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Bridging the gap between cultural studies theory and the world of the working practitioner

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J.S. 2007. Bridging the gap between cultural studies theory and the world of the working practitioner. KnowGenesis International Journal for Technical Communication 2(3):14–31. <>


Cultural studies is an academic field that focuses on understanding the unchallenged assumptions that constrain and shape communication and related interactions among people. Although the field has made considerable progress in the last half-century, many practitioners have either never encountered the field, or have encountered it only through extremist advocates who do the field a great disservice. As a result, they have lost the ability to benefit from the insights provided by cultural studies. In this paper, I review the recent book Critical Power Tools to provide an update on the current thinking in the field, and to demonstrate how the modern form of the field has much to teach technical communications practitioners who are willing to listen to what the theoreticians have to say.


Despite being one of those ridiculously pragmatic practitioners who spends most of my day doing (writing, editing, and translating) rather than thinking about what I'm doing, I make a conscious effort to keep up with the theoretical side of our profession. It's good mental exercise, and I frequently learn something new that can help me do my job better. That possibility was what first attracted me to the book Critical Power Tools (Scott et al. 2006a): I've done a bit of reading over the years about how culture affects the way we think and communicate, and I was eager to learn more. When I was given the opportunity to write a book review for STC, I eagerly accepted (Hart 2008).

Good intentions notwithstanding, I soon began to fear I was in overly deep waters. Only a few pages into the Foreword, I encountered the word heteronormative used as a throwaway joke, with nary an explanation of its meaning, and it took a bit of research to track down the meaning. (Briefly: that societies tend to assume that humans are neatly divided into male and female identities, therefore ignoring the much more interesting complexity of human sexual identity and its implication.) Having to research what the authors considered a term not worth defining wasn't the most auspicious start. The Introduction didn't ease my fears, and that's a shame; if you're less stubborn than I am, you might stop reading too soon and miss some very important knowledge indeed.

In this paper, I'll explain why this book should be important to you whether you're a practitioner like me, or a university professor or student of technical communication. My goal will be to frame this paper in the form of a book review, with an emphasis on providing a portrait of the state of modern cultural studies, but I'll go beyond simply telling you what the contributors had to say; instead, I'll build on what they said and try to illustrate how the book is relevant to more than just the academic community. Understanding audiences—what technical communicators refer to as audience analysis—is a key factor that determines whether we can write for them successfully. The importance of cultural studies is that it can help us understand our many and diverse audiences—but equally importantly, it can help us understand ourselves, and how our own assumptions can undermine our attempt to communicate.

What is cultural studies?

Those who aren't already among the illuminati may wonder: So what is cultural studies? Simplistically, you can think of it as a theoretical framework for considering not just the effectiveness of communication, but also the larger cultural context in which communication takes place and how that context shapes the communication. Here, "cultural" means more than just the broad sense of culture (e.g., Asia versus the West); it also encompasses culture at many smaller scales, whether those of professions (e.g., software development versus technical communication), of industries (e.g., medicine versus banking), of organizations (e.g., Apple versus Microsoft), of hierarchies within organizations (e.g., senior management versus secretarial staff), and of groups of like-minded individuals (e.g., the Society for Technical Communication versus the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Professional Communication Society). It can include aspects related to religion, sexual identity, age group, and minority status. In short, culture represents the summation of all the human knowledge and formalized interactions that shape who we are, what we thnk, how we think it, and the constraints that arise from this sense of identity and of our relationship to others.

Because of the influence of what we've learned from our culture and how that culture shapes the way we think and communicate, cultural studies asks us to question what we're doing, why we're doing it, and whether that reason is adequate. Sometimes the "received wisdom" we use to tell us what we should be doing no longer matches the changing conditions that surround us—a particular concern given the accelerating rate of change in modern society. Cultural studies also asks us to question whether an action is ethical. In many cases, our acts of communication seem ethically neutral, such as documenting the Print dialog box to help users of a word processor produce printed output. In other cases, there are clearer ethical concerns, such as revising a laboratory report to make a new drug seem safer and more effective than it really is or changing the wording of oppressive and unethical legislation to make it easier to understand. Even in the simpler of these two cases, there may be ethical issues we haven't considered. Would it be better to encourage readers to produce a PDF rather than wastefully generating paper? Should we spend time teaching readers how to use the software's tools to proofread and revise their manuscript, thereby reducing the risk of having to reprint the manuscript to correct easily avoidable errors? But in the more complex example, we encounter the serious challenge of deciding what to do when our actions are unethical (promoting ethically questionable legislation rather than trying to change it).

These issues appear eminently sensible and worthy of our attention, but we practitioners often only hear only of the extremist form of cultural studies, in which effective communication is considered somewhat trivial (a purely mechanical exercise in writing), and sometimes even actively unethical, because it protects or preserves the status quo or robs us of the opportunity to think about what we're doing because the higher goal must always be to efficiently produce page after page of documentation. This flavor of cultural studies often has valid points to make, but may turn practitioners away from hearing them because we're made uncomfortable by the theorist's obsession over power relations. I found it initially uncomfortable reading words such as hegemony being used to paint the context for our work as a situation in which communication is imposed by powerful and implicitly unethical forces on powerless and implicitly victimized users of that information. Depending on the particular flavor of cultural studies espoused by a given theorist, the hegemony may be seen from the perspective of Marxist, feminist, subjectivist, or Western cultural imperialist theories. Each perceives a different species of demon lying at the root of all problems—capitalists, men, scientists, and the civilizations of the West, respectively. In this Manichaean worldview, communication is about preserving power by denying information to an audience or denying legitimacy to recipients of such information as we choose to communicate.

Seen from this perspective, cultural studies seems incomprehensible (indeed, nonsensical) to many practitioners, who see ourselves as user advocates and as the primary conduit for ensuring that information producers successfully communicate with information consumers. It's that somewhat limited perspective that makes cultural studies so intriguing: yes, the extremists ignore the importance of what we practitioners do and our desire to do it on behalf of our audience, but they've got a good point when they accuse us of thinking no further than simply producing effective documentation. More nuanced views of cultural studies see power as a more slippery concept that is more diffuse (less one-sided), and interpret power in less dogmatic and doctrinaire ways that explore the crucial interactions between information producers and consumers as they negotiate the path towards mutual comprehension. That mutual comprehension is important: it's much harder to trivialize someone and stop paying attention to their needs and opinions when you make an effort to understand where they're coming from, and recognize that they have their own problems.

The "studies" part of cultural studies may also appear, at first glance, to be something of a misnomer, since its devotees go far beyond simple study to advocate an activist, anti–status quo stance that promotes social action in aid of making the status quo more egalitarian and democratic. This stance begins with criticism, which is the ask of asking why things are they way they are, and continues with ethical action, in which the practitioner strives to see how things could be changed for the better. As a result, cultural studies sometimes risks falling into the normative trap of discussing how the world should be, thereby ignoring the world as it is or as it realistically could be. "That's all very well," a typical theory-averse practitioner will then note, "but I live in the real world, and what you're saying has no relevance to the world in which I live and work." That's where the dialogue between cultural studies and technical communication breaks down.

This brief portrait of cultural studies is necessarily shallow and concise. If you haven't previously made an effort to understand these aspects of the field, possibly because you've been scared away by encountering some of its more rabid extremists, you've missed some interesting things. As you'll discover by reading Critical Power Tools, cultural studies has been ill-served by its extremist advocates. The core focus of cultural studies is about criticism—asking why things are as they are, and whether and how they should be or could be changed. As you'll see over the course of this paper, many of the criticisms that cultural studies raises against the way that technical communicators work are valid—indeed, have been long recognized as important by many practitioners, even when we couldn't figure out how to articulate their importance. Several contributors to the book note that criticism should only be the first step, and should be followed by ethical action, and this book provides many insights into how this might be accomplished.

In this paper, I'll avoid the more egregious excesses of cultural studies theory in an effort to persuade you of two things: first, that this field of study is truly relevant even to the most pragmatic practitioner (indeed, that it may be "critical"); second, that most of the authors who have contributed chapters to Critical Power Tools are far more reasonable than the extremist stereotype might have led you to expect, and that even those who lose sight of the higher goal are still worth listening to. Both points suggest the possibility for important gains for all of us, whether practioner or academic, if we can only find a way to enter into a mutually respectful dialogue.

