Lecture: Technical Communication Strategies: Ch. 13

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from Technical Communication Strategies for Today. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. Just because I don’t address something doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. If you have any questions or need further elaboration on anything about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Ch. 13: Designing Documents and Interfaces

Principles of Design

In ch. 13 of Technical Communication Strategies for Today, Johnson-Sheenan offers us five principles for design: Balance, Alignment, Grouping, Consistency, and Contrast. You might also come across these basic ideas represented as four ideas expressed as designer Robin Williams’s CRAP (as in “Good design is CRAP”) or the more timid riff on her acronym CARP. Either way, the CRAP/CARP acronym stands for Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. In case it’s not immediately clear, Johnson-Sheenan’s “grouping” and “consistency” are equivalent to Williams’s “proximity” and “repetition” respectively. I’m rather fond of Williams’s acronym because it’s straightforward and can be expressed simply:

  • Contrast: Different elements should look very different. (See Figure 13.2 in Technical Communication Strategies for Today, p. 370: The title and header font is different from the body text font.)
  • Repetition: Like elements should look similar. (See Figure 13.4 in Technical Communication Strategies for Today, p.372: Each of the items in the horizontal navigation bar have an icon along with the text, and the use of purple for links (both text links, and in both the horizontal and vertical navigation bars.)
  • Alignment: Elements should like up with other elements. (See Figure 13.1 of Technical Communication Strategies for Today, p. 369: Every element shares at least one horizontal or vertical line with at least one other element—that is, you can lay a ruler along the edge of any element and see that it lines up with at least one other element.)
  • Proximity: Like items should be grouped near each other. (See Technical Communication Strategies for Today, p. 374-75: In the footer that spans both pages, on the left we find the chapter number, title, and page number clustered together with left-justification, and on the right we find the subsection of the chapter and the page number clustered together with right-justification.)

On the one hand, these seem like fairly simple principles, whether we’re using Johnson-Sheenan’s schema or Williams’s schema. Regardless, simply trying to apply these principles to document and interface design can let non-designers go a long way towards producing good looking, well designed documents.

Some Other Design Elements, Strategies, and Techniques

Style Guides

Whether you’re preparing a one-page rèsumè, a 35-page honors thesis, or a collaboratively authored report for your client, you want to maintain a consistent style and formatting throughout a document to help your readers navigate through the document. At the organizational level, style guides are used by companies, non-profit groups, and even government agencies to create a consistent brand across the organization, that is, to give a similar look and feel to all the documents the organization produces. Modern word processors (as opposed to text editors) allow you to create your own style guide for a project, which can be quite useful for making global formatting changes should you decide to change the look of your 2nd-level headings. The article “Style Basics in Word” explains how to use styles in Word. Even if you use a different word processor, if you’re not familiar with this feature, take a glance at this document and then look for instructions specific to your tool of choice. For more information, here’s a short article on creating a document style guide and short article on creating an organizational style guide.

Typography

As Johnson-Sheenan notes, sans serif fonts have traditionally been used for headings, footers, captions, and titles, and serif fonts have traditionally been used for body text. Traditionally, this has been the rule for print texts because on paper large sections of serif fonts are easier to read than sans serif fonts are. However, designers found that the opposite used to be true for online reading — because screens were not nearly as easy to read from, it has traditionally been easier to read online text in sans serif font than in serif font. And so it used to be that one used a serif font for body text in print documents and a sans serif font for body text for electronic documents. With recent advances in screen resolution, however, using serif fonts for body text in online documents is becoming standard allowing us to once again have the universal design rule of serif fonts for body text and sans serif fonts for titles, headers, footers, and captions.

Headings

Headers are powerful tools for guiding readers and improving readability. A good, descriptive header offering a summary of what’s to come prepares readers for what they about to read. As you read magazine articles, web sites, text books, journal articles, and the like, start paying attention to the use of headings to get a sense of how they are used.

White Space

White space is another tool that improves readability as well as add visual appeal. Don’t fear it.

Grids and wireframing

On pp. 372-375, Johnson-Sheenan suggests using grids to design page layouts and interfaces, a technique that is generally referred to as grid design or wireframing. Grid design and wireframing aren’t exactly the same thing, with grid design coming out of graphic design and traditionally used for print-based documents, and wireframes coming out of information design, user-experience design, and interaction design and traditionally used for websites and other screen-based, interactive interfaces. For more information about both, see:

Lecture: Prelli’s “The Nature of Rhetoric”

Lawrence Prelli’s “The Nature of Rhetoric” is the second chapter of his book A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse, a book I recommend if you’re finding these readings on the rhetoric of science interesting. 1)1. Prelli, Lawrence J. A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989. While there’s more recent scholarship, taken as a whole, Prelli offers a comprehensive foundation for understanding the rhetorical nature of scientific discourse, something we’re getting glimpses at in this course.

In “The Nature of Rhetoric,” which is, as the title suggests, an introduction to rhetoric itself as Prelli works with it throughout the book, Prelli defines rhetoric as effective expression, which has five general features, each rooted in an assumption about how effective expression works, which is the focus of this chapter (11). According to Prelli, rhetoric is:

  • the suasory use of symbols — the assumption regarding the role of language (pp. 13-21).
  • situational discourse — the assumption regarding situations (pp. 21-24).
  • addressed discourse – the assumption regarding the nature of audiences (pp. 24-28).
  • reasonable discourse — the assumption regarding criteria by which materials are evaluated (pp. 28-31).
  • invented discourse — the assumption regarding the methods of finding these materials in composing rhetoric (pp. 31-32).

