I went to CPTSC for the first time this year, and I found the atmosphere collegial and the focus of the scholarship presented important. However, I was struck by something that I see as representative of a far larger problem, and that is the specialization of rhetorics of race, gender, and class. In other words, it seems that there are certain people who talk about (what we might call) rhetorics of Otherness, and they get to do that work only in certain, special places. The problem with this is that these rhetorics are (still!) Other; they are not “mainstream”; they are not always already assumed. They are marked, even at an inclusive and progressive conference like this one.
I’m working on my dissertation now, and one of my foundational arguments is that some technical communicators seem to believe that technical communication, as a discipline, has “done” gender. That is, I believe there is a prevailing feeling that we have dealt with femnism, that it is a finished and complete project, and that we should now move on. As you might have discerned from the tone of these last few sentences, I disagree. The reasons for my resistance to a “postfeminist” discipline are many (read my dissertation to learn more!), and they are not the subject of this post. Instead, imagine for a moment my consternation when I heard a prominent scholar in the field declare that “we had dealt with gender” during the conversation following a keynote panel. While I know this comment was made with good intentions (this person was, to be fair, discussing the ways in which the field has yet to address race), it nevertheless sticks in my head as a sign that there are a great many people who still do not think of feminist perspectives as absolutely integral to technical communication; rather, they see feminist practices and theories as a sort of extra, removable, superfluous part.
I’m reflecting on this now because CPTSC made this “specialization of Otherness” far more apparent (a pet concept of mine) than has any other conference I’ve ever been to. Plenary addresses by Miriam Williams, Flourice Richardson, Angela Haas, and Raeanne Madison placed the focus of the conference on the contributions of people (especially women) of color and on the ways in which STEM and technical communication programs still do not serve them. The panel I contributed to echoed and expanded this focus, and it was well-attended. On that panel, Jerry Savage, an outspoken advocate of inclusive practices and theories, attested to how much change he has seen in the profession during the years he has attended CPTSC. So, I’ll end the body of this post by saying that CPTSC was a wonderful experience that left me optimistic about the future of the field. But, that optimism does not–cannot, should not!–obscure the fact that a lot of work remains to be done.
Important notes and ideas from CPTSC 2012:
Angela Haas asked, “What would it look like if we revised our origin story” as a disipline to include treaties? “This troubles the engineering origin story” that we have so long taken as our own. Ultimately, we can believe engineering is a large part of our history without making it the only origin story we utilize. Haas suggests adopting a hypertextual history, a move that is tenable for our field precisely because its origin story is still contestable.
Responding to the conference theme, Raenne Madison asked what workplace means in different communities and how this changes the content we teach. If we are teaching memos as an example of workplace writing, how does this composing practice help someone who harvests wild rice in their workplace? What would it mean to change the STEM classroom to be more productive for these students? And what does “technical” mean in this context?
Flourice Richardson use a question to focus her talk: “What are you doing?” She asked program administrators, professors, and technical communicators to always be cognizant of what they are doing when they go about their daily tasks. By sharing some of her own research and how she came to it, she challenged listeners to always consider if what they are doing serves others, including those who might identify differently than the actor in question in terms of race, gender, class.
Kevin Garrison, Javier Medina, and Joe Erickson of Angelo State University gave a collaborative presentation on the results of implementing a usability testing lab. They contested understandings of the efficiency of such a lab, suggesting that we need to think of usability as something that can facilitate changes in user behavior as well as changes in design.
Speaking on activism and technology, Natasha Jones suggested that “what we understand about activism is rapidly changing” because of the potential of media that can promote social justice causes (and apparency). She discussed a project where she had students find an article on women’s rights and reproduction, then look at the rhetorical techniques it used. She also talked about collaboration with The Innocence Project” and pedagogical moves to help students “get ideas out efficiently.” (I love this use of the term efficiency, as it responds preemptively to the question “efficient for whom?” that I continuously ask in my dissertation.)
Han Yu previewed her forthcoming book by showing some images it discusses, and she asked a series of questions engaging issues of visuality: “Why do we have such a bad reaction when we see comics in technical communication?” Which visual competencies do we teach? And what rhetorical mindset about visual communication do we cultivate? How do we get students to consider and appreciate alternative visual practices?