A difficult introduction

The editors of Critical Power Tools define the central question that shaped their agenda as follows (Scott et al. 2006b; p. 1): "How can reviewing technical communication pedagogy, research methods, and theoretical concepts through a cultural studies lens enhance our work and that of our students?" It's on this basis that the book should be primarily judged, but I'll go beyond that criterion to discuss the book from the perspective of those of us who work outside the academy. That is, rather than trying only to elucidate the finer points of cultural studies for theoreticians who already understand these points better than I do, I will try to show you how cultural studies is relevant (in fact, critically important) to practitioners too. In particular, I will note an important and clearly relevant purpose of the criticism proposed by cultural studies: that we must somehow find time to challenge our working assumptions. Those assumptions may well be correct, but if we continue to act upon them when they're not, we lose an opportunity to correct our misperception and improve the success of our communication.

Practitioners get off to a difficult and potentially offputting start with the Introduction by J. Blake Scott, Bernadette Longo, and Katherine Wills—a jargon-heavy text that challenges the practitioner with statements such as the following: "In most cases, people were responding to technical communication's still largely uncritical, pragmatic orientation..." (p. 1). Implicit in this statement is the notion that pragmatism is somehow wrong—a notion guaranteed to raise the ire of any practitioner. That obscures the larger point, which is that pragmatism can all too easily become hyperpragmatism, in which actions become reflexive—here, meaning "done without thought" rather than "based on careful reflection". The authors decry the "hegemonic ideology and set of practices that privileges utilitarian efficiency and effectiveness, including rhetorical effectiveness, at the expense of sustained reflection, critique, or ethical action" (p. 9) (i.e., the hyperpragmatism) that is believed to afflict our profession. Theorists thus advocate (unrealistically to anyone who's worked in the highly constrained workplace that lies beyond the academy) that we should strive for social change rather than focusing exclusively on the effectiveness of our communication: "we and our students must be virtuous citizens who ask critical questions for a sustainable democracy" (p. 1).

Granted, this book is not written for practitioners; its primary audience is academics and their students, and it speaks to them in their own jargon. Nonetheless, this kind of language is likely to be sufficiently offputting to a typical practitioner that few will read beyond this point; some I've talked to may even fling the book across the room. For those who find themselves reacting strongly and emotionally to these statements, as I initially did, I recommend skipping the Introduction and the first section of the book (entitled Theory), at least for now, and moving ahead to the rest of the book, where you'll be treated to chapters that speak more directly to the working communicator, albeit through an occasionally thick screen of jargon. Then return to the early sections, because (as you'll see in the rest of my review of this book), they do have interesting and useful things to say once you've grown accustomed to the language and convinced yourself to make the effort to ask what the authors are really trying to say.

For example, the Introduction provides a good criticism of early technical communication's emphasis on purely utilitarian and pragmatic goals at the expense of ethics and audience needs: "As we're defining it, hyperpragmatism is a hegemonic ideology and set of practices that privileges utilitarian efficiency and effectiveness, including rhetorical effectiveness, at the expense of sustained reflection, critique, or ethical action" (p. 9). The danger is that "the transformative potential of more robust rhetorical/social approaches can be squelched all too easily by hyperpragmatism" (p. 9). Thinking about this, I came to understand what the authors were saying—that if we focus too narrowly on the task of simply communicating, we lose the opportunity to think about what we're doing and (where this is possible) strive to change our actions for the better. That understanding kept me reading, and I'm glad I did.

It's a sad truth that few of us spend any time pondering the wider implications of our work, and it's here that the authors' criticism of hyperpragmatism raises a valid point. Cultural studies has much to teach us about the limitations of our conventional approach to technical communication: one of the primary axioms of cultural studies, irrespective of the theorist's preferred dogma, is that we must identify, examine, and challenge our assumptions. A primary goal of this book is thus to complement the pragmatism required to perform our jobs, not to enhance or supplant that pragmatism. Returning for a moment to the notion of who controls information (hegemony), the authors' ask us to confront the notion of legitimation: those who create and disseminate knowledge provide it with legitimacy that knowledge created by others may lack. If hegemony sounds like an abstract concept that has little relevance to our work, that's because it sometimes hides right beneath our eyes. I would say that we practitioners encounter hegemony whenever we confront unusable products that we must nonetheless strive to document: clearly, the designers of the products did not consider the knowledge of those who must use the product legitimate because if they had, they would have designed the product to accommodate those users. When we identify the problem and ask for changes, we then encounter hegemony whenever our requests for change are denied or delayed. As these examples illustrate, it's often productive to ask ourselves who benefits from a particular form of legitimated knowledge and whose knowledge is being delegitimated or deprecated. Answering this question can reveal things we were formerly unaware of and lead us to insights on how our communication skills can be applied to solve the problem.

For those already familiar with the language of cultural studies, the Introduction provides a nice overview of where we've come from and where we are now. For a persistent newcomer to the field, the Introduction provides a difficult but eventually readable discussion of the evolution and historical background of modern cultural studies and of the major cultural studies traditions, and provides useful context for what lies ahead. (It succeeds less well at defining the key concepts and terms. The reading will be much easier if you already know some of the philosophy and jargon of cultural studies, but as I noted earlier, I'm aiming this paper at practitioners, not academics.) If you want to learn a bit more about the field and its various theoretical roots from a different perspective, the Wikipedia provides a useful summary.

So: What can we learn from cultural studies?

The true meaning of author(ity)

In Chapter 1 (Slack et al. 2006), Jennifer Slack, David Miller, and Jeffrey Doak ask whether communicators are only invisible conduits for information (the old view), translators of information between people such as subject-matter experts who nominally create knowledge and those who read about it (a more nuanced modern view), or true authors, who create new meaning from existing information and thus alter the power dynamics purported to shape all communication. To them, it is this act of creation that defines an author, and that raises us above mere conduits or translators. In initially resisted this thought, because I found that this view implicitly devalues the importance of translation. Those of us who actually work as translators understand, as those who do not work in this field often fail to understand, just how difficult and demanding the work can be, and how the best translations truly represent works of original creation, not trivial imitations of someone else's work in different words. But it's also undeniable that many of those who employ translators don't understand the difficulty and importance of our work, and that leads us to the heart of this chapter.

In many cases, technical communicators truly do nothing more than pass along meaning created by others, as in the case when we uncritically document an unusable or inferior software interface. The authors note, with considerable justice, that so long as we are perceived in this manner, we have no power and no status in the workplace. In contrast, when we become true user advocates, and strive to shape both the message's content and its nature, we become more nearly equal to those on whose behalf we communicate. Interestingly, I see this point as paralleling the modern flowering of technical communication into fields such as user interface design and usability testing, both of which earn us power and our own voice in the dialogue between a product's designers and the product's users.

The problem with being nothing more than conduits for information is that we fall into the trap of perpetuating power games: "The sender [of information] has power when the receiver behaves in the intended manner" (p. 29). Yet although this can certainly be true in forms of communication such as marketing and the creation of policies and procedures manuals, I see this statement as relying on the unchallenged assumption that the sole goal of communication is to shape user behavior in a way that preserves the producer's power over the consumer of the information. This is certainly true of political propaganda, but it's much less clear tome that this is universally or even broadly true of technical communication. Most practitioners believe that our goal is to share information and empower users, not to preserve power in the hands of our employers so as to constrain users and limit their power. Indeed, our goal is to give users agency—the ability to act and shape their own world to some extent within the constraints imposed by their workplace and often within a narrowly defined communication context. As we'll see later in this paper, the problem lies in what we are empowering users to do: the authors of this chapter lead us to wonder whether this what the users really want or need to do?

Another problem with the authors' statement lies in accepting a universal dictum that communication is about power instead of questioning (criticizing) that assumption by asking two important questions that are central to cultural studies: What is the goal of this communication? Is that an ethical goal? The authors also assume that power is inherently adversarial and unfair: "Communication is thus an ongoing struggle for power, unevenly balanced towards encoding" (p. 34). Though it's certainly true that we seldom allow our audience to tell us what information to "encode" and how to do so, claiming that the resulting communication results from a power struggle is clearly an overly simplistic and cynical attitude. Sometimes the goal of power, as in the hands of a skilled communicator, is to ensure that two people understand each other. If cultural studies privileges consensus and the consideration of all viewpoints and needs, then surely this form of power must be seen as a good thing?

All productive dialogue must commence with understanding, and that's where I see technical communicators playing an important ethical role even when we function "only" as translators. Sometimes, as in the case of international relations, the role of the translator may be every bit as important as the roles of those who employ the translator. That's particularly true when translation becomes interpretation, and the communicator's goal is to ensure that both the speaker and the listener understand each other and continue their dialogue. This is where the larger point the authors raise in this chapter remains important: it is only when we become authors that we have true power to promote dialogue and understanding between the producers and users of information.

