Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 12: Progress Reports

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 12: Progress Reports

Whereas a proposal outlines your expected workflow, timeline, costs, etc., a progress report outlines the work you have done to date and how your progress corresponds to the projections made in your proposal, work plan, or the like. As The MIT Guide notes, progress reports can range from formal documents required by outside funding agencies to informal reports intended to brief supervisors responsible for tracking employee activity and costs within an organization. Likewise, a progress report can range from a report of more than 100 pages to a one-page memo or even a brief oral presentation.


Generally, the audience for progress reports are people with the technical knowledge to understand your activities and who have a vested interest in your progress. As The MIT Guide explains, “They want to know what has been done and what needs to be done, what problems you have encountered, and how likely you are to stay within a previously agreed-upon budget and schedule” (184).

When writing for such an audience, your impulse may be to paint a rosy picture and elide over difficulties, be they past, current, or expected future problems. Don’t. Be open and honest regarding the status of your work and the challenges and successes you’ve experienced. While it’s possible that you might be able to figure out how to cut costs and speed up work, it’s also possible that additional problems will set you back even further. The sooner you report the challenges and difficulties you’ve faced, the more likely it will be that a renegotiation of your previously agreed-upon timeline and funding or a reframing of the project’s goals are possible.

As this is the case, all progress reports should have a section in which you offer a realistic assessment and evaluation of your progress to date and your ability to stay within the previously agreed-upon parameters.

Organization and Design

As with many of the genres we’ve looked at this semester, readers often skim progress reports looking for specific information rather than reading through the whole of the report from start to finish. To assist with this kind of reading, you should organize your progress reports into clearly defined sections and make effective use of headers and subheaders. Think of each section of your progress report as its own stand-alone module.

Depending upon the context, the organization of your progress report may be defined for you, or you may be free to design it as you wish. Obviously, if you are given a format to follow, follow it. If you’re not, be aware of the common elements within the genre and include those. Page 187 of The MIT Guide offers a possible model based upon the elements commonly expected in a formal progress report (see Figure 12.1). Likewise, page 188 offers two possible organizational patterns for reporting your progress to date (see Figure 12.3).

Strongly consider using visuals such as charts and graphs to represent your progress vis-à-vis your initial projections and to document what has been done and what still needs to be done. Well designed visualizations such as these can offer a quick summary of your project’s status which are then supported by narrative explanation and commentary. For example, in a progress report submitted at the half-way point of your project, you might have a visual (a graphic or a table) that provides a detailed breakdown of the money you’ve spent might reveal that you’ve spent 80% of your budget. It might be the case, however, that the majority of your budget was always intended to be spent on costs during the first half of the project and that you are in fact on track with your projected spending. A brief narrative commentary accompanying the visual(s) can make that point.

However you organize and design your progress reports, if you are required to submit more than one report for the same project, keep your organization and design consistent across all of the progress reports you submit.

Lecture: Bazerman’s “Text Strategics”

In “Text Strategics,” chapter 7 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman discusses a number of strategic questions we need to consider in order to produce acts of effective communication. While the purpose of this chapter is to highlight a number of strategic questions and issues one must engage in order to be rhetorically effective, they all lead us to the overarching question of “how you can best populate the intertextual landscape with new objects to gain influence you hope for, to meet your own interests, needs, concerns, or creative visions” (98).

Influence Instead of Persuasion

Bazerman begins the chapter by suggesting that we regard the goal of rhetoric to be that of gaining influence rather than of persuading others to our point of view (87). As he notes, the goal of persuasion is to get others to change their mind and reject their current thinking or point of view for the one we are advocating. To seek influence, on the other hand, is to seek  to get others to act or respond to our utterance or action regardless of whether or not they agree or disagree with what we have said (87). This distinction is important, he suggests, because often times we’re actually not seeking to change someone’s mind.

Strategic Writing

Bazerman argues that if we think of the goal rhetoric as seeking influence rather than persuasion, then we can think of rhetoric strategy as shaping the landscape in which further discussion and action takes place. It examines the “unfolding social situation” in which discourse is taking place or will take place and examines the effect a “symbolic intervention” (your contribution) might have in shaping future activity within that social space (88).

In order to do this, we need to play as much attention to who is observing the unfolding social situation as to who is actively engaged and what they are saying (88). This helps us determine the kind of act we wish to perform in order to meet our goals (88), which in turn requires us to determine the conditions under which our chosen act will be successful.

Most Writing Is Ordinary Rather than Contentious

As noted above, the reason why Bazerman suggests that we think of the goal of rhetoric as influence rather than persuasion is that most situations in which we make use of writing are rather mundane and do not involve arguing or changing other peoples’ minds — an act, as Bazerman notes, is rather hard to do because people are often strongly committed to long-held beliefs (89). When we send a text message letting a friend know that we are running late, when we fill out a form to open an account or enroll in a program, when we offer a suggestion of compromise in order to move forward, when we put together a progress report, even when we write a letter of transmittal to accompany a submitted journal article, we are not writing to persuade but to carry out “mutually agreed upon activities” in which we work with others to create new social facts rather than displace old ones (90). In other words, most writing isn’t contentious but is instead rather ordinary in its purpose and goals.

While this is the case, Bazerman does note that some activity systems — some social situations — are often based on contentious debate with the intent of changing minds. Three such arenas, Bazerman explains, are the courts, legislative bodies, and scientific disciplines (89). In such systems, he tells us, we find established processes and procedures governing how we go about changing minds or coming to consensus: established standards of evidence, methods of analysis, and rules for decision making (89).

