Wednesday, January 27, 2010

760: on mirel's writing and database technology

I like Barbara Mirel’s work because it always seems to focus on knowledge and meaning making in the workplace. With this essay she continues on a trajectory of how knowledge workers (she does not refer to them as such in the essay) navigate and communicate information; and how that information can both serve and hinder individual and organizational purposes.

Here, Mirel is making an explicit argument for exposing the rhetorical aspects of data reporting, focusing on understanding the users of reports as the key to serving a rhetorical aim or strategy. In some ways departing from the quasi-utopian themes of last week’s readings, Mirel touches upon the negative aspects of accessible yet poorly utilized technologies. “Thanks to distributed computing, nontechnical employees in every department can mange their own data and compose data reports for important business purposes” (382). This, she points out, is one of the principle reasons why all disciplines need to provide more than simplistic professional/business writing instruction to their majors. It’s not enough to expect that a single course (such as WRT 307) will provide students the appropriate knowledge and skills to create usable information products. As Mirel states: “… little attention is given in either business or in technical and professional writing classes to building people’s skill in writing effective data reports” (382). Within these technology-enhanced (digital?) environments, Mirel is calling for the type of authorial agency that Slack defined as the act of articulation.

Mirel is arguing for the communicator (technical or otherwise) to have a more holistic understanding of “meaning making” – of the how, where, and why to locate specific information, and of how best to package that information for specific audiences and purposes: “…writers, on the one hand, [need] to be adept at rhetorical strategies for invention, arrangement, and delivery, and on the other hand to understand the logic and capabilities that a program offers for designing, searching for, and retrieving data and for organizing it into printed reports” (384). This “integrated view of competencies” would be taken up later by other tech comm scholars, such as Johnson-Eilola, Hart-Davidson, and Selber.

I wonder about Mirel’s treatment of “rhetorical invention” and how she assigns the activity to the strategies and processes of search for retrieving data. She seems to be working from a narrow definition of invention by tying it to the classical basic categories (topoi) – of relationships among ideas and not something broader and less rigid. Is she associating the fixed structures of databases with the way in which topoi serve to guide the discovery of what to write and how to write it?

Mirel does make a somewhat broad assumption in her claim that data reports share a fundamental purpose “to answer a business concern…” (382). An unintended byproduct of access to data and the tools to author reports is that too often reports are written/produced that serve absolutely no purpose. The “report for reporting sake” is the activity that keeps content and knowledge management system vendors in business.

I’m curious to know what the rest of our group thinks about the relevancy of Mirel’s call to broaden the curriculum to “extend students’ rhetorical skills beyond linear prose paragraphs to graphic forms” (390). Would we agree that an increasing number of our students are entering the writing studios with more experience than their instructors in regard to non-linear prose and graphical communication? Would a more appropriate approach be simply to expose students to the rhetorical aspects and consequences of various forms of data reporting, and leave the tools and technologies to the work place?


Display Name said...

I would feel more comfortable -- much, more comfortable, actually -- responding to this question, Mike, if I had taught WRT 307 at least once. But I think your questions are provocative. How does one (do you?) teach data reporting in that course?

I definitely see the value in reading ("expos[ing] students to the rhetorical aspects") and playing around with the writing tools that broaden the curriculum. This might be a silly example, but I was impressed today at how much more the NYT's interactive graphic of Obama's budget communicated than a traditional article or table would have.

I consider, too, how tag clouds have helped me see relationships between my own research. Likewise, Wordle has actually helped me promote the WC, by constructing visual representations of student feedback on our services.

And, of course there are plenty of or humorous examples on Digg (a favorite is this Seinfeld character chart:

I suppose if we're convinced by Dicks, that we're moving toward a support economy that values more symbolic-analytic frameworks, then it sounds like we have to get students into practice with these tools and their consequences.

Jason said...

Sorry, Mike, that was my post above.