Extreme usability?

In Chapter 2 (Dilger 2006), Bradley Dilger points out "the inequitable distribution of power built into most technology and communication" (p. 49), a statement that might startle those of us who appreciate the empowerment provided by technology and see it as a liberating force in our lives. This chapter unfortunately reveals a commonality of belief with the many authors who believe that the legacy of the industrial revolution has been primarily to make each of us cogs in some vast capitalist machine, with efficiency and productivity ruling over all else. This extends to even seemingly benign fields such as usability. As the author notes  (p. 52): "The ideology of ease of use assures the novice user that the concomitant loss in power and agency [the ability to act on their own volition] is insignificant".

To me, this approach clearly mistakes the work environment and culture for the tools being used in that context—that is, it assumes the problem lies in the tools rather than how they're being used—which is a puzzling misapprehension. Yet there's something important and subtle here that you might miss if you stopped only with the initial puzzlement provoked by this confusion of context and tools. Dilger uses that starting point to address the problem of "extreme" usability, which he defines as the notions perpetrated by self-appointed usability gurus who emphasize expediency and simplicity and the application of rote "best practices" rather than a more nuanced, flexible, human-centered view of usability. The problem with extreme usability, as Dilger demonstrates, is that it focuses on making the tool easier to use rather than on subordinating the tool to the needs of the user. That's a subtle but important difference: a highly usable piece of software may actually be useless if the things that it does well aren't important to its user. In focusing on improving the software alone, and not on the users, Dilger's extreme usability inevitably subordinates the user to the technology, which is a particular problem when the technology's goals are fixed with little consideration of the needs of its users. In that sense, extreme usability becomes a quest to facilitate attainment of the designer's goals rather than an attempt to create a technology that responds to and supports the user's true needs.

My impression of our field is that modern technical communicators are less likely to fall into this trap because we are increasingly being reminded of the need for audience analysis and the need to consider the audience's context. Indeed, luminaries such as Alan Cooper reverse the extreme usability paradigm; Cooper's approach to design, typified in The Inmates Are Running The Asylum (Cooper 2004), defines product design as a process that starts with the user's needs rather than retroactively trying to reshape a product designed primarily with the designer's goals in mind to meet the very different set of needs of its eventual users. Nonetheless, even when a product category such as cell phones seems to meet our needs, we often miss some of the subtle or not-so-subtle costs of the technology. I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's 1953 short story The Murderer, in which what started out as a convenience (essentially, a cell phone) soon became a powerful agent for conformity: in Bradbury's distopia, those who chose not to be available 24/7 through their cell phones were perceived as insane by the rest of society, and were forced to conform.

Technical communicators who deal with the challenge of documenting technology often end up with a defeatist (if sometimes realistic) attitude that we cannot change the status quo, and surrender rather than striving to propose, advocate for, and facilitate change. The insight of cultural studies is that we should always try, and Dilger illustrates why. With the growing high profile of usability and user-centered design, and the increasing involvement of technical communicators in usability testing, we suddenly have a chance to do more than try: by becoming the link between user and producer, we can ensure that the user's voice is heard and has an influence on product design.

E-mail: friend or foe?

In Chapter 3 (Moses and Katz 2006), Myra Moses and Steven Katz build on Dilger's argument in Chapter 2 by addressing the problem of power and influence using e-mail as an example. They start with the familiar observation of how e-mail is simultaneously a very bad thing and a good thing. On the "bad" side, e-mail creates more work for many of us and conforms with a monolithic, productivity-oriented capitalist philosophy in which efficiency is the primary goal. On the "good" side, they illustrate how e-mail can be inherently more egalitarian, in part because the central cultural conceit of e-mail is that everyone can communicate on an equal basis.

However, the authors come down much more strongly on the negative side of e-mail. Although some believe that people can use technology such as e-mail to maintain boundaries between work and personal life, or cross those boundaries when it seems appropriate, the authors argue "that no such choice seems to exist in e-mail" (p. 77). In addition, "the focus is on productivity; improved general communication is really a spinoff". Unfortunately, this focus on the negative enlists only the subset of reality that supports their thesis, ignoring several inconvenient truths: that many people in the workplace use e-mail as a way to relieve their stress (e.g., by sharing jokes), that more people use e-mail at home or school than at work (usually for tasks that would not be considered productive from a capitalist point of view), and that e-mail greatly enriches many lives by allowing personal contacts across borders and time zones. The freedom I have to work as a freelancer would not be possible without e-mail. In addition, we each have many tools for filtering mail, and except for a very few people who have become addicted to the technology, most of us have the free will to ignore any mail that we don't consider sufficiently important to answer immediately.

More importantly, by focusing exclusively on the dark side of e-mail, the authors ignore the fact that this so-called "spinoff" is most often an example of people attaining agency rather than being forced into passivity, although there are admittedly tradeoffs involved in obtaining this agency. As well, e-mail has its origins farther back than the authors seem to realize, and had a very different origin than they seem to believe. I'm old enough to remember using software such as the original Fidonet BBS ("bulletin board system") to communicate with people around the world. In this system, which used dial-up connections and the public telephone system as its underlying technology, e-mail was inherently a tool for subverting hierarchies and technology for purposes their designers and providers never intended, thereby empowering the user. The argument put forward by the authors runs straight off the rails when they invoke HotMail to demonstrate the power of ideology and the illusion of control: though it's certainly true that we don't control Microsoft or have any significant influence on their design decisions, we have many alternatives (Yahoo, Google, etc.) if we don't like how Microsoft runs their e-mail service, and many of us take advantage of those alternatives.

In demonizing capitalism, which is fashionable among the many devotees of a certain school of cultural studies, the authors ignore its greatest strength: that it generates such alternatives. Even the most powerful capitalist organizations cannot prevent the emergence of competitors when they stop responding to the needs of their users. For proof, look no farther than the increasingly credible challenge being posed to Microsoft's core products (Windows and Office) by free alternatives (Linux and OpenOffice, respectively).

Cultural studies and technical communication research

In Chapter 4 (Longo 2006), Bernadette Longo sets out to redefine the research agenda for technical communication. She starts with a statement that will strike many practitioners as odd at first glance (p. 111): "[Technical communication] can also be seen as a... practice working to legitimate some types of knowledge while marginalizing other possible knowledges". Isn't our goal to help our audience find and use information rather than to censor information so that they only understand what we want them to understand?

Yet Longo uses this statement to introduce an important point that any practitioner should recognize: whenever we're denied access to SMEs (subject-matter experts) or not listened to when we try to act as user advocates, our knowledge is being delegitimized by the culture of our employer. Longo carries the point further by demonstrating how history and culture affect communication, and how clear communication is not always enough, through a discussion of one of the neglected sides of the Challenger disaster (p. 114): that the decision to launch may have been dominated by economic considerations (the need to launch the shuttle so as to prove the engines are reliable, thereby securing additional contracts). Longo's evidence is convincing, yet seen from the technical communicator's standpoint, the same example may demonstrate a very different point: that clear communication centered on an understanding of the audience for that communication and the constraints that govern their behavior would have avoided the disaster. To me, it's hard to imagine how any manager could have ignored the following message: "If you launch the shuttle tomorrow, you not only run a high risk of killing the astronauts, but an even higher risk of losing crucial future business by demonstrating that our products are unreliable".

But the theorist's cultural studies critique and my practitioner's critique are not so irreconcilable as they may seem. Longo's example clearly demonstrates how the manager's knowledge was legitimated while that of the engineers was delegitimated and thus not heard as a result of power struggles over competing priorities; my example reveals how understanding the audience who will receive the message might have allowed a skilled communicator to shape the message in such a way as to ensure that it was heard. It is the latter point that reveals when cultural studies can be crucially important: by understanding the corporate culture of Morton Thiokol and the constraints faced by their managers, the engineers (suitably aided by a skilled communicator) might have expressed themselves in such a way as to prevent the disaster. This is, of course, speculation on my part, but it seems to be reasonable speculation. The art of rhetoric (understanding what will prove to be persuasive to an audience) is one in which the best technical communicators excel.