Topoi: The Places of Thinking and Reasoning

Another issue of strategic concern for us as we seek to engage in effective communication is the question of which kinds of information, reasoning, and sentiments are appropriate to the situation at hand. This question, Bazerman explains, is governed by the classical concept of topoi, which means “places” (91). Topoi, Bazerman tells us, are places within a text, governed by the genre and its related social activities, where connections to the outside world might be made, including other texts (91). Drawing from Aristotle (see the topoi link above), the topoi are sometimes referred to as the “topics of invention” because they can serve as places from which to develop ideas. For instance, among the “common topics” Aristotle includes defining an issue or subject, or dividing an issue into its constituent parts, or drawing upon the testimony of witnesses or documents; and among the “special topics” Aristotle suggests framing an issue in terms of what is just and unjust, or what is worthy and unworthy, or what is noble and base. (For a list, see the topics of invention link above.)

In Bazerman’s example of parents enrolling their child in school, we find a discussion about the need to provide back-up documents supporting the information filled out on the form: “The form requires the parents to visit each of the appropriate places and bring back the relevant token of that reality. Further, there needs to be confirmation of those indexed realities, which is often intertextual, requiring back-up documents, such as a birth certificate, vaccination certificate, and proof of address” (92). In this way, each field in the form, each required piece of information, is itself a “place” within the genre of the school enrollment form —the written information represents a reality in the outside world — and we have established “places” to turn to in order to represent and document the validity of the information we produce (birth certificates, etc.).

As part of thinking about the topoi, Bazerman offers four additional strategic questions regarding places which ask us to think about “the places you enter and stand on along with the places you bring in as part of your speech act” (92). They are:

The Places You Decide to Enter or not Enter

Among the strategic questions we must consider are whether or not we want to assert a presence within an activity system. In our day to day experience, we are bombarded with opportunities to engage in discussions, express our opinions, opt in or out of systems and organizations, etc. But just because we have an opinion on the topic at hand or have an interest in the work of an activist organization or live within an organization does not mean that we want to make our presence known by expressing our opinion or joining the organization or registering our activities with the local authorities (be they a fellow member of your team, a work supervisor, or a government official). Whether or not we should assert our presence is a strategic decision (93-94).

The Places You Want to Inhabit, Act, Take a Stand on, or Be Noticed

If we decide that we do wish to assert our presence, our next strategic question has to do with choosing the appropriate  place and moment so that we assert our presence effectively. In short, we need to think strategically about kairos. It doesn’t matter how wonderful our proposal is if we send it a month after the deadline or if we send it to an organization that has no desire or ability to fund our project. Likewise, it doesn’t matter how well thought out and informed our opinion is or how brilliant our solution is if we express it long after anyone cares about the issue (94-95).

The Kind of Action You Wish to Take and the Presence You Want to Establish

As we consider the most appropriate place in which to make our presence felt, we also need to consider the kind of action we wish to make and plan that action strategically. For example, are we seeking to participate, to challenge what has come before, derail or support what others have done, or even denounce the entire system? The kind of action we wish to take will define the genres available to us. For example, if we wanted to challenge what a campus organization was doing, we might ask the group for evidence to support their claims, we might write a letter to the school newspaper or hold a rally intended to sway public opinion, or we might establish a counter organization. And just as the kind of action we wish to takes defines the genres that we might use, the genres we choose will define the ways in which our presence will be felt within the activity system (95-96). In order to effectively establish a presence through our chosen action, we need to consider each of these issues.

The Resources You Want to Draw Into Your Space

The last strategic question Bazerman addresses is that of the resources upon which we wish to support our actions and to which we wish to connect ourselves and our activities. As you know, the source of our facts matter as much as the facts themselves. No amount of evidence is going to be effective if the source of that evidence is entirely unreliable. In fact, factually true evidence taken from a thoroughly unreliable source will often be called into question because it is from an unreliable source under the logic that if it were true then it should also be available from a reliable source (98).

While we must strategically think about where we are getting the resources we bring to bear as we act, we also need to strategically think about the resources — organizations and the like — to which we affiliate ourselves and whether or not we make those affiliations known (98). For instance, as many political watchdog groups have pointed out, many of the US Representatives and Senators who strongly opposed Net Neutrality were individuals who received huge ongoing campaign donations from companies that opposed Net Neutrality while many politicians who supported Net Neutrality did not receive such funding. Whether or not these politicians who opposed Net Neutrality really believed that it was not in their constituents best interest, the fact that they were so closely affiliated with the corporations that would profit from Net Neutrality being defeated has led many people to suggest that their opposition has everything to do with who funds their campaigns rather than what is in the best interest of the voters they are supposed to represent. Likewise, it is for this very reason that it is common practice for academic research scientists to identify the funding for their research or for a news organization such as National Public Radio to identify their corporate sponsors. Who we affiliate ourselves with and whether or not we make that affiliation known will affect how others perceive our actions. While a specific affiliation might make us suspect in certain rhetorical situations, discovery that we’ve kept such an affiliation hidden can have a far worse effect than making that affiliation known.

Lecture: Bazerman’s “Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms”

In “Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms,” chapter 6 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman argues that good writing “is added by locating and nurturing our motivations” (77), and then discusses the interconnectedness of motives, situations, and forms of communication.

Bazerman begins the chapter by stating that motivations for writing are never straightforward. Motivations, he explains, “occur at the intersection of our long-term concerns and the emergent situation” (77). In other words, neither a concern on its own nor a situation on its own is enough to inspire authentic motivation; instead, motivation emerges as we find an opening to address an issue of concern through a form (a genre) with which we are familiar.

