Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Commentary on Carolyn Miller's "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing"

Dr. Kirk St.
Commentary Article Assignment


Something is not right in Carolyn Miller's 1979 groundbreaking and revolutionary article "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing." Something is out of tune. As Patrick Moore points out, Miller's article is "probably the most important article in the 1970s and 1980s that tries to legitimate the teaching of technical communication in English departments" (171). Elizabeth Overman Smith's 1997 examination of "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing" identified 68 references or intertextual connections within academic journals between the years 1979 and 1995 to Miller's article. Various critics have identified what they see as the broader goals of Miller's article. Moore believes Miller seeks to "create cultural capital in her English Department for the languages of technical communication and technical communication pedagogy"(175). Smith believes Miller's real question is epistemological: "How is knowledge created and recorded?" (193). Thus, Miller is seen by many as "rescuing professional writing [and technical communication] from positivist views of language" (Rentz 187). I will grant the significant influence Miller's article has had for the academic discipline of technical communication.

But I am going to take Miller at her word. Her article is rhetorically situated within a controversy inside her English Department. Within a department meeting, the question is raised: "whether students in our larger technological university should be permitted to take a technical writing course to satisfy humanities requirements" (48). She goes on to refine the question further: "But were we willing to argue, indeed, could we argue that technical writing has humanistic value?" (48). Despite the fact that the real question of allowing the sophomore technical writing class to replace the required sophomore literature class was already decided in the negative at her university, she continues with the argument as a kind of fiction we are drawn into. Could we make this same case at our school? Could Miller's "humanistic rationale" truly convince her original audience--other English department colleagues as well as the Dean or other academic council members? I will answer "no." Miller actually misjudges her audience rhetorically and makes a failed case for a "humanistic" rationale for technical writing.

The Reception of Miller's Article

One of the first responses to Miller's article reveals the way Miller misjudges the meaning of "humanistic" for many scholars and teachers within technical communication and English studies. Elizabeth Tebeaux in her March 1980 response within College English to Miller's article is blunt in her dismay. She believes adoption of Miller's idea would ruin technical writing and "makes technical writing just another English course" (822). She considers Miller's article to be a "treatise on the rhetorical philosophy of technical writing" that says little about the primary purpose of the class: "to prepare [students] for the kind of writing they will have to do in business and industry" (822). She believes the pedagogy implied by the article is inappropriate for an undergraduate technical writing class and states flatly that technical writing is not a course in the "theory of composition" (823). It is Tebeaux's use of the word "enculturation"—a key word at the end of Miller's article—that demonstrates the misunderstanding between these two scholars. For Tebeaux, enculturation is seen through the lens of English studies and how it is meant within English classes. She clearly sees enculturation in opposition to pragmatic things: "These kinds of assignments—the real writing of the real industrial world—have little to do with enculturation" (824). Literature is described by Tebeaux as the "stronghold of enculturation" where students learn a "great deal about human nature and communal values" (825). Technical writing, in Tebeaux's world view, is about "preparing students to write for the changing world of work" (825). It is practical and pragmatic in its orientation, as opposed to Literature's orientation which is decidedly not practical. Tebeaux foresees English teachers teaching the sophomore technical writing requirement as if it were a literature course where technical writing texts would be the object of study and analysis.

In Carolyn Miller's response to Tebeaux's article (published in the same March 1980 College English), she quickly corrects Tebeaux's misunderstanding of what the course would be like: "[the technical writing course] is not, as Professor Tebeaux implies, a course in rhetorical theory or ethics. It is a writing course that is informed by rhetorical theory" (825). In Miller's eyes the course won't be a survey of "Great Works" in technical communication—it is still about writing. However, it is plain that Miller uses the term "enculturation" differently than Tebeaux understands it:

If Professor Tebeaux had understood the point of my original essay, she could not have said that "the real writing of the real industrial world [has] little to do with enculturation." The culture that technical writing students must become acquainted with consists of the values, aims, and methods of the professional community they intend to enter. (826)

Tebeaux still sees this debate as being about whether the required sophomore literature course could be replaced by a technical writing course, and she fears the "enculturation" typical of literature courses taking over what she sees as the greater need of pragmatic work on writing skills for this class. Elizabeth Harris astutely picks up on Tebeaux's understanding of theory as connoting impractical speculation: "She appears to assume that theory, by definition, (like English professors) must be irrelevant to 'the real world'" (828). Although Harris offers an alternative definition of theory that points out the usefulness of theory "organizing and explaining what has been observed," she correctly reads how Tebeaux receives the term "theory" as well as enculturation—each is seen from the liberal arts tradition of humanism within the academy (maintained most stanchly within English departments) which from Tebeaux's perspective is worlds apart from the practical matters of technical writing.