To me, this reconciliation of Longo's perspective with my own suggests an exciting possibility: by understanding the speaker, their audience, and the context that constrains both, technical communicators can become important facilitators of understanding and can potentially transform dominance games between powerful individuals into opportunities for seeking consensus. Those who denigrate our role as "mere" translators of information ignore the far more important role that translators can play: ensuring understanding between two or more very different cultures. In this sense, the ethical communicator can embrace the activism proposed by cultural studies and strive to make a difference by ensuring that all voices are heard. In the Challenger example, the voices of the engineers, of the astronauts, and of the potential future customers of Morton Thiokol's products were not heard. In the absence of those voices, tragedy was perhaps inevitable. True equality is unlikely given the prevailing power structures that exist in our society, but in many cases we can at least attempt to shift the balance in the right direction.

Longo also introduces Foucault's challenge: to ask why one statement appears instead of another competing statement. Sometimes the answer is obvious: 1 + 1 = 2 because no other answer is correct. But pace the scientists, not all situations are this simple. Other questions may be more important, as in the case when this seemingly simple mathematical addition actually represents the combined efforts of two humans, and the answer is not two humans but rather a synergy larger than the sum of their parts.

Cultural studies sometimes errs in assuming that the order in which phrases are linked is arbitrary and defined by prevailing cultural context. In fact, this ignores the important point that some relationships are causal and contingent (dependent), and that the sequence is arbitrary because no other sequence would work: your computer will not work until you plug in the power cord. However, Longo shows that we practitioners err if we carry that logic too far, because we ignore an equally compelling fact—that outside certain relatively black and white situations, the logic isn't so simple. It's useful to ask why a particular word or word order was chosen and whether other orders might be equally valid. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not, but we won't know which is the case if we don't ask. I've seen this issue arise in my own computer documentation when I decide in what order to present topics; recognizing that this imposes my approach on the users of my documentation, I try to present the options in such a way as to help readers choose their own path through what I've written. I do this by asking how they might want to access the information I create, and by designing to support that approach. Understanding that such questions are important will often reveal more interesting answers than the ones we assume by force of habit.

Longo reframes the design of technical communications research as an abandonment of the standard, stereotyped solutions of conventional quantitative research in favor of a reexamination of the unique context for communication that exists in each new study. One profound insight I gained from this chapter was the reminder that not everything can or should be quantified, and that attempting to understand some of the unquantifiables can provide keen insights into the purpose, nature, and constraints of communication. This opening of our eyes permits serendipity and new discoveries in a way that becomes much more difficult when we work with unchallenged assumptions, such as the fact that anything important can be quantified.

Longo notes that in this context, the goal of framing a research question clearly becomes how to identify the nature of the discourse between legitimated and delegitimated ideas, consider the current cultural context and historical origins of the discourse, determine the factors leading to the order of thoughts in the communication, and examine the researcher's relationship with the object of study (p. 124). Since I was trained as a scientist, I understand and value the goals of objectivity and quantification in research. But when we attempt to transfer the scientific method to humans, Longo shows that we must account for the inevitable subjectivity that arises from our own preconceptions, the conceptions of the people we are studying, and the interactions among these various perceptions.

Institutions as context

In Chapter 5 (Britt 2006), Elizabeth Britt introduces the concept of an institution, thereby making concrete something that has been largely theoretical to this point in the book: the notion that all text exists within a context. In this chapter, that context is an institution—something that transcends the organization to include the larger context within which that organization functions. This can be seen by way of example: the profession of doctor exists within an organization such as the hospital, but hospitals and doctors both function within the larger context of the institution of Western medicine. Institutions evolve a sense of natural order reflected in phrases such as an institutionalized process. This context becomes one in which a large number of things are simply taken for granted, as reflected in the phrase this is how things have always been done. Institutions then evolve narratives that justify this status quo and teach it to those who must live and work within that status quo, a process referred to as enculturation or acculturation.

The problem with such an approach, Britt points out, is that what seems like common sense may be neither as common nor as sensible as it seems. When I have taught editing, I frequently unconsciously echoed her sentiment by explaining how one of the greatest strengths an editor can provide is the ability to challenge assumptions: we understand better than most writers that each of us has assumptions, and that these assumptions are not always shared with others. Understanding this, we can ask the inobvious question of what those assumptions are, and whether they are valid and justifiable in the context of a particular communication task. As Britt notes (p. 137): "Analyzing discourse as situated within institutions means interrogating how knowledge-making practices, ontological assumptions, and implicit values shape the reception or production of discourse. It also means examining how discourse functions (rhetorically and materially) within and between institutions." Her second sentence raises the interesting point that different institutions interact at levels above the organizational level, witness the relationships between health insurance, medical science, law, and personal finance in the institution of Western medicine.

Interestingly, Britt takes something of a step back from the assumption that cultural studies must be activist, offering the first refreshing sense in this book (followed by other authors later in the book) that pragmatism can also be important (p. 148): "Such an interventionist stance may make sense when the changes needed are clear and when the researcher is in a position to enact change. But I disagree with the assertion that work that does not enact change cannot count as critique. Work that analyzes and explains cultural processes (but stops short of intervention) need not take an accommodating stance. In fact, careful critical analysis is a necessary pre-requisite to any meaningful change."

To embody that approach, she examines the institution of insurance with a focus on rejection letters written by disability insurance agents. Insurance, as an institution, crystallizes our social perception of risk and what can or should be done about it. In this sense, it represents collective agreements among the insured (those who purchase insurance) and between the insured and the insurer about what constitutes risk, what comprises acceptable behavior within that context, and what happens when risk becomes actuality. I gained some insight into what this means in practice by comparing the situation in the U.S., where a significant proportion of public opinion feels that privatizing medical insurance and making individuals solely responsible for their own fate is appropriate, with the situation in Canada, where the social consensus is that the state must continue to accept some responsibility for safeguarding the health of its citizens. Clearly, communication will be very different in these different contexts.

Rhetorical agency

In Chapter 6 (Grabill 2006), Jeffrey Grabill deals with the subject of agency. Simplistically, agency can be seen as the ability to act rather than passively being acted upon. Once again, this chapter offers hints of a middle ground in which cultural studies and practitioners can meet (p. 151): "As I hope to make clear, both cultural studies theorists and critical researchers in technical and professional writing share the 'problem space' of how to understand and create possibilities for change". That's not quite an olive branch to practitioners, but most practitioners are increasingly aware of the need to change our status in the organizations that employ us, and in so doing, attain agency. But at this early stage in the chapter, it's not yet clear whose interests are best served by research, and as the author notes, asking that question is important.

Grabill draws a distinction between method and methodology that I'd been peripherally aware of but never really contemplated outside the sciences, where we recognize that the researcher can bias the results of the research based on how their chosen methods perturb the system being studied. Here, he notes that the two are not equal, because the "ology" part of the word methodology implicitly refers to an ideology of how research should be done and why, and therefore shapes the method (how we actually do the research). Ideology is not inherently a bad thing, so long as we're aware of its effects and are aware that our ideology as researchers may not match that of the workplace in which we perform our research on how communication is created—or, if we're limiting our examination to the use of communication products such as user manuals, the ideology of the users of those manuals. Grabill notes that the culture addressed by cultural studies "... is not found, wholly formed, it is created in at least two ways: by the participants in/of the culture and by the researcher making sense of the cultural moment" (p. 156).

That’s a subtle insight that should concern anyone doing usability research, particularly since we often forget that whatever our agenda may be in conducting the research, the participants possess their own form of agency. Rather than simply accepting our goals, Grabill notes, research participants often modify the situation so that the goals become more directly meaningful to them. (Ironically, many usability researchers whose work I've read end up seeing this as a source of frustration—because the data they collect may not reflect the goals of their research—rather than as a source of insight into whether their perceptions of the users are valid.) Grabill makes the point that any research project must, inevitably, involve some negotiation between researcher and the "researched" so that the activity is meaningful to both; we rarely have the power we desire to shape the research context based purely on our own needs. When we design research, our goal is generally to solve some problem, ideally with the goal of making life easier or better for someone. But when our goal is not shared by the participants, we may end up researching the wrong problem or biasing our results when participants in the research redirect the goals towards goals more to their liking.

Another thing we tend to forget is that as writers, our focus may be on a report (or user manual) as the final result of our research. Without for a moment negating the importance of such deliverables, Grabill reminds us that a report may be far less important to the research participants. For them, ongoing and ad hoc communication about the project and its results may be the more important goal. Because this mismatch of goals can seriously undermine the success of research, it's important to clearly identify all deliverables (including ongoing communication) right from the start, and to design the research project so that it accounts for those needs. One of the deliverables that is least familiar to most of us is the process of engagement and negotiation itself, something that Grabill makes clear.

