What’s technical about TC (Dobrin) – A response

What are the implications of Dobrin’s definition of tech comm for our identity as a profession of ‘tech writers’ or a discipline of ‘tech comm’? In what ways might or might not Slack’s ‘articulation’ (Thayer) be a workable response?

Dobrin’s definition of tech comm attempts to give technical writers organizational power by affording them the status of subject matter expert. “Technical writing is writing that accommodates technology to the user.” Curiously, but quite fittingly, Dobrin mentions the fact that the verb allows for syntactic wiggleroom in the invertibility of the direct and indirect objects. I would like to add one more facet of the verb ‘to accommodate’, it implies active contribution on the part of the accommodator and that clearly aligns itself with Slack’s definition of articulation. The technical communicator negotiates meaning with the information sender and the information receiver. This is an active process that clearly presumes subject matter expertise. Subject matter expertise is perceived as value added and, thus, conveys organizational power. With organizational power comes recognition and influence, both invaluable to implement progress and change.

On a small yet relevant tangent, I would like to liken the work of technical communicators to that of technical translators in order to emphasize my initial statement. Preconceptions are quite similar: no subject matter knowledge is required, afterall, this is only a translation of words (text). Similarly, TCers face the challenge to convey the value add of their work. Thayer mentions that the TCer will only take center stage when the text is bad, e.g. the documentation does not fulfill its purpose, instructions are faulty or incomplete. The exact same feat is suffered by the technical translator. Often unrecognized remains the technical expertise that is necessary to produce a meaningful translation of a document. One indicator should really be the mere existense of the academic fields of Technical Communication and Technical Translation.

The monadist view captures this notion of ‘knowing in language’ because it presumes that one without the knowledge cannot put the knowledge in language. A beautiful syllogism that works. The same argument is valid for technical communication and technical translation for it illustrates a clear connection between the technical communicator and knowledge about the subject. Slack’s three modes of communication make the same point. Two of the modes, transmission and translation (I don’t agree with the naming at all because of the aforementioned example) are seen as inadequate because they don’t imply a value-add by the TCer. Articulation, defined as negotiating meaning between sender and receiver, is an adequate term since it conveys a value-add. Similarly, ‘accommodation’ can be seen as fulfilling this role between the technology and the user.

For a very simplified view of Slack’s model I am including a mindmap that I created in bubbl.us.

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