Friday, March 23, 2012

james berlin's useful taxonomy

Berlin, James. Rhetoric and Reality Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1905. Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Berlin was an obvious next step for me in setting up a historical framework in which to analyze a range of pedagogical intersections between Composition and Technical Communication. I’ll start here with his taxonomy and focus specifically on the Objective category – that which is most historically related with the teaching of Tech Comm.

Berlin’s taxonomy provides a nice flexible structure in which to place various writing pedagogies. When overlaid with progress narratives of disciplinary maturation (for both Tech Comm and Comp), the taxonomy takes on a depth that allows us to pull in all of the various pedagogical threads and strands that have been woven into the fabric of both disciplines.

At the top level, Berlin (choosing epistemology rather than ideology as the basis for his categorizations) sets up Objective, Subjective, and Transaction as the dominant rhetorical theories that shaped (continue to shape?) writing instruction. From the perspective of a practitioner, many of the operational activities of Tech Comm are drawn from Objective theories which, “locate reality in the external world, in the material objects of experience … rhetorics based on positivistic epistemology” (6-7). In regard to pedagogy, this is clearly in the current-traditional tradition of teaching technical writers to record reality exactly as it has been experienced.

The emergence of Objective rhetorics in the late 1880s and early 1900s aligns with the noted pressures being placed on universities to produce better science and technical writers (see Adams). Tech Comm traces its roots back to ancient Egypt (see Lipson), but clearly begins to codify certain tropes with the formalization of the scientific method (observation, documentation, proof, repeatability, etc.) in the mid- to late 1700s. “Truth is determined through the inductive method – through collecting sense data and arriving at generalizations. The role of the observer [technical writer?] is to be as objective as possible, necessitating the abandonment of social, psychological, and historical preconceptions…” (8).

The scientific method is based on positivist principles, hence the traditional presence of objectivist rhetorics in Tech Comm pedagogies. “The writing class is to focus on discourse that deals with the rationale faculties: description and narration concerned with sense impression…, exposition with setting forth the generalized ideas derived from sense impression …. this rhetoric makes the patterns of arrangement and superficial correctness the main ends of writing instruction … emphasis on exposition and its forms – analysis, classification, cause-effect, and so forth” (8-9). Specific to the pedagogical tensions between Comp and Tech Comm, Berlin sets up useful claim (aligned with Adams' humanist vs. positivist binary): “For the majority of English teachers, it has been a compelling paradigm, making it impossible for them to conceive of the discipline in any other way” (9).

That's where I see the influence of Objectivist rhetorics re: Berlin’s lens and taxonomy. As I move through the Subjective and Transactional, I’m piecing together a small visual organizer to represent where I see the connections through and among the various narratives.

Reiterating conclusions found in Adams’ and other narratives, Berlin’s history indicates that literacy (in all of its forms and definitions) continues to be the intermediary between college writing instruction and larger social developments. [See the emergence of advanced composition courses in science and engineering at the turn of the 20th century; the rapid creation of technical and engineering writing programs post 1945.] Literacy, then, may be a useful place for me to mediate the various disciplinary arguments and tensions as they are exposed.

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