Regarding the topic of agency, Grabill observes that "... the problem of agency is the problem of acting within systems of decision-making marked by organizational, epistemological, and discursive complexity" (p. 159). In simpler terms, this means that we cannot change a system if we're not aware of the forces that gave rise to the characteristics of the system and how those forces shape our interactions with and within the workplace culture. In particular, we must be aware of the conventions and practices that govern how things are done and that define the discourse. Here, discourse refers to the discussion about those conventions and practices and the communications that occur within that context. These practices also interact with the location, which in Grabill's view refers to both the physical and the situational contexts in which practices and communication occur. This should sound familiar to any practitioner who has studied audience analysis, or who has even pondered how the physical and situational contexts affect the design of our communication.

For those of us who attempt to transfer knowledge into practice, all of this information comes together when we consider the modern process of technology transfer (Hart 2006), in which all stakeholders are increasingly asked to participate actively in the process. Technology transfer, particularly in contentious areas or areas that involve risk to human health or happiness, can involve long, patient processes of building trust and encouraging dialogue, and only at the end of this process can the knowledge transfer occur. The transfer occurs at that point because we empower all stakeholders (i.e., transform them into agents), thereby eliminating a powerful obstacle (i.e., a sense of disempowerment) to understanding and cooperation. As I noted earlier in this paper in the context of technical communication research, the journey is often at least as important as the destination.

From the perspective of technical communication, I find it productive to ask the logical next question: Is it possible that "nobody reads our documentation" because we have skipped the crucial intermediate step of engagement with our audience? I suspect that an audience who shared in the creation of documentation, shaping its form and content and approach, would be more strongly motivated to use that documentation, and better equipped to do so.

Living documents

In Chapter 7 (Sauer 2006), Beverly Sauer discusses the concept of "living documents"—documents that gradually evolve over time in response to changing conditions, and often, in response to changes in power relations between those who ask for the documents to be created, those who create the documents, and those who must live with the consequences of those documents. Although her example focuses on mining safety legislation, those of us who work to document products ("manual labor", as someone once labeled the task) clearly also work on living documents, particularly with product life cycles now fallen much less than a year in many cases. Mine safety regulations might not seem relevant to computer documentation, but seen from the perspective of living documents, it becomes clear that there are lessons to be learned.

Sauer notes an interesting paradox: cultural studies can help to reveal the historical context that shapes current communication practices and deliverables, and although preservation of that history provides powerful information to support our criticism of current practice, it's sometimes necessary to eliminate some of that historical context. Consider her example of mining safety regulations: Understanding the ensemble of discussions and negotiations that have led up to the current state of safety regulations can provide important insights that will guide future changes in these regulations, yet it's essential to eliminate outdated regulations as soon as feasible to ensure that outdated information will not endanger readers or those who suffer the consequences of a reader's decisions. (In technical communication, we often see another side of this problem: misled by an incomplete understanding of the concept of minimalism, we eliminate all information that does not directly support the accomplishment of a narrowly defined task.) The unfortunate consequence is that the final documents produced by the review and revision process that updates safety regulations preserve only the results of the process, not the process itself. Sauer suggests the importance of an archival function that preserves not only old versions of a document (what I think of as "dead documents") but that also captures some of the knowledge that led to the present form of those documents. Reading this, I immediately thought of the modern field of knowledge management, which has much to say about this process of capturing both explicit knowledge (dead documents) and implicit knowledge (what participants in the knowledge development process do not put on paper, and may not even understand that they know).

Echoing Grabill's notion of mismatches between the goals of researchers and the goals of research participants, Sauer observes that the scientific definition of risk used to establish safety regulations often does not match the definition used by those who actually encounter that risk in the workplace. For example, whenever I have edited journal papers that report the results of toxicology studies, I always find myself wondering about the origin of the concept of LD50: this parameter represents the amount of a substance that will kill 50% of those who are exposed to the substance. Though this is clearly an objective and useful metric to the researcher, workers who might be exposed to the substance are more likely to prefer a metric such as LD1: the quantity that will kill 1% of those exposed to it. Designing safety regulations based on LD1 is clearly of more interest to the workers. My example illustrates one of the more interesting insights in this chapter—that the relevance of seemingly objective scientific definitions of risk is not always clear given the highly subjective, but no less important, definitions used by those who must face the risk. Clearly, for safety regulations to be effective, the two definitions must align.

Sauer notes that institutional, political, and other cultural factors can all influence even something as seemingly objective as risk assessment and communication. In most cases, it's possible to quantify a risk, but we then face the problem of defining what level of risk is acceptable. Where money is involved, the definition of acceptable may differ between those who must pay to mitigate the risk and those who must face the risk. I see this kind of mismatch repeatedly whenever I follow the current debate over climate change and the greenhouse effect: those who must spend money to ward off catastrophe are reluctant to do so, whereas those who face the consequences of that catastrophe are much less willing to accept the consequences of failing to spend that money. By raising this issue, Sauer shows how standards are never wholly objective because they always represent the results of dialogue and negotiation between stakeholders, which is exactly the kind of process that cultural studies reveals so well, particularly when one group has considerably more power than another. Her example of the development and evolution of mining safety regulations clearly illustrates the delicate task of balancing objective and subjective factors to arrive at a consensus definition of risk and how to deal with that risk.

Once again, this chapter offers hints of reconciliation between academics and practitioners (p. 177–178): "To [give meaning to definitions of certainty and uncertainty at specific times and in specific contexts], technical communicators must also help cultural theorists understand the difficulties and limitations of written communication in the context of risk". This is particularly important given Sauer's recognition of the power and the limitations of cultural studies (p. 187): "In my current work investigating language practices in South Africa, postcolonialist theory, race, and gender provide powerful lenses for examining workplace practices. But neither race nor gender is sufficient." As someone who can barely see a foot in front of my face without eyeglasses, I'd go beyond what Sauer has said and make a stronger point: lenses can certainly provide a clearer view of the world, but they can also magnify what is actually quite small, and can distort the view for someone who already has clear vision. Lenses must thus be tools to improve our vision, not blinders to focus it narrowly, and must be used with clear recognition of how they can both distort and enhance our perception.

I was interested to examine the scientific and cultural studies worldviews in light of this metaphor, and it prompted me to wonder whether my true goal in writing this paper was to provide my readers with bifocals that provide a combination of two very different lenses (cultural studies and scientific pragmatism). Each is a powerful tool for gaining insights into a process, but the insights can be quite different. As Sauer notes (p. 188), "No single situated viewpoint provides a complete framework for understanding reality." Amen to that.

Writing workplace cultures

In Chapter 8 (Henry 2006), Jim Henry critically examines modern teaching processes and theories. He is displeased with the historical focus on "product" (e.g., user manuals), and the slightly more modern focus on "process" (how we get to those manuals). Both are clearly of crucial importance to practitioners, who are judged by our success at producing deliverables such as user manuals, but as Henry goes on to demonstrate, both approaches neglect the potential to transform ourselves into more active and critical agents. That's particularly true given a transformation that has occurred, unnoticed to many, over the past century. Henry quotes Mary Beth Debs (p. 205): "Although we may want to be cautious in recognizing it as such, the corporation, certainly the organization, has become the major arena for public life for the individual in modern Western civilization". Given how much of our lives we spend in the workplace, this is clearly an important recognition, and it helped me understand why cultural studies theorists are so focused on criticism and change: if we're going to spend that much time somewhere, shouldn't we strive to make it a better place?

Henry expands upon the concepts of ethnography (simplistically and in the context of my essay, studying the culture of an organization) to discuss what has become known as autoethnography: studying one's own workplace. Although immersion in such an environment precludes some of the objectivity that ethnography by an external observer ostensibly provides, and limits opportunities for the dissent, resistance, and revision that are possible for outsiders, it offers an important compensatory advantage: particularly when aided by an outsider's viewpoint (such as that of a teacher), it reveals the stories of individuals who must live within that cultural context. Comparisons of the workplace narratives produced by individuals in different workplaces (as Henry describes doing in his university classes) provide insights into each culture that might have been missed if we focused exclusively on our own workplace culture. In effect, comparison of the different worldviews revealed by autoethnography is a great way to reveal our own blind spots—things we're so familiar with that we no longer see or question them! (Indeed, the thought process I went through in writing this paper was truly eye-opening in this sense. As psychologist George Miller observed, “In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.” My attempts to understand the meaning and implications of cultural studies involved just such an exercise.)