Rhetoric is the suasory use of symbols

With its distinction between symbols as tools to express meaning and symbols as the medium through which meaning is made, with its use of the word suasory rather than persuasion, and its reliance upon Kenneth Burke’s concept of terministic screens, this first section is the most complicated and difficult section of Prelli’s chapter.

Prelli presumably uses the term suasory rather than persuasion to leave more room for the idea of dissuasion as well as persuasion. When we dissuade someone, of course, we are persuading them to not do something, so even dissuasion is a form of persuasion. That said, by using suasory rather than persuasion, Prelli is focusing on the issue of inducement — rhetoric as symbolic inducement — independent of whether that act of inducement is for something or against something. I’d suggest this isn’t a linguistic game on Prelli’s part, but, instead, a careful use of language designed to help navigate a nuanced issue.

A key reason for focusing on rhetoric as symbolic inducement is that it “explodes traditional boundaries,” as Prelli explains (14). As he notes, when we think of rhetoric as the use of symbolic meaning to induce others, then we’re talking about how humans making meaning in all forms. That said, Prelli also notes that rhetoric is different from other forms of human symbolic activities such as logic, linguistics, poetics, and hermeneutics (interpretation) (15). Prelli then argues that what differentiates rhetoric from other forms of human symbolic activity is that rhetoric “explains the selective functions involved when we make, apply, and judge symbols” (16). In other words, rhetoric is, as we’ve already discussed in our definitions of rhetoric lecture, a meta-art or meta-discipline that is not limited to one subject domain but an art (tehkne) we apply as we engage in other subjects— what Aristotle calls a “universal art.”

In stressing the importance of understanding rhetoric’s emphasis on the selective function of symbol use, Prelli explains that “[b]y selecting certain terms rather than others, we emphasize particular meanings and values — those that seem appropriate given our understandings” (16). As I suggest above, we see Prelli doing just this in his choice to use the word suasory as opposed to the word persuasion.

Prelli finishes out this section with a discussion of terministic screens and orientations, which comes from Kenneth Burke. Simply put, a terministic screen is the perspective through which we describe, act, and interpret symbolic activity, and that these perspectives are shaped by the terms we use. In other words, there is no neutral point of view from which to perceive and act in the world because neutrality itself requires one to adopt a particular stance through which to use and evaluate symbolic activity.

This idea of terministic orientations and screens might make more sense if you think back to Ch. 2 of Technical Communication Strategies for Today. The needs and concerns of the primary audience for your Documenting a Workplace Accident guide might be written for employees running the machinery on the factory floor is going to differ from the needs and concerns of the secondary audiences such as their supervisors who determine whether or not an incident counts as an accident and tertiary readers such as the company lawyers who are tasked with mitigating liability. Likewise an activity report seeking additional funding and time to explore an unexpected possible breakthrough in haptic interface will likely be read differently by an expert audience such as the biomechanical engineer who advises management on technical issues and a manager with an accounting background are different because their identities, interests, needs, knowledge, and experiences are different, and those differences shape and are shaped by the terministic screen through which they approach a professional topic. Whereas an expert might be interested in methods and results, a manager is more likely to ask you about usable results and cost-benefit analysis. In one sense, they’re both asking more or less the same thing: what you did and what happened when you did it, but they’re focused on different issues because their terministic screens orients them differently (what Prelli calls terministic orientation).

Understanding terministic orientations is important, Prelli argues, because it allows us to understand and predict three things: instrumental valuings, logical valuings, and moral valuings (18). Instrumental valuings define how one thinks things should be done (18-19), logical valuings define what we think makes sense and has legitimate value as evidence (19-20), and moral valuings define what one thinks is proper (what one ought to do) and improper (what one ought not to do) (20).

If we recall I.A. Richards’ definition of rhetoric as the study of miscommunication and its remedies (see the definitions of rhetoric lecture), then we can easily see how recognizing, analyzing, and navigating different and even clashing terministic orientations is a necessary component of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is situational discourse

Prelli argues that rhetorical discourse will always be based in a particular situation, and drawing from Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation,” 2)1. Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968)., Prelli identifies the three features that make up what we call a “rhetorical situation”: It must have an exigence, there must be an intended audience, and there must be constraints upon how the rhetor can influence the audience (22).

The exigence is a problem, “[s]omething [that] is perceived as other than it should or could be” (22). More importantly, it needs to be seen as something we believe we can change or do something about. A rhetorical exigence, therefore, is “an ambiguity, defect, or obstacle” that we believe can be altered or removed by inducing our audience into action or by changing their position on the issue (22).

The audience of a rhetorical situation (i.e., a rhetorical audience) is one that we have reason to believe we can influence through our suasory use of symbols. We should keep in mind here that whether an audience is rhetorical depends upon our aims. In one context, a stranger on the bus might listen intently to your complaints about your co-workers but having no ability to affect change at your workplace, they are not a rhetorical audience. However, if your aim in complaining about your co-workers is to feel better by having a sympathetic ear listen to what you have to say or to gain a perspective that might help you better handle the situation, then that same stranger can be a rhetorical audience.

The constraints of a rhetorical situation “limit or enhance opportunities for making appropriate rhetorical responses to an exigence” (22). The rhetorical concept of kairos is very much at play here. So too issues such as your audience’s interests and terministic orientations, your aims, and the genre conventions in which you need to work.

