both companies (to reiterate the documentation is for the same product, but produced and marketed under different names), I couldn’t find any information in one documentation set that wasn’t also contained in the other. The support personnel believed that one set was more “comprehensive,” but in fact it contained no additional information. The information the preferred documentation set contained was contextualized, more heavily illustrated, had more access points like indexes and table of contents (the other set was only available online in hyper-text and had not index only links from the table of contents.) Clearly the more rhetorical use of language and arrangement of information created more knowledge for these workers. Researchers need to explore ways to investigate such phenomenon more rigorously and publish such investigations.


Curricula and educators must emphasize that information becomes knowledge when properly placed in an appropriate discourse for the audience. This theme should run through each course. For example, in document design courses, an exercise should start with schematics and specifications for a product, say a digital video recorder. First students should attempt to use the DVR only with schematics and specifications. Then once they’ve finally learned how to use the product, they should create a document with appropriate design and graphics and then do usability testing with new subjects so that students can see for themselves how document design transforms information into knowledge. Even courses with largely theoretical purposes should focus on how rhetoric transforms information into knowledge. Rhetoric courses should emphasize the debate about rhetoric and its relationship with truth and knowledge. Rhetorical analysis should examine the manner in which information becomes knowledge etc.

Curricula should focus on foundational knowledge not skills such as how to use software products or the latest trends in web design. Foundational knowledge transcends the vagaries of trends and fashion, but more importantly allows technical communicators to bring discrete and valuable knowledge to projects. Not to say that students shouldn’t learn skills like using particular software products or how to manage a database, but they should learn such skills couched in broader foundational knowledge. For example, in document design students could learn an appropriate industry-standard software like In-Design or Framemaker. Assignments for theoretical courses could incorporate software such as using video creation software for class presentations. And educational institutions should encourage a broad range of software, because in learning new software to complete each new assignment, students learn how they best learn new software, thus equipping them with a valuable meta-skill, the ability to learn new software quickly, in the workplace.

Additionally, technical communicators must learn managerial skills. While they do possess the skills to oversee and improve communication processes, they frequently do not possess the skills to persuade and inspire others to follow their recommendations. Oddly, the ability to persuade someone through texts, electronic media, and other artifacts, is not the same as skills that persuade people through management structures. Further, learning how to navigate and create a management structure is necessary to affect communication change. Ultimately if technical communicators are going to oversee system-wide processes, they need the managerial skills to do it and good communication skills are only one part of good management skills. Believing that technical communicators can be good managers without any training is the same mistake that organizations make when they believe managers can oversee communication effectively without training.


Technical communicators need to establish professional standards, so that employers will recognize their skills and only hire people who meet those standards. Such standards don’t have to be certifications or licensing procedures, although they certainly could be. We could adopt models like the medical and legal fields in which professionals pass rigorous tests and have demanding licensing procedures. Or we could follow fields such as computer science, library science, and social work. In those fields, standards are educational standards such as having completed an undergraduate or graduate degree in the appropriate field at an accredited institution. Whatever the standards, the profession must create enough professionals that meet these criteria so that employers won’t be tempted to hire non-professional technical writers. Eventually employers simply won’t consider applicants qualified until they meet those standards.


Perhaps each generation believes that they are at the dawning of a new era, but in the first decade of 3rd millennium, it seems like we truly are. The cultural cross roads of a new era is an opportunity to redefine epistemologies and values. Technical communicators must recognize this opportunity to redefine knowledge and truth. Ironically, the relationship between truth and language that Plato sought because he believed it was the most ethical course is the very belief that disempowers technical communicators and audiences and thus prevents technical communicators, 21st Century rhetors, from pursuing the cause of ethics now. In the 4th Century B.C.E., Plato was probably right. In the 21st Century A.D. a new paradigm for the relationship between language and truth is clearly the ethical path. Technical communicators must recognize this new paradigm as well as the beliefs that oppose it, so that they can help 21st Century society adopt it and benefit by it.


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