It’s important to understand the intersection of motivation, situation, and form, Bazerman argues because most of us learn to write in school and much of early experiences with writing are within the context of schooling where the situation, genre, and often at least in part the motivation are often forced upon us. While this can be the case outside of school — when we need to fill out a form such as to apply for a loan or are assigned a writing task as when our boss asks us to write up a report — the motivations, situations, and often genres themselves differ from the school context (84), and recognizing what they are and how they play out can help us work through a task.

At times, we will find our motives, the situation, and form coming together in ways that drive us to want to write. At other times we might find ourselves reluctant to complete a particular task even doing so aligns with our long-term goals or involves an ideal situation or a favored form. When we’re reluctant, it’s almost certain that we’re struggling with at least one of the three issues involved. Acting may fulfill our long-term goals but we’re not sure about our situation or aren’t comfortable with the form. Or we may be expert at the form and have the perfect situation but the task doesn’t fulfill our long-term goals.

Lecture: Bazerman’s “Changing the Landscape: Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts”

In “Changing the Landscape: Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts,” chapter 5 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman examines the role of social facts and speech acts in relationship to each other and to kairos.

Social Facts

Social facts, he explains, are things that people believe to be true with the consequences of those beliefs shaping our social and material conditions (67). Regardless of whether or not social facts have basis in objective reality, the belief in those facts shape how we interact in and with our reality. For example, the theory of humors dominated Western medicine from the antiquity through the 19th Century. In short, the theory of humors stipulates that the workings of the human body are governed by four bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Working under the theory of humors, Western doctors practiced bloodletting and applying hot cups to patients bodies to treat various ailments under the belief that illness was the result of a body’s humors out of proportion. The theory of humors was a social fact.

Speech Acts

Speech acts, Bazerman tells us, are utterances — oral or written language acts — that have an effect on the world (67). Bazerman uses the example of an electric bill as an example of a speech act. The bill — a written utterance — has an effect on the world in that it represents a legal obligation of payment for services and goods (in this case, electricity) by the person who has been billed. Other common examples of speech acts are the various statements made during a marriage ceremony in which the couple each agrees to the marriage (typically through the words “I do”), and in which the officiate declares the couple now married. Other examples of speech acts include a rejection or acceptance letter, or a trial verdict, or an investigative commission reports such as The 9/11 Commission Report and the  Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, both of which identified blame for the incidents investigated that in turn led to policy changes.

As Bazerman suggests, not all utterances are speech acts. First, speech acts are utterances that are both unmistakable in nature and which can’t be readily ignored by reasonably minded people, a fact which in turn means that they “change the mental landscape for action” (67). Furthermore, drawing from the J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, Bazerman explains that for an utterance to be a speech act it must meet certain “felicity conditions” (68). That is, the person performing the speech act must have the authority to make such an utterance, they must be making the utterance under the appropriate conditions, and they must be making it in the appropriate venue. For example, in most jurisdictions in the US, you can’t simply declare yourself married. You must instead find someone with the legal authority to marry you. Furthermore, a person with such legal authority can’t simply pronounce two people married. The couple must consent to the marriage, usually before witnesses, and the appropriate paperwork must be filled out and submitted to the appropriate legal authorities. And, likewise, while a judge might have the legal authority to perform a wedding, the judge’s legal authority only applies to a certain jurisdiction regardless of whether or not the couple consent and the appropriate paper work is submitted. (For instance, a South Carolina judge has no legal authority to wed a couple in Canada.)

Successful speech acts, Bazerman notes, become social facts (67).

The Role of Exigency

Bazerman begins this chapter arguing that in order to properly situate a text we need to consider not just its location in time and space (both its physical space and its activity system) but also its exigency, that is, the reason or motive behind its creation. As Bazerman notes this concern for exigency brings us back to Lloyd Bizter and the rhetorical situation, which we’ve encountered earlier in Prelli’s discussion of rhetoric as situated discourse, which Bazerman summarizes as “an exigent solution marked by an imperfection that can be corrected by language” (65).

Exigency is important, Bazerman explains, because communication is most effective when both the rhetor and the audience have shared material and social experiences that connect them to the exigency of the rhetorical act, that is, when they have shared experiences that gives them both reasons to care about the issue and a need for a solution (66).

Exigency in Face-to-Face Situations

Because of the embodied nature of face-to-face situations in which all parties are present within the same immediate material and social conditions, that is, they are right there together in the thick of things, face-to-face communication often has embedded within it stronger connections to exigency than written communication does because the speaker and audience exist together at that moment in shared material and social conditions in ways that a writer and reader can not (71-72). This shared connection to exigency typically  offers rhetors easier access to speaking kairotically — that is, of making use of kairos.

Kairos in Intertext

While face-to-face communication may present rhetors with greater access to kairos, Bazerman explains that intertextual spaces do develop their own sense of kairos (72-75). For example, both written job ads or RFPs (Request for Proposals) offer kairotic possibilities in that there is an appropriate time to act and there is an appropriate measure in how one should act. Likewise, an email asking for a report or a job or school assignment with its deadline also offer kairotic possibilities in just the same way.