Rhetoric is addressed discourse

As Prelli explains, different audiences have different values, beliefs, assumptions, backgrounds, interests, etc., and the practice of effective communication requires of us that we seek to shape our discourse to our intended audiences, even when that audience is ourself (24-28).

Rhetoric is reasonable discourse

Drawing from Chaim Perelman’s “The Rational and the Reasonable” (Chaim Perelman, “The Rational and the Reasonable,” The New Rhetoric and the Humanities)) Prelli makes a distinction between what is rational and what is reasonable, arguing that rhetoric is concerned with the reasonable rather than the rational. Reasonableness, Prelli reports, is concerned with judgement and commonsense in a given situation; whereas rationalness is concerned with abstract contexts governed by predetermined conclusions (28). Seen in this light, it’s quite understandable as to why rhetoric focuses on the reasonable rather than the rational.

Likewise, reasonableness has to do with the particular values and beliefs of particular audiences, with reasonable meaning something that the audience will find valid or acceptable.

Rhetoric is invented discourse

Finally, Prelli argues that rhetorical discourse is invented, that is, the rhetor evaluate their goal (31-32); they must evaluate the issue at hand within the context of its rhetorical situation, and how to order the discourse in a way that best meets their goals within the context of that situation (32); and then the rhetor must decide the specific things she or he wants to say in order to develop each topic or issue they wish to address. In other words, as we saw in Technical Communication Strategies for Today chapters 11, even when we are constrained by a specific formal genre such as the job application letter we can’t approach our writing tasks as an act of fill-in-the-blanks and expect it to be an act of effective communication.

Notes   [ + ]

1. 1. Prelli, Lawrence J. A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989.
2. 1. Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968).

Lecture: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

Ethos, pathos, and logos can seem like fairly simple concepts — ethos is about the credibility of the rhetor (the speaker or writer), pathos is about emotion and empathy, and logos is about logical reasoning and structure, and we often talk about them as something that is either there (or present in a rhetorical act) or not there (not present in a rhetorical act). For instance, we often talk about scientific writing as writing that avoids pathos and/or ethos. While we often talk about them as such, ethos, pathos, and logos are actually far more complex concepts than this simple conception would suggest. Aristotle discusses them in his Rhetoric as the three available means of persuasion — it might help to remember here that Aristotle defines rhetoric not as the act of persuasion but as the means of persuasion: “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 36).1)1. Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

So, while ethos, pathos, and logos are about the credibility of the rhetor and ethics, about emotion and empathy, and about logical reasoning and structure, they are also about how we apply those means of persuasion in our acts of communication. Ethos is about the reliance upon one’s perceived credibility (both inside and outside the rhetorical act). Pathos is about how we engage emotion, which includes not only emotionally charged language and imagery but engaging the audience’s likes and dislikes and their values and beliefsLogos is about how we use logical reasoning and logical structures as well as the kinds of evidence we use to support our claims.

A rhetorical mixing machine
From Losh, Elizabeth, et. al. Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphical Guide to Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 131.

In this way, ethos, pathos, and logos aren’t concepts we simply turn on or off; they are concepts that we dial up or down as if we were using a rhetorical mixing machine. That is, a lack of credibility or a lack of ethics, a lack of emotionally charged discourse, and/or a lack of logical reasoning and structure are not absences of ethos, pathos, and/or logos but an intentional downplaying of their use or a failure to use them or use them effectively. As potential means of persuasion all three always exist within all rhetorical acts whether or not they are actively used. So, when we say that a rhetor lacks ethos, we’re not saying that there is no ethos involved but that we don’t find the rhetor’s intentional or unintentional use of ethos effective. When we say that a piece lacks pathos, we’re saying that the piece doesn’t reach us on an emotional level and/or doesn’t engage our values and beliefs. And when we say that an argument lacks logos, what we’re saying is that we find its logical reasoning, or its structure, or its use of evidence (or failure to use evidence) to be flawed.

These are important distinctions because we tend to think of certain kinds of discourse as devoid of ethos, pathos, or logos. A skeptic such as Richard Dawkins might claim that there is no logic in an argument based in faith even though throughout history plenty of philosophers, including people such as Thomas Aquinas who is known for his logical reasoning, have and do believe that they can make logically valid faith-based arguments.2)1. We could also note that Plato’s dislike of rhetoric is connected to his belief in a knowable absolute Truth and the philosopher’s duty to discover that Truth is itself based upon his philosophy of forms and the idea that there’s a Realm of Forms, all of which is another example of faith-based argument. Likewise, because traditional scientific discourse is supposed to be clear, direct, objective, and dispassionate, we tend to think of it as pure logos that does not engage either ethos or pathos, and in thinking that we would be wrong.

The very idea that scientific discourse should be clear, direct, objective, logical, and dispassionate is a value judgement whose history can be traced back to the Royal Society of Britain during the Early Modern Period. A rhetor wishing to be taken seriously as they engage in scientific discourse needs to follow these conventions, and in doing so they are using the pathos of scientific discourse (the values and beliefs of how science should be done and how scientific discourse should be practiced) to help establish their ethos ( their credibility) as someone who understands how scientific discourse works.3)1. For the history of how scientific discourse emerged with a focus on the experimental article, see Charles Bazerman’s Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science.