Henry reports that autoethnographic studies of technical communication have repeatedly revealed familiar refrains: that we are second-class citizens with low power and status, possibly because we're perceived as nothing than packagers of information created by others, and that we are sometimes treated as nothing more than walking dictionaries or grammar guides. Our common position is at the bottom of most organizational charts, which has important consequences because most of the high-level discussion that shapes our destiny in the workplace occurs in tight little circles drawn around the topmost boxes of the chart. Becoming more equal participants in the workplace requires us to find a way to become participants in those top-level dialogues. A strength of autoethnography is that it expands our focus from writing to thinking about how our activities fit within the larger context of the organization. That broader focus lets us participate more actively in identifying and solving problems, which is the kind of behavior that managers notice. Thus, it's an important strategy for improving our status and influence within an organization, and an important tool for change because we cannot advocate for change until we have achieved sufficient status for our voices to be heard.

Cultural theorists often overestimate our ability to institute changes or even to change attitudes within our workplace. Henry notes (p. 213), "As lone 'agents' in a local culture, [writers] stand little chance of doing so, particularly given their low organizational status. This predicament underscores the need for alliances between scholars and writers in the workplace, the better to build other archives of organizational structures and practices and the better to foster border crossing that will infuse productive revision of discourses in each." Possibly by means of autoethnography by practitioners, informed by the critical perspective of cultural studies theorists, we can discern how to attain the necessary power. Such cooperation can also provide a necessary dose of reality to theorists. For example, Henry notes that "We are born into language, and can know realities only through the categories and relationships that language has provided" (p. 214). I would never consider denying the importance of how language can shape our thoughts, but I would note that practitioners can help theorists to recognize that some realities exist independent of language, and cannot be changed by cultural studies criticism without recognition of that point.

Henry concludes by advocating that teachers of technical communication should move beyond teaching nothing more than composition tricks and should use cultural studies to encourage students to think beyond the limiting context of writing to consider the broader context for that writing. Henry concludes with a call for cooperation between the academy and the workplace (p. 215): "But the failing of cultural studies, I believe, has been in its relentless insistence on forming students as critical discursive consumers all the while wholly ignoring their formation as critical discursive producers in any genre other than the academic essay... We need to foster in our students an aptitude for cultural criticism, grounded in skills at cultural analysis in real settings."

Rhetoric as a productive technology

In Chapter 9 (Salvo 2006), Michael Salvo discusses the modern technological society, noting that we can no longer afford to ignore the significance of technology in shaping our culture, and particularly the communications aspects (p. 220): "Learning to gain some control over communication forms and the technologies that enable them, students become active agents of social, political, and technical change, learning that social and technological worlds have been made and can thus be remade to serve the interests of democratic society." Building on this point, he notes that one of the key values of cultural studies is its ability to help us define the context for communication (p. 211): "I assert that cultural studies does its most insightful work in the analytic phase by mapping discourses, institutions, and flows of power on a virtual map of culture. This productive analytic thrust of cultural studies can effectively inform action through critically examining design, mapping the discourses that inform design, as well as revealing the complex networks of power and the interests that are served and subsumed in different designs." Clearly, we cannot hope to change what we cannot understand, thus understanding must precede action.

A key point in this chapter is the recognition that rather than the old approach of designing information and communication for our audience, we are beginning to recognize the power of designing both with our audience. The goal becomes one of increasing opportunities for agency (i.e., giving our audience power to shape what we deliver) and engagement (i.e., dialogue with us and with the product developers we support). I'm not sure that this is really news to technical communicators; for quite some time, we have been advocates of audience analysis, user-centered design, usability, and even participatory design. What's new here is where this can lead us. Salvo's approach caters to the cultural studies philosophy of activism: it reminds us of our responsibility to educate and prepare our audience to act.

Salvo provides context for this starting point by reviewing five important recent texts on cultural studies and technical communication. He starts with Brenton Faber's Community Action and Organizational Change, which portrays professionals as consultants who negotiate alternatives with audiences so that (as a result of their engagement in the process) they receive more useful communication, and are more willing to accept and implement the results of that communication. Salvo redefines expertise so that the expert is portrayed as someone who excels at helping all voices (all stakeholders) be heard so as to generate a solution everyone can willingly accept; in this view, an expert is no longer someone who holds all the cards and makes all the decisions. The goal is to understand all the human and other contexts that shape communication, then work with audiences to determine what solutions will be both effective and acceptable; there are no "one size fits all" solutions, and each situation requires considerable tailoring of the process, even when we consider that process to be a "best practice". It's important to note that unlike some writers, who denigrate expertise as just another form of hegemony, Salvo recognizes the importance of expertise, but reminds us that true experts must listen to their audience to discover how that expertise should be applied.

The analysis continues with Jim Henry's Writing Workplace Cultures, which deals with the conflicts, contexts, and resulting discourses that arise in a range of workplaces. In particular, Salvo reveals the oft-cited reality shock that faces students of cultural studies when they enter the workplace (p. 228): "Encouraged by their teachers to be active rhetorical agents, goaded by counterhegemonic discourses in their coursework, and taught postmodern mapping strategies as part of their rhetorical training, many young writers express dismay at being thrust into workplaces where their voice is subsumed into the cacaphony of discourse." In short, an overemphasis on pure theory can leave students unprepared for life in the real world. But there are solutions (p. 228): "Understanding the scope of the change they are capable of enacting is perhaps one of the most important lessons new workers will need to learn." It's refreshing to see this perspective, because it provides the crucial link between empty theory and real practice that is missing in more purely theoretical writing: that outside the academy, theorists must find a way to deal with reality if their theory is to survive and remain useful. Although Salvo does not explicitly say so, this also reflects the conventional wisdom (proven in the trenches) that we should always strive to understand how something works, and why, before we try to change it.

Teresa Kynell-Hunt and Gerald Savage's Power and Authority in Technical Communication is the third book, and reveals the powerful lesson that there are some things in the workplace we can change through the power of discourse—but also some things that cannot be changed in this manner alone. In particular, it concedes the point that some of our purpose in the workplace must be to accomplish the mundane tasks involved in communication, even if this is a purely pragmatic act rather than an activist attempt to change the world. Bravo! We cannot become agents of change if we are fired because we forgot to accomplish the more mundane purposes for which we were hired. Next comes Beverly Sauer's The Rhetoric of Risk, already discussed briefly earlier in this paper under the heading "Living Documents". Sauer's book discusses the context of defining and communicating risk in mining operations in the U.S., the U.K., and South Africa. Salvo reminds us of one of Sauer's key insights: that communicators, managers, and workers all play key roles in defining the nature of risk and jointly creating knowledge about how to communicate and deal with that risk. The lesson for us as technical communicators is that we must look beyond our subject-matter experts to include users and other stakeholders as sources of knowledge.

Salvo reminds us that transferring information is important, but from the perspective of cultural studies, it should never be our sole goal. Transformation is also important, where it is possible and ethical for us to do so. The change in the nature of expertise that he highlights is particularly important, and is something practitioners must pay close attention to: demonstrating our expertise must lie in using our skills to work with our audience to define an optimal solution rather than dictating that solution to our audience on the assumption that we know better than they do what will work.

Extending service learning

In Chapter 10 (Scott 2006), J. Blake Scott takes on the challenge of service learning, which can be defined as learning through participation in a real-world project that involves some form of community service. This is similar to any other form of workplace apprenticeship program, but with the difference that it goes beyond simple writing assignments to include the concept of "doing good". This ethical dimension makes the ties with cultural studies clear, and as you might expect, there are some subtle problems that must be overcome when combining the pragmatism of completing a workplace assignment with the cultural studies call to ethical action. Yet both pragmatists and theorists meet at a crucial point in the center: before a student can define the nature of their project, they must engage with at least some of the stakeholders to learn their needs. That's the step that is usually missing in typical workplace writing environments, and it's an important reminder of the need for audience analysis before we begin any writing project.

From a cultural studies perspective, Scott notes that service learning often fails because it can end up focusing more on learning to write and to manage projects and less on reflection and criticism. This is exacerbated by the need to fulfill course requirements, often over a short period (typically, the academic term). In addition, much effort must be devoted to learning how to fit in with the new culture of the workplace (acculturation), and this can narrow the focus from the community that is nominally being served to the employer that is actually being served. I don't see this as an inherently bad thing, since we should never try to change something we don't understand, but Scott notes that it both weakens the distance needed for reflection and criticism and leaves little time for such activities. In short, students are forced to focus on satisfying their immediate needs rather than thinking more deeply about the situation and whether and how it should be changed. I'm not sure that this is a revelation to practitioners—we are keenly aware of how unreasonable workloads and deadlines can lead to a rigid and narrow focus on simply getting the writing done, no matter how poorly. But it's an important reminder to us that even under deadline pressure, we should never forget the needs of our audience.