While the kairotic nature of those examples may be readily obvious, kairotic possibilities in contexts less governed by constraints of time and form. Consider, for example, the question of a research project. As explained in the lecture on intertextuality, research is inherently intertextual in that research is an act of knowledge making and the formal avenues of sharing knowledge in our culture is through writing. When choosing to start a new research project we have before us some two-thousand or more years of written knowledge from which to start formulating our questions and hypothesis. While it might be entirely appropriate for a philosophy postdoc focus their research on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, there are very few if any conditions under which it would be appropriate for a chemistry, biology, or physics postdoc to base their research on Aristotle’s Physics.

We also find the question of kairos inherent in the question of when the public, or even experts, are receptive to new theories. We’re all familiar of the notion that some ideas are expressed before their time, and many of you are familiar with independent co-discoveries or near co-discoveries of scientific principles. (If nothing else, in “The Polemical Mr. Darwin” Campbell explains that Darwin hurried his work on to publication because Alfred Wallace’s own field work had led Wallace to independently develop his own theory of natural selection.) Breakthroughs in knowledge often happen because previous discoveries, new methods, and or new technologies make the leap in knowledge possible. This too is an issue of kairos within the domain of intertext. 1) 1. For a quick summary of accumulation of ideas that lead to Darwin and Wallace’s discovery of natural selection, including Darwin’s own grandfather’s ideas, see “Pre-Darwinian Theories.”

Along these same lines, we might also note Albert Einstein’s resistance to quantum mechanics made famous in his debates with Niels Bohr. Despite the fact that Einstein’s own work helped pave the way, Einstein was committed to Aristotle’s Laws of Thought which understood the world as static and unchanging, a social fact that remained in place for some 2,000 years until the development of quantum mechanics. While scientists like Bohr readily accepted quantum mechanics, it was at the time of the debates an idea whose time was coming into being. From within the system of social belief in Aristotle’s Laws of Thought, the idea of quantum mechanics is easier to accept after Einstein published his articles on Relativity than before because Relativity itself challenges the Laws of Thought. 2) 1. It’s telling just how deeply held a social fact the Laws of Thought were when Einstein refused to accept that his own work called the Laws into question.

References   [ + ]

1. 1. For a quick summary of accumulation of ideas that lead to Darwin and Wallace’s discovery of natural selection, including Darwin’s own grandfather’s ideas, see “Pre-Darwinian Theories.”
2. 1. It’s telling just how deeply held a social fact the Laws of Thought were when Einstein refused to accept that his own work called the Laws into question.

Lecture: Bazerman’s “The World of Texts: Intertextuality”

In “The World of Texts: Intertextuality,” chapter 4 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman introduces the concept of intertextuality, which is the act of referring other texts, either directly or indirectly and self-consciously or implicitly but with intentionality (59). In short, intertextuality represents the relationships between and among texts.

Bazerman argues that by understanding intertextuality and how it is used by writers to position their own texts, we can learn how to better position our own writing within the conversations and activity systems in which are texts our positioned (59).

Texts, he explains, often build upon other texts, thereby creating a body or archive of texts that are all related to one another. This concept is most easily understood within the context of an exchange of letters, emails, or text messages. In being a response to what was written, the new text implicitly or explicitly responds to and builds upon the letter, email, or text message to which it is responding. And as this exchange of texts continues, the writers involved will likely be responding to, or at least basing their responses upon, not just the most recent text sent to them but to any number of the texts written by either author in the exchange. Likewise, in the exchange of letters, emails, or text messages, the writers may also refer to other texts written by others people, thereby expanding the intertextual relationships even further. If we were to trace out all the ways a series of letters refer to and draw upon each other and texts outside the exchange, implicitly and explicitly,  directly and indirectly, we will see emerge a network of relationships in and amongst all these texts (59-60).

While we can see this intertextual network most directly in something like an exchange of letters, we can readily find it in any text that is situated in a conversation about a topic, a genre, and/or an activity system. You’ve most likely be introduced to the literary device of allusion in a literature course. Poets, fiction writers, and playwrights often make reference to earlier literary texts, and these acts of allusion are acts of intertextuality. Inherent in US law is the concept of precedent through common law and case law. The basic idea behind precedent is that similar rulings should be applied to similar situations, which means that Appellate Courts and the Supreme Court decisions make reference to earlier written court decisions, and juries and lawyers interpret the law based upon these decisions. This too is a system of intertextuality. Additionally, we see intertextuality at play in the shaping of knowledge through scholarship and research. Knowledge creation does not exist within a vacuum; even new theories and ideas are inherently situated within what has been thought and said before. Our practices of paraphrase, summary, quotation, and citation are nothing more than a formalized practices of intertextuality.

In fact, as Bazerman notes, fields and disciplines have their own network of texts that one becomes familiar with as one becomes a professional — becomes professionalized — in that field. Learning how this body of texts (ideas) relates to one another and learning how to understand where a text falls within this network of intertextuality is a large part of becoming professionalized, especially for those who engage in knowledge creation (60-61). Likewise, as noted above, all genres and activity systems have their own series of intertexts upon which to draw, and they have their own conventions and practices for referring to other texts (63).

As Bazerman noted at the beginning of this chapter, understanding textuality and its conventions within particular genres and activity systems is important because it allows writers to better situate their own writing within its intertextual environment. Doing so helps readers understand where your text is located within its activity system and its time, which helps them understand how to make sense of your writing. In other words, intertextuality plays a crucial role in creating effective communication.

Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 14: Journal Articles

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 14: Journal Articles

Publication in an academic journal is often the final stage of a research project, and the last stage in a series communicative acts about the research, both formal and informal and public and private. Prior to publication in a journal, most scientific research projects have been presented in both oral and written form numerous times. Such forms often include grant proposals, progress reports, conference presentations (oral and/or poster), publication in a conference proceedings, publication as a letter (a short description of important research findings), and circulation as a preprint article. Often, writing a scientific article or research paper for publication in a journal is a significant endeavor of its own, and not only can it help you refine your thinking and fill in gaps in your work, it might even send you back into the lab for more research.

A note on preprints: Not all journals will consider articles that have been released as preprints. As a general rule, the more prestigious journal, the less likely it is to consider articles that have been circulated as preprints. Before releasing a preprint, figure out which journals you want to target (that’s journals rather than journal), and check on their preprint policies.

Kinds of Journal Publications

While the scientific article or research paper is the most formal and comprehensive publication within an academic scientific journal, it is not the only kind of journal publication. The kinds of publications one might find in a scientific journal include:

  • Article or research paper: Reports of original research that are submitted for to peer-review by multiple referees.
  • Letter: Short descriptions of timely and important research, usually no more than 2,500 words, that are often reviewed by one referee.
  • Notes: Short articles regarding previously published articles in the journal, new experimental data, or new theoretical approach, usually reviewed by one referee.
  • Reviews: Usually commissioned by the editor, a review of recent developments in a field.
  • Letters to the Editor: Short responses or comments related to articles previously published in the journal.

The kinds of publications a journal will accept differs from journal to journal. Some journals may accept and publish a mixture of all five, others might be specifically dedicated to just one genre such as the letter such as The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters and Advanced Science Letters.

Targeting Journals

As mentioned above, at some point in the writing process you should have at least one (and ideally more) journals in mind. As part of keeping current in your field you should have an idea of the journals to which you might want to submit your work. From that list, you’ll want to examine the requirements and editorial policies specific to each journal. Different journals want different kinds of research, different kinds of articles, and different kinds of approaches and focuses. Selecting the journal(s) that best match your research and/or shaping your manuscript to meet the specific needs of a specific journal will greatly increase the likelihood of publication. Essentially, journals adhere to their policies regardless of how amazingly wonderful and groundbreaking a piece is. Likewise, you want to adhere to the specific formatting requirements and submission guidelines for the journal. Failure to do so is the easiest way to have your manuscript rejected: If you can’t bother to follow their submission guidelines, they won’t bother to consider your manuscript. All journals publish their policies and submission guidelines either online, in the journal (if it’s a print journal), and usually both.

Article Contents

The MIT Guide‘s list of contents for an article or research paper found on pages 222-228 is meant to be comprehensive, but as far as the formal article goes, these are fairly standard. As with all things, different journals will have different requirements, and the contents of a letter, a note, or a review will differ from that of an article. When in doubt, check the journal’s published author guidelines and examine the publications in recent issues.

Submission to the Journal

As with everything else, the submission process and the submission guidelines (including the formatting of the manuscript, how many copies, etc.), will differ from journal to journal. Some journals will want you to mail them three printed-out copies of your manuscript. Other journals will want you to submit an electronic version via their online submission tool. Again, find the guidelines for authors and follow them.

Many journals insist that any manuscript sent to them not be under consideration or submitted to another journal until they have made a decision. This is pretty standard, so do not send out the same manuscript to multiple journals at the same time. Submit your manuscript to one journal and wait until they respond with a yes, no, or revise before sending your article out elsewhere.

If you’re asked to include a letter of transmittal, do so. The letter of transmittal for publication in a journal is its own particular genre. Your letter should be formatted as any professional business letter — preferably in block letter format.

  • Paragraph One: State that you are submitting your manuscript to be reviewed for publication. Refer to your article by its title and the journal by its title. If you’re asked to submit multiple copies, indicate that you are submitting X number of copies of Y article for review in Z journal.
  • Paragraph Two: Provide a brief summary of the main focus of your article.
  • Paragraph Three: Thank the editor.

Some journals will also ask that you include a statement that the article has not been previously published and is currently not being submitted or under consideration by another journal.

Response from the Journal

After reviewing your submission, you’ll get one of three responses from the journal: a rejection, a conditional acceptance (also known as revise and resubmit), or an acceptance. Acceptance without some kind of revision is uncommon. Generally, rejections come with some kind of feedback from the reviewers. Such feedback can be quite useful in helping you revise your manuscript before sending it off to a different journal. Conditional acceptances always come with some kind of revision feedback. Whether or not you revise your article and resubmit it is always up to you. Some authors will just send their article, unrevised to a different journal; others will revise and resubmit it to the journal in question; and others might revise it based on the feedback but still submit it to a different journal.

Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 13: Reports

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 13: Reports

Reports, as with proposals, can vary in formality, purpose, contents, and size. Common reports you might encounter in your career include: 1) 1. The MIT Guide offers sample formats for technical reports (197), lab reports (207), recommendation reports (209-11), and environmental impact reports (213-14).

What all reports have in common is that they present the results of or findings about something after it has happened.

Two famous reports often cited as case studies for extensive comprehensive reports are the The 9/11 Commission Report and the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.

Audiences for Reports

As the The MIT Guide explains, reports tend to have multiple audiences, each interested in only a part of the report. Whether true or not, conventional wisdom is that 80% of readers will only read 20% of a report. What this means for writers of reports is that each section of the report needs to be able to stand on its own.

When writing reports you should also keep in mind that while they are usually not formally published, they may be made public, which means that you should be writing not just for your primary audience but secondary and even tertiary audiences as well.