Notes   [ + ]

1. 1. Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
2. 1. We could also note that Plato’s dislike of rhetoric is connected to his belief in a knowable absolute Truth and the philosopher’s duty to discover that Truth is itself based upon his philosophy of forms and the idea that there’s a Realm of Forms, all of which is another example of faith-based argument.
3. 1. For the history of how scientific discourse emerged with a focus on the experimental article, see Charles Bazerman’s Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science.

Lecture: Introduction to the Enthymeme

This lecture supplements and extends this week’s reading on the enthymeme that is available in Blackboard.1)1. Gage, John T. “The Enthymeme” from The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College. 4th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. 82-85. This lecture draws heavily from Gage’s The Shape of Reason and from Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed.

While we intuitively make use of enthymemes all the time. Whether you’re trying to convince your friends where to go to eat, persuading a potential employer that you’re a strong candidate for their position, or convincing others that you’ve developed a better gene therapy, you are relying upon an enthymeme. Therefore, understanding how enthymemes work, how to explicitly articulate them, and how to analyze them provides you with greater rhetorical control. Moreover, as Gage explains, you can use enthymemes to structure your arguments by analyzing your audience and determining what they need in order to accept your reasons so that they will, in turn, accept your argument. Enthymemes are also great tools for developing a thesis statement of an argument, whether explicitly stated or not.

The Enthymeme

Definition of the Enthymeme

An enthymeme is a form of informal logic (i.e., non-mathematical forms of logic) used to make arguments by connecting a claim with its reason(s).

  • An enthymeme consists of a claim connected to a reason by a word such as “because” or “therefore,” expressed in the following manner: Stated reason + unstated assumption = stated conclusion.
  • They were introduced by Aristotle as the rhetorical version of a syllogism used in everyday arguments where we have a choice between options and answers, and where solutions are not black and white. We use enthymemes to argue probable solutions, possible actions, and/or to make reasonable connections.
  • The word enthymeme [Gk. enthymema (thought, argument)] comes from the Greek words en (into) + thymos (soul). In other words, as a means for persuasion, enthymemes are (metaphorically) rhetorical tools that enter into the souls of our audiences in order to change their thinking about a topic.

Elements of an Enthymeme

An enthymeme consists of:

  1. An assertion,
  2. A reason connected to the assertion by “because” or “therefore,”
  3. A shared term that appears in both the assertion and reason,
  4. Both the assertion and reason must be independent clauses, and
  5. An unstated assumption. (If—and only if—an enthymeme has characteristics 1-4 will it have an unstated assumption.)

Form of an Enthymeme

An enthymeme may be expressed in the following forms:

  • Idea 1 because Idea 2.
    • Example: Batman is a cooler superhero than Superman because Batman is a human rather than an alien with inhuman powers. (In this form Idea 1 is the conclusion and Idea 2 is the reason.)
  • Idea 1 therefore Idea 2.
    • Example: Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people. (In this form Idea 1 is the reason and Idea 2 is the conclusion.)

Discovering Unstated Assumptions in an Enthymeme

A key element in understanding and analyzing enthymemes, both your own and enthymemes used by others, is to identify the unstated assumptions upon which the enthymeme relies. To do so:

  1. Write out the enthymeme, making sure it has the first four required characteristics,
  2. Cross out the shared terms and replace them with a general word, like “something, someone, thing, X, etc.,” and
  3. Replace “because” with “if,” or erase “therefore” and write “if” in front of your reason (your first clause).

You can use this strategy both to help you revise your enthymeme or determine how you need to develop your argument to meet the needs of your audience and purpose, and you can use it to evaluate the arguments of others.

Following the steps above, here’s an example of how to discover the unstated assumptions in the enthymeme “Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people who don’t spend much time at home.”

  1. Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people.
  2. Cats Things are far more self-sufficient than dogs something else, therefore cats things make better pets for busy people .
  3. If things are far more self-sufficient than something else, things make better pets for busy people .

So, the unstated assumption in the enthymeme “Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people” is that self-sufficiency in a pet is an ideal quality for busy people. While the unstated assumption of this simple, straight-forward enthymeme is fairly obvious, the unstated assumptions of more complex, less straightforward enthymemes can be far less apparent.

Tips and Considerations for Writing Enthymemes

  • If you use “because of,” your reason won’t be an independent clause.
  • Your shared term may itself be a whole phrase or clause. Ex.: “We should make rich people pay higher taxes because it would benefit social programs.” The shared term here are “to make rich people pay higher taxes” and “it.”
  • Your assertion and your reason should say substantially different things or else your reasoning will be circular. You also want to keep an eye out for circular reasoning, which is a logical fallacy.
    •  For example: “French food is fattening because it relies heavily upon sauces made from cream and butter.”
      • Technically, “because it relies heavily upon sauces made from cream and butter” isn’t a reason supporting the claim “French food is fattening,” but is instead an explanation of why French food is fattening. The unstated assumption in this enthymeme is “fattening food is fattening” which is circular reasoning.
      • Possible revisions designed to avoid circular reasoning might be: “I don’t want to eat French food because it is fattening” and “French food uses lots of cream and butter which are fattening, therefore I don’t want to eat it.”
  • As enthymemes rely upon unstated assumptions and implicit values, you may need to support those assumptions and values with additional enthymemes. In other words, the reason supporting a claim may itself need to be a claim supported by another reason. In this way, complex arguments are made up of many smaller arguments all leading to a particular conclusion.
  • Whether or not your audience will accept your argument will likely depend upon whether or not they accept your assumptions.
    • When constructing arguments, your goal is to analyze your audience and base your argument upon assumptions your audience believes. While doing so won’t guarantee an argument’s success, the more firmly you can base an argument upon the values and beliefs of your audience, the more likely it is that you will be able to persuade them that your argument has merit.
  • When writing enthymemes, you need to pay attention to the relevance and correctness of your claims and reasons as it is possible for your claims and reasons to be factually correct but fail to logically connect to one another.
  • Likewise,whenwritingenthymemes, consider revising for precision.
    • For instance, while we might argue that “cats make better pets than dogs because they are self-sufficient,” what we really mean is that if we leave enough food and water and a clean liter box for a cat, a cat could be left alone for days while most dogs could only be left alone for a few hours. Technically speaking—and many arguments stand or fall upon such technicalities—”self sufficient” might lack precision, which means that depending upon the audience we might want to revise it further or define what we mean by “self-sufficient” as part of our argument.