Another problem that Scott raises with service learning is that it may end up focusing on personal growth. Personal growth isn't a bad thing, but it narrows the value of the learning to one's self instead of the larger community in which that growth occurs. When I read this, I immediately recalled the concept of "the white man's burden", the colonial-era notion that we Westerners are somehow superior to those over whom we exert power and can thus improve them if only we can make them emulate us. (See, for instance, the Wikipedia article on "The White Man's Burden".) This process becomes one of intervention, not engagement. And indeed, Scott warns that we must avoid the trap of thinking we can march in and solve a community's problems from some nominal position of superior knowledge or expertise. Instead, it's wiser to understand that as Henry noted in the previous chapter, our true expertise lies in helping others find their own solution—to work with them, not for them.

Doing so requires an ongoing process of engagement with the stakeholders, including the larger community within which they operate. One of the most important points that emerges from this chapter is the notion that reflection and critique should not occur exclusively before a communication project, when we don't understand the situation well enough to reflect and criticize effectively, nor exclusively at the end of the process, when any insights gained by these activities come too late to make a difference. Instead, both activities must occur throughout the process, since our emerging understanding and the lessons learned by attempting to work within the culture can shape all subsequent efforts, making them increasingly effective. Scott frames this in the context of teaching students through service learning, but there are obvious lessons here for practitioners.

Of the many different flavors of cultural studies, Scott combines critical awareness with ethical action to form an approach that "tracks the trajectory of cultural forms as they are produced, distributed, consumed, and integrated into people's lives, where they become part of shifting conditions for production" (p. 247). In service learning, students engage with this process to begin understanding how they can change things (p. 248): "In addition to focusing on their immediate rhetorical situations and production process, students could track the shifting functions of their texts as they are transformed by various actors. Beyond framing their projects as solutions to the communication needs of their sponsoring organizations, for example, students could frame them as responses to broader social exigencies".

Because service learning is often semester-based, the short term makes it hard to accomplish much. Scott notes that this forces a focus on deliverables so that something tangible can be delivered to the teacher and the project sponsor for evaluation and assignment of a grade. This leaves little time to explore the alternatives that might be revealed by reflection and critique. One strong solution is to make audience (stakeholder) analysis part of the initial stages of planning such education and part of the initial negotiations with the organization that will be sponsoring the student. This knowledge can then shape all subsequent tasks. We practitioners sometimes complain that under the stress of deadlines, there is no time for this process, but that truism leads to a self-defeating philosophy. We often forget how the insights gained during the current deadline crisis can be recorded and used to shape what we do in coming years; after all, there is always down-time between projects or an initial slow period when the next project is still accelerating, and that is when we have time to begin the cycle anew, with a new approach informed by what we learned the last time. Scott recognizes this too, and notes how longer and more demanding projects can be spread over several terms, often with one group of students picking up where the previous year's students left off.

One of the goals of criticism is to ask the questions "where do we go from here?" and "what can we do differently (better) next time?", two questions every practitioner should ask in the aftermath of any project. Involvement with stakeholders can become a particularly important part of the answer to these questions, for it is during the time between projects when we have time for reflection before the next marathon begins, and when cultural studies can inform our next steps.

Designing students

In Chapter 11 (Wills 2006), Katherine Wills turns the discussion to how much of the foregoing chapters (and her own concerns) affect what must be done in the classroom to produce students who can function in the modern workplace. Her goal is to create practitioners who go beyond merely (and unconsciously) accepting the status quo and a primary emphasis on producing written products to students who consciously critique what they are doing—in effect, to move students from ignorance to awareness, or from blindness to vision.

For only the second time in this book, Wills explicitly reminds readers of the importance of learning from technical communication, not just insisting that technical communication learn from cultural studies. Wills notes that cultural studies, like any other field, can accumulate its own power hierarchies and dogmas that stifle innovation and block change. Indeed, while thinking back about what I was learning in this book, I found it increasingly ironic how cultural studies creates its own, usually unexamined, hierarchy and hegemony of power that reinforces the primacy of the cultural studies perspective. This point is not lost on Wills.

Echoing Scott in Chapter 10, Wills notes that the problem in many classroom exercises is that they may be decontextualized; because they are presented as abstract "write the manual" exercises, students lose sight of the details of the workplace context, which can dramatically affect the conditions under which writing is performed as well as those under which writing is read and used. The result can be that students learn a process that is poorly adapted to the writer's likely experience in the workplace and learn a stereotypical approach to writing that fails to meet the real needs of readers. Service learning and other direct encounters with the workplace, such as internships, provide a powerful remedy for this problem because they force students to deal with the realities of the workplace and (ideally, as discussed by Scott) to engage with the audiences who will benefit—or suffer—from the writer's acts.

Wills discusses several possibilities for using cultural studies to inform how students learn technical communication (p. 263–268), including the "venue" (e.g., the service learning I have already discussed). A few stood out in my mind in the context of this paper. First, Wills notes the possibility of introducing the course syllabus as an object lesson in power (that of the professor over the student) and in cultural assumptions (those under which the professor designs a course). She continues with a discussion of curricula, giving the example (created by Sam Dragga; p. 264) of how Kellogg rebranded its Coco Puffs cereal to appeal to the unique characteristics of the Chinese market to provide object lessons in the influence of cultural differences on communication. Whether helping to sell a nutritionally questionable product such Coco Puffs is itself ethical is another matter, and to me, it illustrates an interesting challenge to the ethical and activist focus of cultural studies: What power does a writer working for Kellogg have to challenge this work? Do practitioners working in the real world have the ethical responsibility to resign rather than participating in such work, or do pragmatic issues such as the need to support one's family outweigh this more abstract responsibility?

Wills reminds us that the theoretical framework in which technical communication is taught is also important. Traditional textbooks on technical writing emphasize a hyperpragmatist approach that ignores most of the lessons discussed in this paper, yet a text that focuses heavily on cultural studies may prove inappropriate. She notes (p. 262) that "Students (and teachers) should be disabused of the notion that merely replicating formats, tables, data, and terms for a grade of C or better will provide job security." Although it is not Wills' intention to dismiss the importance of these skills, this quote reveals where the world of the teacher and the world of the student seeking to succeed in the workplace fail to align: it is precisely these skills that allow students to find and retain employment. The solution, as Wills notes, is to meet somewhere in the middle: teachers must certainly provide the basic pragmatic, procedural, production-oriented skills that students need to succeed in the workplace, but in so doing, they have an opportunity to show how cultural studies can greatly expand the possibilities for effective communication. Teaching students to not lose sight of the larger context due to a narrow focus on the daily production-oriented tasks that ensure survival in the workplace is important. How to accomplish this is the unanswered question.

Wills notes that many students, particularly those who come from a scientific or rationalist background, may resist the insights provided by cultural studies. Indeed, in this paper I've discussed many examples of why this might be the case, and looking back on this paper as I was revising it, I could clearly see where my own resistance was interfering with my understanding. To me, this resistance arises from a simple but pernicious problem: the failure to explain how the insights revealed by cultural studies theorists are relevant to practitioners. (Some of the authors in this collection, and some professors I've talked to, are similarly resistant to the pragmatist realities of the workplace, possibly because we practitioners have done a poor job of explaining them to our academic colleagues.) Though the closed worldview of the "hyperpragmatist" practitioner is justly criticized by cultural studies theorists, the mirror reveals an equally closed worldview among many academics, although in their case, the mirror reflects a powerful hegemony that limits the willingness to engage with practitioners. What is necessary is some way of finding middle ground, in which neither group exerts the much derided hegemony of power over the other group, and in which both can instead negotiate a fruitful, mutually respectful collaboration that can eventually lead to consensus.

Synthesis, and a call to action

Certain recurring themes undermine this book's importance. Authors sometimes assume that all communication is based on power imbalances and preserves the power of information creators at the expense of information recipients (e.g., "Communication is thus an ongoing struggle for power, unevenly balanced towards encoding" [p. 34]). Wearing the blinders imposed by this worldview, they ignore the larger question: What is the purpose of the communication? In many cases, it is to share power by informing and thus empowering our audience. You'd never know that from reading some of the early chapters in this book. Similarly, authors sometimes use efficiency and practicality as pejorative terms, thereby ignoring one of the good legacies of the industrial revolution: improved standards of living for nearly everyone, and a tremendous transfer of power from those who control the means of production to those who benefit from modern technology.