Report Contents

The MIT Guide‘s list of contents for a proposal found on pages 196-205 might seem intimidating, especially if you’re thinking in terms of the lab reports you’re used to writing. Keep in mind, however, that the list The MIT Guide presents is seeking to be comprehensive, to address all the elements one might be expected to include in a formal comprehensive report. The actual contents of any specific report will differ depending upon what it is for, to whom it is being sent, whether it is formal or informal, etc.

Likewise, while all reports seek to present results or findings, different kinds of reports will have different purposes and aims, which we can see reflected in different kinds of reports. See, for example, the discussions of methods in laboratory reports (pp. 205-208), the decision making process in recommendation reports (pp. 208-211), and the emphasis on alternatives in environmental impact reports (208-213).

References   [ + ]

1. 1. The MIT Guide offers sample formats for technical reports (197), lab reports (207), recommendation reports (209-11), and environmental impact reports (213-14).

Lecture: Bazerman’s “When You Are”

While “Knowing Where You Are: Genre,” chapter 2 of Charles Bazerman’s A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, located texts within their activity systems, “When You Are” (chapter 3) examines texts through the lens of time.

We’ve already encountered the importance of time in the concept of kairos. As Losh et. al. explain 1)1. Losh, Elizabeth et. al. “Why Rhetoric?” Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphical Guide to Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. pp. 35-54., kairos refers to both the opportune time to engage in an act and due proportion or fitness of that act (48). In “When You Are,” Bazerman’s discussion of kairos focuses on the rightness of the moment (44). Kairos is not the only consideration of time Bazerman takes up in this chapter, however. Bazerman also considers time from the perspectives of how much time it takes us to write a text; the time constraints under which a text is read by its audience so that it is read hurriedly or slowly and carefully; reading texts from the past which, in essence, are texts from cultures foreign to us; and to imagine future audiences and the effects we wish to have on them.

At the start of the chapter, Bazerman argues that just as texts are situated within activity systems, they are also situated within time. He explains: “texts arise from historical moments in situations, are directed toward others located in historical moments, with specific intent to accomplish ends—influencing people and events within history” (43). One major effect this may have, Bazerman notes, is that we often come to texts from very different cultural contexts. In some cases, the text may seem strange and odd to us as much as any text rooted in a very different cultural context might. On the other hand, because we have different interests than the writer and the texts original audience, we might notice ideas or value texts ignored or unrecognized by its original audience (44).

Texts and Kairos

While making effective use of kairos is important for effective expression, it’s equally important to be able to locate a written text within its situated historical moment if we are to understand how the text works, why it does what it does, and how effective it may or may not have been. In this sense, we can think of kairos as both a heuristic for invention (figuring out how to situate our own writing effectively within its temporal context) and as a heuristic for evaluation (figuring out how effective it might have been in its given time for its given audience).

One element here of kairos is recognizing that activity systems often have temporal ebbs and flows or cycles of activity. As Bazerman nots, in the United States, April 15 is the day income taxes are due, and this establishes a set of practices and activities that are repeated each year (49). If you’re a comics fan, then you know that new issues come out on Wednesdays, which means that the cycle of writing and producing a monthly or weekly comic is tied to this schedule. Likewise, major grants that are awarded each year have their own annual deadlines, and the cycle of applying for and reviewing grant proposals is timed to this system, as are the production of guidelines. Similarly, large organizations establish annual budgets to govern the flow of money into and out of their organization. Understanding and working within these temporal ebbs and flows helps us navigate the activity system in which we wish to operate. For instance, it’s much easier to find funding for a new project if you propose in the months during which a new annual budget is being made than it would be to propose it a month after the start of a new fiscal year whose budget has already been drawn up.

Another element of kairos to consider here is constraints under which a text will be read. As Bazerman notes, many reference books are designed to be consulted at the time of need, and organizing a reference text in such a way that information is easy to find is not only valuable, it’s crucial for the effectiveness of that reference text. Or, to think about this in more concrete terms, consider (or imagine) the differences between a how-to guide for fixing household plumbing and a general introduction to household plumbing. While the general introduction might be organized into chapters discussing different systems and fixtures and how they all work together, a how-to-fix-it guide is going to be organized by project. Likewise, while diagrams in a general introduction might focus on introducing different systems, parts, and fixtures and how they relate to one another, the diagrams in a how-to-fix-it guide will focus on illustrating instructions and aiding in diagnosing problems. While both about household plumbing, the two books need to be designed quite differently because their intended audiences will consult those books under very different time constraints. Typically, we consult the general introduction at our leisure because we want to learn about household plumbing, and we consult the how-to-fix-it guide because we have a plumbing problem that needs addressing.

Texts in Their Temporal Sequence

Another temporal consideration when creating or analyzing texts is the place of a particular text within a larger sequence of texts. As texts exist within activity systems, they rarely exist on their own with no connections to texts that came before it or that came after it. Being able to place a text within its larger context of texts can help us better understand it or help us better prepare it. For example, proposals written in response to a request for proposals (RFP) or a job application packet written in response to a specific job ad need to address the criteria in the RFP or ad. Likewise, we will have a hard time understanding an email that reads “In response to your questions, yes, no, no, and I’ll know more once the project is done.” Without seeing the email to which this one responses, we don’t know what the questions were, and if the two correspondents have been communicating for some time, we might need to go back dozens of emails or more to know what “the project” is. In a similar fashion, when I teach first-year writing classes, I require students to submit all drafts of their projects as well as any pre-writing, peer-review feedback, etc. Seeing how a text developed over time helps me understand its current form, and it better helps me understand the kind of feedback that might be most useful for the student.