Notes   [ + ]

1. 1. Gage, John T. “The Enthymeme” from The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College. 4th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. 82-85. This lecture draws heavily from Gage’s The Shape of Reason and from Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed.

Lecture: Defining Rhetoric

Despite its 2,500-year history and its place of privilege in the Trivium as one of Seven Liberal Arts, rhetoric is often thought of as something negative: as empty speech or pretty or flowery language used to deceive. Immanuel Kant wrote that rhetoric is the art “of deceiving by a beautiful show (ars oratoria)” (171) and Ezra Pound defined it as “the art of dressing up some unimportant matter so as to fool the audience for the time being” (83). While rhetoric has gained negative connotations in some circles, it is also commonly associated with persuasive speech, and, arguably, its most familiar definition is from Aristotle, who defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 36). However, while rhetoric is associated with persuasion, as George Kennedy stresses in his edition of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, Aristotle did not define rhetoric as the act of persuasion but as  “the art of ‘seeing’ how persuasion may be effected” (36, n. 34). Aristotle regarded rhetoric as an art, and, as Kennedy explains, Aristotle defined the arts “as a reasoned capacity to make something and says that it is concerned with the coming-into-being of something that is capable of either being or not being.[1] Art is thus for him not the product of artistic skill, but the skill itself” (36 n. 34).

While Aristotle’s famous definition of rhetoric associates it directly with persuasion, Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric is not the only definition of rhetoric that we have,[2] nor is rhetoric always so directly associated with persuasion, especially since the Twentieth Century. Kenneth Burke, for instance, equates rhetoric with identification, with the attempt to overcome division between people (19-23). “If men were not apart from one another,” he writes, “there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (22).

I.A. Richards has defined rhetoric as “the study of miscommunication and its remedies” (3). Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp suggest that rhetoric “is the human use of symbols to communicate” (1) and note that “humans construct the world in which they live through their symbolic choices” (2). Erika Lindemann has defined rhetoric as “a form of reasoning about probabilities, based on assumptions people share as members of a community” (42). Charles Bazerman suggests that we define rhetoric broadly as “the study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities” (6, n. 7). And in “Design as Rhetoric,” Gesche Joost and Arne Scheuermann stress that one of rhetoric’s intrinsic characteristics is its intentionality, and they argue that rhetoric’s focus on effective production ties rhetoric and design closely together: “Production of effectiveness is the central driving force behind rhetorical communication, and thus follows that every decision regarding production is made taking account its impact on the public” (5).

Because Aristotle defines rhetoric as the art (tekhne) of being able to see the means of persuasion rather than persuasion itself, Aristotle gives rhetoric an epistemic function as well as a persuasive one. Rhetoric is about discovering what we know and what we can know about a given situation. Even in the context of persuasion, effective argumentative strategies will depend upon the particularities of that given situation, including but not limited to the motives, goals, values, and beliefs of the people we want to persuade; the various probable outcomes of different decisions and actions; the likely variables and conditions that shape how we might act; and the means by which we might address our audience.

Whereas most arts like architecture, music, carpentry, painting, medicine, and navigation have specific subject domains with specific sets of knowledge and practices that are largely limited to their art, Aristotle argues that rhetoric and its counterpart dialectic focus on things as they are, which is, to some extent, “within the knowledge of all people and belong to no separately defined science” (28-29).[3] Because rhetoric is not limited to one subject domain but is applicable to all subject domains, Aristotle identifies rhetoric as a “universal art” by which we make things, organize knowledge, and create meaning for ourselves and others.

In short, rhetoric, as an art in its own right, is also a meta-art, an art that helps us make sense of and practice other arts as we reason our way through best practices based upon particular circumstances. For instance, while we often take definitions to be definitive, definitions are provisional and situational. The aptness of a definition is determined far more by the situational context that calls for a definition than the inherent nature of the thing being defined. In other words, the very act of defining something and the aptness of a definition offered — issues fundamental to understanding and discussing concepts and phenomena — are in themselves rhetorical issues.

An important take away here is that rhetoric has never been a static concept but has, instead, always been rooted in its time and culture; nor has it only been applied to oral discourse. Whereas rhetoric was in ancient Athens an art of oration, it was by the time of Cicero’s Rome refashioned into an ars disserendi, an art of correctly discussing or analyzing something, and it was refashioned again during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and so on. Regardless of when, where, and how rhetoric has been practiced, effective production and communication of meaning has been its key concern, whether that production is a speech, a letter, a website, a building, a painting, a grant proposal, or a graphical interface. While it would be correct to say that rhetoric, especially today, is concerned with far more than persuasion, we are also not all that far from Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric when we remember another of Burke’s characterizations of rhetoric: “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning’ there is ‘persuasion” (172).