The often simplistic, one-sided view espoused by the more extreme advocates of cultural studies can be defended by noting that it focuses attention on specific problems and issues, rather than diluting the focus. But the result is often a simplistic, nuance-free argument that ignores an important point: that every human interaction has the potential for good (consensus) and evil (dominance). In this sense, the writings of Ursula LeGuin over the past several decades present a fascinating exploration of many of the issues raised by cultural studies in fictional contexts that provide the distance required to allow critical contemplation. We humans are intensely hierarchical creatures, but we can resist power and dominance games more often and more effectively than some authors in this book credit. Early chapters of Critical Power Tools are pervaded by a palpable distrust of the rationale and rationality of science (particularly when it comes to the gap between theory and research), not because science is perceived as valueless, but rather because of its overemphasis on things that can be quantified. The narrow focus that provides keen insights runs the risk of polarizing the debate and eliminating any possibility of a meeting of minds between those who work in the academy and those who labor in the workplace.

Cultural studies theory leans in the direction of denying the possibility of objectivity, and thus provides no means of determining whether their own views are valid; indeed, theoreticians sometimes repurpose the notion of validity to focus on whether a subject is worthy of study and theorizing, not whether it can be validated in the real world (p. 121): "a postmodern view might define objectivity as impossible or irrelevant". The poststructuralist approach described by Bernadette Longo in Chapter 4 thus asks not whether the researcher is really measuring what they think they are measuring, but rather whether the research question is interesting and creates an invitation to further discourse (p. 122). As a result, cultural studies theory often suffers from a severe lack of supporting data. The best theory, no matter how logical and internally consistent, is meaningless if it cannot be supported in the real world—a place that some theorists seem acutely uncomfortable dealing with. Missing until nearly the halfway point in the book is any call to action in which the theorists work hand in hand with practitioners for the benefit of both groups (p. 125): "[the role of technical communication] can be more clearly described  using a cultural studies research methodology in tandem with other more scientifically modeled methods". Elsewhere, I sensed a recurring theme of poorly concealed hostility towards scientific objectivity. Science is certainly flawed, but it remains the best tool we have for revealing when we are truly on the track of something interesting, rather than building elegant and insubstantial castles in the air.

There is a sometimes painful naiveté in the cultural studies attitude that communicators have real power to change the world, and even more so in the notion that we and our audience are somehow uniquely more qualified to do so than other stakeholders (particularly the much-demonized managers in corporate structures). In many cases, this is simply unrealistic, and moreover, it violates one of the central precepts of cultural studies—that no one person or group of people is inherently superior to any of the others. As a result, an overly literal understanding of the cultural studies approach arrogates power to us that should instead be shared with all stakeholders in the discourse. But as Salvo notes in Chapter 9 (and he is not alone in this recognition), the true power and virtue of this approach—and the place where it becomes realistic—arises from the recognition that as technical communicators, we occupy a unique and privileged position: we straddle the worlds of those who produce products and hold the reins of power and those who receive the products and are subject to that power. Although many cultural studies theorists seem to denigrate this role as "merely" translation, I see this quite differently: I see it as a key position from which we can ensure that communication and dialogue takes place between all stakeholders. By encouraging this dialogue and developing mutual understanding, we have an unparalleled opportunity to transform ourselves into key components of the communication process, not merely passive participants in the transfer of words.

I also found that a certain distinction had been lost by some authors. In the context of cultural studies, criticism means analysis and questioning of received wisdom rather than simply accepting the status quo. Unfortunately, some authors have instead taken the word in its more modern connotation, that of condemnation. In so doing, they sacrifice nuance, often in the interest of attacking straw men that are all too easy to condemn. In the haste to demonstrate their keenness of vision, these authors fail to see that not all power structures are unethical and that not all need to be changed. They also fall into the trap of the hegemonies they so despise: that of assuming they know more than the culture they are critiquing. This creates an artificial distance that undermines their goal of ethical action, perhaps because they recognize one of the paradoxes of cultural studies: you cannot generally change a culture from outside (since you lack the power to do so), yet to change a culture from within, you must first become part of that culture and must be accepted by it; if you rebel before then, you will be cast out before you earn an opportunity to advocate for change. In my own career, I've found that the process of engagement with an organizational culture, thereby acquiring respect and the power that comes with it, offers the true hope of cultural studies: as in the Japanese martial art of aikido (or its better known cousin, judo), you become a full partner in the interaction, and use your opponent's strength against them to cause the change.

In the language of formal logic, the problem revealed by Critical Power Tools can be stated simply: if science and the modern cultural context represent the thesis, and cultural studies offers the antithesis, what is missing is the synthesis that unites the two. It is here where the practitioners who live the thesis in our daily work lives and the theoreticians who explore the antithesis through their work lives should be working together to create a synthesis that will enrich both groups. Unfortunately, the width of the philosophical divide between these two discourse communities militates strongly against achieving such a synthesis. That's a pity. If I've intrigued you with this paper, I encourage you to read this book with an open mind, and learn what it has to offer. But—stealing a leaf from the book of cultural studies—I encourage you to do more: to seek your own synthesis by working with colleagues in both the practitioner and academic communities to create something that enriches us all.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this book is that it reveals a potential transition of cultural studies from a simplistic, blinkered, dogmatic anti-capitalist and anti-science rhetoric to what I consider the more important and nuanced core concept of cultural studies: that all voices have something to contribute to our creation of knowledge. As Michael Salvo notes in Chapter 9, experts may still possess the more important expertise in some areas of the discourse, but true expertise lies in determining how to use those skills to help all voices be heard and to develop a truly effective solution. This changes cultural studies from a directionless rant about power to a plea for cooperation. This is the kind of thing I've written about for most of my career in the context of author–editor relationships, so you can imagine that I'm highly sympathetic to this change.

Does the book succeed in its stated goal? For the academic reader, the answer is a resounding affirmative. For the practitioner (who is not, in all fairness, the target reader for this book), the answer is less clear. Much of the book's early sections on theory reveal a certain disdain for the pragmatic world in which communicators live and work, and that world is perceived through the distorting lenses of this and other dogmas. As a result, many practitioner readers are likely to throw up their hands in disgust rather than making the effort to look beyond the dogma to the heart of the matter, and that's a shame. Critical Power Tools offers many important insights that are far more than just theoretical if you have the patience to wade through the many distractions to reach the deeper meanings—and particularly, to reach the later chapters of the book. Readers who stay the course and reach those later chapters will see an increasingly realistic and relevant focus of cultural studies, and will receive some keen insights into how this field can potentially transform the work we do. Indeed, there's a growing perception of the ways in which technical communication practitioners and theoreticians could enrich each other's worlds, if only we made the effort.

To me, that's the true brilliance of this book: it strives hard for the synthesis I discussed earlier in this concluding section. To some extent, the book fails to reach this goal because of the obstacles I've raised in this review, which place the book beyond the reach of most practitioners. But it's a valiant effort, and I hope that in writing this paper, I've helped to rescue the book from an undeserved confinement to the academic community.


Avon Murphy provided important feedback and assistance in refining my focus in the shorter book review that eventually grew into this longer article. I thank Blake Scott (Associate Professor of English, University of Central Florida) for providing a helpful reality check and discussion of an earlier draft of this paper. I'm also grateful to the journal's anonymous reviewers for their suggestions on how to improve and clarify this paper. Any remaining errors and imprecisions are, of course, solely my responsibility.


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Scott, J.B. 2006. Chapter ten: Extending service-learning's critical reflection and action: contributions of cultural studies. p. 241–258 in: Scott, J.B.; Longo, B.; Wills, K.V. eds. 2006. Critical power tools: technical communication and cultural studies. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. 293 p.

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Scott, J.B.; Longo, B.; Wills, K.V. 2006b. Introduction: why cultural studies? Expanding technical communication's critical toolbox. p. 1–19 in: Scott, J.B.; Longo, B.; Wills, K.V. eds. 2006. Critical power tools: technical communication and cultural studies. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. 293 p.

Slack, J.D.; Miller, D.J.; Doak, J. 2006. Chapter one: The technical communicator as author: meaning, power, authority. p. 25–46 in: Scott, J.B.; Longo, B.; Wills, K.V. eds. 2006. Critical power tools: technical communication and cultural studies. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. 293 p.

Wills, K.V. 2006. Chapter eleven: Designing students: teaching technical writing with cultural studies approaches. p. 259–270 in: Scott, J.B.; Longo, B.; Wills, K.V. eds. 2006. Critical power tools: technical communication and cultural studies. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. 293 p.

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