As Bazerman notes at the end of “When You Are,” knowing the when of a text within its activity system helps us understand how to make a text effective: “Every piece of writing is deeply embedded in some activity system, and the more deeply one understands that system and its rhythms, the more one can let the activity system help one produce the document—drawing on, being directed by, leaning against, and creatively resisting the ongoing welter of events, artifacts, resources, and personalities, to produce an emergent text that draws on the strengths of that system to be influential within it” (58).

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Losh, Elizabeth et. al. “Why Rhetoric?” Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphical Guide to Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. pp. 35-54.

Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 11: Proposals

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 11: Proposals

As The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication notes, proposals come in many forms for many different purposes, some informal and some quite formal with rigid guidelines. During the course of your career you might write a short informal proposal to your immediate colleagues suggesting a plan of action, or you might write a presentation abstract in response to a call for proposals, or you might create a Kickstarter or GoFundMe campaign to launch a product you developed during your research, or you might apply for a NSF grant, or you might present a business plan a bank in hopes of securing a business loan, or you might submit a textbook proposal to a publisher. Regardless of whether the proposal is informal or formal, and whether it’s submitted in response to a request for proposals or is unsolicited, all proposals have the following characteristics: They are sales and planning documents, they are acts of persuasion, and they function as projections that define the scope and scale of a commitment to do some kind of work.

Proposals as Sales and Planning Documents

As the The MIT Guide explains, the purpose of a proposal is to the following:

  • identify a problem,
  • explain what work will be done to solve the problem,
  • identify the people who will work on the problem,
  • argue for the qualifications of those who will work on the problem,
  • specify the time frame, location, materials, and equipment to be used to solve the problem, and
  • estimate the cost necessary to do the work.

In doing each of these things, a proposal makes a sales pitch that you should be given something (funding, a contract, permission to start, etc.) and presents a basic plan as to what you will do should that something be given.

Proposals as Persuasion

As proposals are sales pitches and planning documents, the goal of a proposal is to persuade the proposal reviewer(s) that there is a problem to be addressed, that you are qualified to address that problem, and that you have a plan to see the problem addressed.

Proposals as Projections

Because a proposal is a planning document that explains how you will go about to solve the problem needing to be addressed, the equipment and materials needed to address that problem, a time frame in which the work will be done, and the costs involved, a proposal defines a set of commitments you are promising to undertake. In order to make an effective — persuasive — argument, you need to present your plan in as much detail as you can so that proposal reviewers can evaluate your proposal’s feasibility, often in comparison with other competing proposals. And if they accept your proposal, they will expect, within reason, for you to adhere to the conditions which you promised.

Planning and Writing Proposals

As The MIT Guide notes, some key issues in planning and writing proposals include:

  • thinking in terms of both how long it will take to write the proposal and how long it will take to do the work promised in the proposal
  • understanding the criteria by which the proposal will be evaluated
  • learning how the review process for the proposal works
  • making sure that you have the appropriate permissions to make the proposal
  • understanding the request for proposals if there is one to ensure that you are addressing their needs and requirements
  • using the requirements as an outline and a compliance matrix
  • developing a work plan and schedule to produce the proposal, leaving enough time for revision
  • preparing a style and format guide should one be needed

Proposal Contents

The MIT Guide‘s list of contents for a proposal found on pages 171-175 might seem intimidating, especially if you’re thinking in terms of the project proposal you’ll submit in a few weeks for this course. Keep in mind that the list The MIT Guide presents is seeking to be comprehensive, to address all the elements one might be expected to include in a formal comprehensive proposal such as one might submit when applying for a NSF grant. The actual contents of any specific proposal will differ depending upon what it is for, to whom it is being sent, whether it is formal or informal, etc. For instance, a 250-word conference presentation proposal submitted via an online form will likely consist of nothing but a summary or abstract in which you briefly explain your presentation.

For solicited proposals, the request for proposal itself will specify what they are expecting to find in your proposal. If the RFP does not make this explicit or you are submitting an unsolicited proposal, The MIT Guide‘s list is a good starting point from which to analyze your rhetorical situation and evaluate the need or expectation of each element.

Why We’ve Started with Rhetoric

About this time in the semester it’s natural to start wondering why we’ve spent so much time on rhetoric in a class on writing for sciences and technology, wondering why I’ve asked you to write a synthesis paper that argues for the importance of rhetoric in scientific and technical discourse, and wondering why we’re going to keep reading about how genres work even as we begin to explore some of the major genres of the scientific and technical workplace.

The purpose of these readings in the rhetoric of science and the work you put into the rhetoric of science essay is to help you develop a good understanding of how meaning — effective expression — is made in science and technical fields. If nothing else, I hope that what we’ve covered so far gives you a response to any professor who tells you that you should not use rhetoric in a scientific paper. 1) Really, when a professor tells you that you shouldn’t use rhetoric in a scientific paper what they mean but don’t have the language to explain is that you have not used rhetoric effectively enough in shaping your discourse for the task at hand. Ideally, readings such as Graves’s “Rhetoric, Knowledge, and ‘the Brute Facts of Nature'”; Campbell’s “The Polemical Mr. Darwin”; Gross’s “On the Shoulders of Giants”; and Gopen and Swan’s “The Science of Science Writing” have demonstrated that effective scientific and technical discourse is never arhetorical but is deliberately and consciously crafted in order to become effective expression: the intentionally shaped (invented) suasory use of symbols (including numbers, charts and graphs, and illustrations as well as spoken and written language), presented in a reasonable manner that is addressed to a particular audience for a specific purpose, to paraphrase Prelli.