Notes

[1] The use of “art” here and throughout this lecture harkens back to the Greek tekhnē and the Latin ars rather than to the more modern notion of the fine or performing arts. In Nicomachean Ethics 6.4, Arisotle defines tekhnē as “a reasoned habit of mind in making [poiēsis],” which he differentiates from “a reasoned habit of mind in doing [praxis]” (Aristotle 289). In this section of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle identifies architecture as a tekhnē (289), and he identifies rhetoric as a tekhnē in his Rhetoric (29). In the Nicomachean Ethics, after defining tekhnē and identifying architecture as an example, Aristotle then explains that an art [tekhnē] only deals with things made:

“All art is concerned with coming into being and continuing and seeing how something may come to be among things that are capable of being and not being and of which the first principle [arkhē] is in the maker but not in what is made; for there is no art of things that exist by nature; for these things have their first principles in themselves” (289).

In “The Uses of Rhetoric in a Technological Age: Architectonic Productive Arts,” Richard McKeon explains that architectonic comes from the Greek architectum (architectonic artist or master craftsman) which Aristotle made into a technical term in his schema for the sciences, one of which is the poetic [poiēsis] science (127). In doing so, Aristotle brings together making and doing, what McKeon identifies as architectonic productive arts, with rhetoric as the architectonic productive art of architectonic productive arts.

[2] Aristotle’s On Rhetoric represents one of the earliest forms of the technical or handbook tradition, one of three major forms of rhetoric identified by George Kennedy in Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition: From Ancient to Modern Times. The other two forms of rhetoric are sophistic rhetoric and philosophic rhetoric (13-15). As Kennedy explains, each of the three forms emphasizes a different element of the three-part rhetorical situation–the speaker, the communicative act, and the audience (14).

[3] Dialectic addresses issues of certainty where answers can be given as yes or no and true and false. It is often associated with the syllogism, a three-part argument that contains a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion that must be true if both the major and minor premises are true. One of the more famous syllogisms goes as follows: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.”

Rhetoric as defined by Aristotle, on the other hand, addresses issues of uncertainty and probability, situations in which a simple yes/no and true/false answers do not apply. Just as Aristotle equates dialectic with the syllogism, he equates rhetoric with the enthymeme. An enthymeme is a quasi-syllogistic statement that includes a minor premise and conclusion along with an unstated major premise. A light-hearted example I often use when teaching enthymemes goes as such: “While Superman is an alien with superhuman powers, Batman is a human who relies upon his native intelligence, training, wealth, and strength of will; therefore, Batman is the cooler superhero.” The unstated major premise is, of course, that a human who becomes a superhero through their own abilities is far cooler than someone who is a superhero for un- or supernatural reasons. While the syllogism is a question of formal logic that has a true or false answer, the issue of who is the cooler superhero is entirely dependent upon the criteria one uses to define coolness in superheroes.

Works Cited

Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. 3rd ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2002.

Joost, Gesche, and Arne Scheuermann. “Design as Rhetoric: Basic Principles for Design Research.” Symposium of Swiss Design Network. 2007. Paper. PDF file.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. J. H. Bernard. New York: Hafner Press, 1951.

Kennedy, George A. Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition: From Ancient to Modern Times. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

McKeon, Richard. “The Uses of Rhetoric in a Technological Age: Architectonic Productive Arts.” The Prospect of Rhetoric. Ed. Lloyd Bitzer and Edwin Black. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971. 44-63. Rpt. in Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook. Ed. Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994. 126-144.

Pound, Ezra. Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1974.

Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. 1936. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

Solving Problems in TC, Ch. 1: Boundaries, Artifacts, and Identities

In chapter 1 of Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Richard Selfe and Cynthia Selfe explore technical communication through the heuristic question: “What Are the Boundaries, Artifacts, and Identities of Technical Communication.” As with all the chapters in this anthology, this chapter is divided into seven sections: a chapter summary followed by an introduction, a review of the literature, a heuristic, an extended example of how that heuristic might be applied to address the heuristic question, a conclusion, and, finally, a set of questions for discussion 1) See Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Introduction, pp. 11-13.. Chapter 1 is part of the Mapping the Field section of the book, for which Johnson-Eilola and Selber invoke a exploration metaphor in which we engaging in a preliminary mapping the terrain of technical communication in much the same way an explorer might create a first rough map of a new region (15-16).

“What the heck is technical communication, anyway?”

Drawing upon Amanda Metz Bemer’s problem of needing to define technical communication for friends and family as their starting point, Richard Selfe and Cynthia Selfe suggest that one way of answering the question “what the heck is technical communication, anyway?” is to define the subject or content boundaries engaged by technical communicators, the artifacts technical communicators produce, and the workplace titles and positions held by technical communicators (19-21). 2)Bemer herself offers her own answer to this question in her article “Technically, It’s all Communication: Defining the Field of Technical Communication.” Before offering a heuristic for solving the problem — providing an answer to the question at hand — Selfe and Selfe offer a brief literature review of the subject, divided into three categories: historical maps of technical communication (how technical communication has historically been defined), research maps of communication (the kinds of research and scholarship done in and about technical communication), and skill maps of technical communication (the skills and activities that support and are used by technical communicators) (21-27). 3)It may be worth noting that each of these three categories can be reframed as its own heuristic question intended to answer the question “what the heck is technical communication, anyway?”