A second common reception of Miller's article reveals how those in the technical communication field narrowly interpreted the meaning of humanistic. Patrick Miller in his article "Legitimizing Technical Communication in English Departments: Carolyn Miller's 'Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing'" charts out the almost syllogistic way in which rhetoric becomes the bridge of legitimacy for technical communication:

One of Miller's most important moves is to rhetoricalize technical communication. If literature is rhetoric, and many people believe that it is, then when technical communication is defined as rhetoric, it gains capital from the long, documented history of rhetoric … . If technical communication is rhetoric, it fits better in humanistic English departments." (175)

The problem with this equation is that few literary critics consider literature to be rhetoric, and many would consider something deeply wrong if the rhetorical became the most important thing about literature. The crux of my point is not to denigrate rhetoric or the way in which Miller did "rhetoricalize" technical writing. The focus needs to remain upon that sophomore literature requirement—could we make a case that a technical writing class would provide equivalent humanistic capital to justify replacing this sophomore literature requirement? By positioning rhetoric as the thing that provides humanistic capital to technical writing, Miller misses entirely what is at the heart of this literature requirement the class is supposed to replace: the poetic.

A Failed Case

It is my position that Carolyn Miller makes a failed case to suppose that the rhetorical within technical writing provides enough cultural and historical capital to consider the class "humanistic" in the same sense as a literature class. She sorely misreads her literature counterparts and the liberal heart within the core curriculum which grew from John Cardinal Henry Newman's "Idea of a University."

As Sharon Crowley charts out, the modern study of English as a subject didn't even begin until 1870 (58). Adam Sherman Hill, the Bolyston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard from 1876-1904, in many ways defined the relationship of rhetoric to English and Freshman Writing that persists to today. As Crowley points out, Hill was not aligned with the rhetorical tradition Miller invokes: "[he was aligned] with the Arnoldian tradition of liberal humanism, a tradition distinguished from its classical ancestor by its diminution of the rhetorical impulse and its reverence for the maintenance of the cultural standards exemplified in a textual tradition" (62-63). But as Marilyn Schaurer Samuels points out, Arnoldian humanism was only the latest ancestor in a long line of anti-rhetorical impulses in western thought that led to the partition of science and the humanities (what Stanley Fish called the separation of fact and fiction). Samuels summarizes this history: "the unfortunate compartmentalization of science and the humanities [was] perpetrated by the universalist abstractions of Neoclassicism and the positivist generalities of eighteenth-century science and further fueled by the Romantics' defensive withdrawal into individual expression" (50). It was Ramus, afterall, in the mid-16th century who split invention away from rhetoric and relegated rhetoric to issues of style. Evidence of Hill's truncated level of rhetorical sensibility can clearly be seen in his belief that the "foundations of rhetoric rest upon grammar" (qtd. in Crowley 63).

Elizabeth Harris in her own 1982 College English article, obviously intended to amplify Miller's humanistic rationale with a liberal arts twist, elaborates on this split between technical writing as a worldly, practical "language engineering" and literary criticism. Harris represents the view that "to perform dull writing tasks mechanically and thereby fit mindlessly into the institutions of industry and government… is a betrayal of the mission of literary criticism" (632). She points directly at Matthew Arnold's "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" to articulate that mission:

to know the best that is known and thought in the world and by, in its turn, making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas… to do this with inflexible honesty, with due ability; but … to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications. (qtd. in Harris 632)

The humanist tradition Arnold comes from has its roots in Plato and his belief in Truth (with a capital "T"), a realm of universal truths that is fixed and that we gain access to through contemplation and dialectic inquiry. Miller is obviously allied more with the Aristotelian tradition that relegates rhetoric to the realm of ideas and things that are uncertain and in flux. The liberal arts and humanism revered by Mathew Arnold that formed the center of English Studies looked to great texts as vessels of culture and value, of the great Platonic truths. And it was the power of the Poetic—not rhetoric—that communicated these truths. Crowley recounts James Morgan Hart's speech at the first meeting of the Modern Language Association in 1884 where he condemns rhetoric:

Rhetoric always savors to me of the school-bench. It is, if we look into it scrutinizingly, little more than verbal jugglery. …The proper object of literary study, in one word, is to train us to read, to grasp an author's personality in all its bearings. And the less rhetoric here, the better. (qtd. in Crowley 83).