We have spent a fair amount of time on this subject before diving into some of the major genres of the scientific and technical workplace precisely because there is an assumption that scientific and technical writing is arhetorical, and that all one needs to do is present the “brute facts of nature.” The failure of Newton’s “New Theory about Light and Colors” relied upon the brute facts of nature to make its case, and as we saw from our readings, Newton’s “New Theory about Light and Colors” had so little impact he had to repackage his ideas in a new publication. The difference between the failure of Newton’s “New Theory” and the success of his field-changing Opticks was not the ideas — Opticks is “New Theory” repackaged — but how he used (or failed to use) rhetoric well. Without understanding how rhetoric works, especially how rhetoric works within scientific and technical discourse, the best we can hope to do from looking at exemplar texts is to mimic them point for point, and if effective expression is indeed invented expression — shaped for specific context and audience at hand — then the strategy of mimicry is only so effective. You might be able to produce a sucessful NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant proposal by mimicking a sucessful NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant proposal, but you might not. The further afield your topic and the greater the difference in the purpose of your research, the less likely an arhetorical mimicking of that proposal will be effective.

The reason why we’ve started this course by exploring the rhetoric of science, and the reason why we’ll continue to explore genres as activity systems, rather than simply study model documents are write our own is give you the toolset required to understand the strategies and moves such examples make, to understand them not simply as examples of successful effective expression but to understand how they are crafted in response to a set of constraints such audience; situation; purpose; genre; accepted discourse practices of the audience and genre; the lines of reasoning and evidence the audience will find acceptable and reasonable for the given situation; etc.). I hope from our  readings so far that it is clear why Newton couldn’t have used Darwin’s On the Origins of the Species as a model for repackaging the ideas presented in his failed “New Theory about Light and Colors” (assuming Newton could have had access to Darwin’s book), or why Watson and Crick’s “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” isn’t going to serve as a model for your paper on inhibiting iron uptake in pathogens such as Bacillus anthracis. Sure, most of us have some innate understanding of this because we have all learned to communicate effectively, but how effectively could we explain the reasons in detail without a conceptual and practical understanding of rhetoric and its terminology? The purpose of the first third of this course is to give you a (consciously) conceptual understanding of rhetoric (and rhetoric of science in particular), a language in which to identify and describe to yourself and others this conceptual understanding, a basis from which to analyze model texts, and, most importantly, the ability to analyze and understand any given rhetorical situations so that you might put what you know into practice rather than find yourself a model text to mimic and hope it will work well enough. (Likewise, the purpose behind the Bazerman readings on genre is so that we can understand how to analyze a genre we’ve never used before as well as consider how we might be able to push at, play with, and otherwise manipulate a genre’s established conventions to better meet our specific needs.

For some of you, the rhetoric of science essay may very well be the last time you write something of its sort, although I doubt it. What I asked you to write was an argument intended to persuade an undergraduate such as yourself as to rhetoric’s importance to scientific and technical discourse. I asked you to writes such an argument because it’s a genre you all know even if you’re out of practice with it, and it’s a genre that requires you to synthesize and apply concepts you’ve just learned. However, if you recall our earliest lecture on rhetoric, you’ll remember that rhetoric is a meta-discipline, a “universal art” to quote Aristotle, or an “architectonic productive art” to quote McKeon, a subject that exists to help us make meaning and knowledge in other fields of study. That is, to keep repeating the same idea, while you will apply rhetoric differently when you write a NSF grant proposal, a job application letter, a progress report seeking to convince your boss not to kill your project even though you’re well over budget and well behind schedule, or the journal article that eventually wins you a Nobel Prize, you will be applying rhetoric. The principles used in your rhetoric of science essay are the same principles you will apply in each of these contexts.

And while I may be wrong in saying that it is unlikely that your rhetoric of science essay will be the last time you write such a piece, can any of you truly say that you do not ever expect to persuade someone about the importance of science? About the importance of your research and how it will benefit all of us? Or, at least, that it is worth the continued funding? Again, the while the occasion will be different, while the audience will be different, and while the facts and rhetorical strategies that you shall marshall will be different, the principles you use in order to determine your most effective means of producing effective expression will remain the same. And in each and every one of these occasions you can articulate your expression, effective or not, as an enthymeme. Whether you are writing a NSF grant, a conference proposal abstract, a progress report updating your funders or managers of your project’s progress, a letter to city hall in support of a STEM summer camp, opt even a new resume for a job, at the heart of each of these documents is an enthymeme.

Seriously, as you put your job application together, stop and think about the fact that your even your resume is a rhetorical act that relies upon an enthymeme which states: you, potential employer, should hire me because my experience listed here makes me a good fit for the job you wish to fill. An successful resume is an act of effective expression; it is, in short, an example of an intentionally shaped suasory use of symbols presented in a reasonable manner that is addressed to a particular audience for a specific purpose. The idea behind starting our course off as we have is that you should have a growing knowledge and ability to explain how and why a specific resume, grant proposal, progress report, or scientific article has successfully or unsuccessfully used rhetoric to achieve its ends and, more importantly, how you can apply your own knowledge of rhetoric in order to shape a resume, a grant proposal, a progress report, or a scientific article into an act of effective expression.

References   [ + ]

1. Really, when a professor tells you that you shouldn’t use rhetoric in a scientific paper what they mean but don’t have the language to explain is that you have not used rhetoric effectively enough in shaping your discourse for the task at hand.