Text Clouds

While Selfe and Selfe summarize three different ways of mapping technical communication in their literature review, the focus of their chapter is to propose a fourth form of mapping: that of using tag and text clouds to “map” the territory covered by a set of documents representative of technical communication, in this particular case the indexing terms, subject terms, abstracts, and titles from all the articles published in the journals IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and Technical Communication Quarterly from 1996-2006.

In the heuristic section of the chapter (pp. 27-33), Selfe and Selfe provide us a five step heuristic for generating and interpreting tag and text clouds, and in the extended example and conclusion sections of the chapter they walk us through the process of converting their data into a set of usable word clouds, 4)Do note how Selfe and Selfe both refine the granularity of their word clouds and manipulate the data to meet the rheotrical needs of problem. Generally speaking, the phrase “data manipulation” will throw up red flags for most of us, and it should. Data manipulation is frowned upon because it can be used to skew results in ways that raise ethical and legal concerns if not ethical and legal consequences. However, there are different kinds of data manipulation. There’s data manipulation for the purposes of skewing results to indicate something the data does not on its own support, and there is data manipulation for the purposes of making the data useable. What Selfe and Selfe do here is manipulate the data to make it more useful for their given purpose, and, they make their process of data manipulation quite visible, going so far as to explain not only how they are manipulating the data but why they are manipulating it. While some people may object to their manipulation of their data, because Selfe and Selfe manipulate their data for the purposes of making it useable and do so in a transparent manner that explains not only how but why their have manipulated their data, Selfe and Selfe avoid the ethical and legal problems of data manipulation. In other words, while we might disagree with their reasoning and their method, they have not acted in an unethical manner or for unethical purposes.

The end result of applying their tag/word cloud heuristic to the question of what the boundaries, artifacts, and identities of technical communication is presented in figure 1.8 on page 43, along with an interpretive discussion of that word cloud on pages 42-45. In this word cloud on page 43 we find a set of key terms representing the subject or content boundaries engaged by technical communicators, the artifacts technical communicators produce, and the workplace titles and positions held by technical communicators as represented by the articles published in the journals IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and Technical Communication Quarterly during the years 1996-2006.

The qualification “as represented by the articles published in the journals IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and Technical Communication Quarterly during the years 1996-2006″ is important here because however comprehensive and accurately representative Selfe and Selfe’s map of the field may be, their map is only a snapshot of some of the possible data and is based upon data that is now 9-19 years old. New boundaries, artifacts, and identifies that have emerged in the past 10-15 years will not be represented in Selfe and Selfe’s map, nor will topics not covered byIEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and Technical Communication Quarterly. This doesn’t mean that Selfe and Selfe’s map isn’t a good one, but that as technical communicators seeking to address problems, we should be aware of and properly represent the limitations and constraints of the data with which we work.

Notes   [ + ]

1. See Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Introduction, pp. 11-13.
2. Bemer herself offers her own answer to this question in her article “Technically, It’s all Communication: Defining the Field of Technical Communication.”
3. It may be worth noting that each of these three categories can be reframed as its own heuristic question intended to answer the question “what the heck is technical communication, anyway?”
4. Do note how Selfe and Selfe both refine the granularity of their word clouds and manipulate the data to meet the rheotrical needs of problem. Generally speaking, the phrase “data manipulation” will throw up red flags for most of us, and it should. Data manipulation is frowned upon because it can be used to skew results in ways that raise ethical and legal concerns if not ethical and legal consequences. However, there are different kinds of data manipulation. There’s data manipulation for the purposes of skewing results to indicate something the data does not on its own support, and there is data manipulation for the purposes of making the data useable. What Selfe and Selfe do here is manipulate the data to make it more useful for their given purpose, and, they make their process of data manipulation quite visible, going so far as to explain not only how they are manipulating the data but why they are manipulating it. While some people may object to their manipulation of their data, because Selfe and Selfe manipulate their data for the purposes of making it useable and do so in a transparent manner that explains not only how but why their have manipulated their data, Selfe and Selfe avoid the ethical and legal problems of data manipulation. In other words, while we might disagree with their reasoning and their method, they have not acted in an unethical manner or for unethical purposes.

Lecture: Solving Problems, Introdution

Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Introduction

In their introduction to Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber introduce technical communication as a “problem-solving activity” and technical communicators as “problem solvers”(3), and explain that the anthology and each of the chapters within it explore technical communication from the perspective of “understanding and solving problems and developing strategies that work in different types of communication situations” (1). To this end, each chapter is identifies a question or problem within technical communication and offers a heuristic framework for addressing that question or problem.

They explain that  changes in the field and in work environments — especially those brought about by advances in and adoption of computer technologies in the work place — has shifted technical communication from being primarily “communication about technology” to “communication as and in technology” (2). They elaborate: “technical communication, in certain contexts and cases, has become both a process and a product, something no longer separate from, or secondary to, the fundamental task at hand,” with that fundamental task at hand being the work needed to be done and the problems needing solving in order to complete that work (2). To this end, we find technical communicators engaged in such diverse activities as:

  • designing interfaces for patent health records,
  • testing the usability of cockpit controls,
  • writing corporate annual reports for stockholders,
  • preparing grant applications and proposals,
  • writing safety guidelines,
  • and editing technical documents for end-users (2).