The philosophical romanticism of disinterestedness, the pose of the literary critic toward the world, represented a "distaste for popular or mass culture (Huyssen), but it can be read as a rejection of the rhetorical impulse as well" (Crowley 83). William Spanos believes this humanist impulse persists into our modern time: "modern humanism continually rehearses Arnold's gesture because humanists desire to establish a fixed center, a 'metaphysical space'" where the critic is in touch with these pure truths unbothered by worldly distraction (Crowley 84). "Enculturation," then, from this humanist tradition has little or nothing to do with rhetoric, but has everything to do with one's reading: "the ability to express oneself is the sign of the quality of one's reading, a sort of guarantee that one is acquainted with 'the best that has been thought and said,' to use Arnold's famous phrase. In this formulation the ability to express oneself is not as important as intellectual cultivation; it is the fact of being well-read that counts" (84). The subject matter of technical writing can hardly be considered as a substitute for "the best that has been thought and said."

An examination of one other critic's attempt to provide a humanistic rationale for technical writing will shed further light on Miller's failed case. Russell Rutter (in another article published in College English (1985) entitled "Poetry, Imagination, and Technical Writing") presents the poetic rationale for technical writing that Miller perhaps could have adopted. If the audience of English scholars is adverse to rhetoric, one might think that a firmer case can be made on poetic grounds. Rutter argues that technical writing, too, is an "imaginative, creative, and thus poetic endeavor" (700). The technical writer, in his view, works at "shaping and synthesizing the inchoate stuff of experience into reports designed to inform and enlighten and identified audience, and thus [he is] engaging in a fundamentally poetic process" (705). However, this argument is flawed on two grounds. Rutter himself states the first problem in his argument: "Literary study does not, of course, teach us how to create good poems, but it shows us that people who have created good poems have relied on something more than the transcription of raw data—intuition, imagination, selection, shaping, and so on" (699). The fundamental flaw in Rutter's argument is that literary study is about reading, while technical writing is about writing. One focuses more on the interpretation of great texts; the other focuses on the production of efficient and usable documents. To follow Rutter's argument, then, the sophomore creative writing class would be sufficient to replace the required sophomore literature class (which has not happened anywhere to my knowledge). Joseph Harris in a response to Rutter's article points out the second flaw in Rutter's humanistic rationale for technical writing: "I agree with Rutter that tech writing, like all writing, is at heart creative. But I don't see how that alone makes it particularly poetic" (741). Great literature deals with the deepest truths about the human spirit and human experience: as the "poetic," it touches Truth in a universal, Platonic sense. While science may also deal with truth, this truth does not rise to the same level as the humanist truths contained in literature since these truths concern physical matter—not the human spirit.

Final Considerations

By appealing to rhetoric as the humanistic agent to give value to technical writing, Carolyn Miller appeals to a warrant that her English department colleagues would neither understand or be swayed by. Indeed, the entire framing of her argument as a fictional debate within her English Department seems tacked on. We see her mention her department debate only in the first two paragraphs at the beginning and the last paragraph at the end. However, this close examination of Miller's failed rhetoric toward her fictional audience shed's light on the rhetorical genius of the piece toward her real audience.

It seems clear that Miller's real audience is not fellow English literature teachers in her department, nor is the real issue about whether to replace the sophomore literature requirement with a technical writing class. Her real audience is other technical writing instructors and scholars. English Studies and technical writing represented something akin to two different political parties. By invoking the contested dynamic between English studies and technical communication, she rallies those in her "party" behind a cause everyone in technical communication could agree on—gain equal (or superior) status as the other "party" (English Studies. Once she has gained her audiences alliance in this "fight," she proceeds to detail her version of technical communication's true nature as a "humanistic"1 endeavor by linking it to the 2500 year old rhetorical tradition and postmodern epistemological thinking--and in this fight, she wins and transforms how technical communication sees itself.

Notes Page

1. Miller may in fact be taking "humanistic" as a term from the field of Speech Communication which uses it to refer to the rhetorical aspects of its field of study (social-scientific being the other). In this way, she may be attempting to infuse notions of rhetoric taken from Speech Communication into technical communication.

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