Problem Solving with Heuristics

As problem solvers, technical communicators need to learn how to address complex problems. Johnson-Eilola and Selber describe three characteristics of complex problems:

  • complex problems are “subjective phenomena open to analysis and interpretation,”
  • complex problems are “open to change over time” and are “rarely solved permanently,” and
  • complex problems are “engaged by multiple actors in a social space” (4).

To address complex problems, technical communicators need to learn how to:

  • sense a problem,
  • analyze a problem within its particular context in order to determine its causes, and
  • design and implement a solution that addresses the problem within its particular context (3-4).

One method for doing so, they explain, is through the development and use of heuristics, which are “rough frameworks for approaching specific types of situations” (4). As Johnson-Eilola and Selber explain, heuristics serve not as straight-forward solutions but as procedures for addressing the problem at hand. As a means to addressing complex problems which are inherently mutable, heuristics must themselves be tentative, flexible frameworks that we are willing to adapt to the specific problem at hand and as that problem itself changes as its context changes (4-6).

In figure 1.1 on page 7, Johnson-Eilola and Selber offer a diagram that illustrates the relationships between the theory and practice that inform heuristics as frameworks for problem solving. Through this diagram they stress the idea that developing heuristics for solving complex problems is recursive in nature. We might begin with a problem for which we adapt a theory-informed practice into a heuristic. In the process of putting that heuristic into practice we might encounter additional problems for which we will need to adapt our heuristic, and that development of a new heuristic might lead us to develop new theories from which we develop new practices that become the basis for new heuristics.

Learning about Technical Communication

Finally, Johnson-Eilola and Selber explain that the purpose of organizing their anthology around this heuristic-based approach to solving problems in technical communication is to help us learn how to become technical communicators (or better technical communicators), and they note that they have organized the book itself into four-phase educational heuristic for understanding technical communication and the work that technical communicators do. They book, they note, is divided into four sections — Mapping the Field, Situating the Field, Understanding Field Approaches, and Developing Field Knowledge — and the chapters in each section are framed as heuristic questions (9-11).

Lecture: Technical Communication Strategies: Ch. 1

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from Technical Communication Strategies for Today. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. Just because I don’t address something doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. If you have any questions or need further elaboration on anything about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Ch. 1: Communicating in the Technical Workplace

 

Genre

As Johnson-Sheehan explains, Technical Communication Strategies for Today takes a genre-based approach to understanding technical communication (2). As he explains, genres are “relatively stable patterns” that represents “the activities and practices of the workplace” (2). Genre defines the nature of the communication from its tone and style to its organization and design, and genre helps us anticipate what needs to be included as well as what our audience will expect from this particular communicative act (2-3).

That said, don’t think of genres as strict recipes or write-by-numbers guides to writing. They are, instead, guides that define the boundaries, conventions, and expectations within which your communicative act will work. One thing to keep in mind about genres is that they aren’t forms imposed from on high but are instead a series of practices and conventions that emerged over time. In a very real sense they embody the best practices for the type of communication for which they are used. Having become relatively stable, they serve as a frame that guides us in shaping our communicative act and as a frame through which we can interpret and understand communications directed towards us.

Process

As with most kinds of writing, effective writing is often the result of an iterative, multi-stage process. Figure 1.2 on page 4 represents one model for this process. What I want to stress here is that this is not a linear process. Not only may you find yourself looping back to earlier stages of the writing process, in a technical communication context you might find yourself starting with fully drafted text to edit, and in the process of editing it you might decide that the document needs to be redesigned. As you work on redesigning the document, you might discover that it needs to be reorganized as well to better fit the new design, and that may lead to a need for additional drafting, which in turn might require additional research, etc.

What is Technical Communication?

Johnson-Sheehan defines technical communication as “a process of managing technical information in ways that allow people to take action” (11). Key terms in this definition include “managing technical information” and “take action.”

Qualities of Technical Communication

Johnson-Sheehan identifies six qualities of technical communication:

  • Interactive and adaptable: Technical communication is both interactive and adaptable in that it often involves adapting documents to meet the differing needs of multiple audiences, and by being adaptable to changing situations, contexts, and/or information. Whereas a scholarly essay on Shakespeare or a letter to a friend are rarely revised to reflect new information, specifications documents or and procedures manuals are regularly revised and updated to reflect up-to-date information.
  • Reader centered: Effective technical communication is shaped by the needs of the reader rather than the wants of the author. The goal is on what information the audience needs and how best to share that information in order to meet their needs.
  • Reliant upon teamwork: Technical communication is often collaborative. Even single-authored documents usually involve others, both as resources for the information you are including and as the editors, managers, and other stake-holders who review and vet the document.
  • Visual: Whether it’s an effective use of headings and bullet points or the inclusion of diagrams and illustrations, technical communication that includes visual cues and other visual modes of communication alongside text is often more effective and user friendly.
  • Bound ethically, legally, and politically: Because technical communication is often action oriented, it is often governed by ethical, legal, and political constraints. When hired to conduct a feasibility report, we have an ethical if not legal and political obligation to provide our client with a honest report reflecting our best efforts. When writing instructions for customers, we have an ethical and legal obligation to offer clear and safe instructions.
  • International and cross-cultural: Globalization and the technologies means that we are likely to be working and communicating with people from around the world, which means that in order to be effective communicators we need to learn how to communicate with and to people who speak other languages and who have different cultural assumptions and practices.