Monthly Archives: February 2011

Networks-a practical application

“Ultimately, a network is defined by how well it allows its members to see, decide and effectively act.” —- GEN (R) Stan McChrystal

Over the past few lessons we have focused upon networks and organizations. I found this article by GEN (R) Stan McChrystal, former commander of US special operations forces in Iraq, and all NATO forces in Afghanistan,  relevant to our discussions.  GEN McChrystal describes the construction of a modern networked Army, and provides some insight along the way into the question “How does it work?”

You can read the article here:,1

McChrystal offers several characteristics that define a succesful network, characteristics which might be useful as an example of what Spinuzzi has termed an “activity network.”  For McChrystal, leading a network intended to respond and counter an opposing network, it became paramount that his network enable decentralized decisions that cut across the organization.  In his efforts to expand the network, he first had to encourage the erosion of traditional institutional boundaries, at the same time meshing diverse institutional cultures.  The network valued competency above all else (particularly relevant in a military system which often privileges rank and hierarchical structure).  Networks, he advocates, should seek clear, and evolving problem definition while continually revisiting aims, processes and structures–both internally, and in this specific, case the opposing enemy network.  A succesful network continually grows the capacity to inform itself.

While reflecting upon the article I began to think about the importance of the concept of audience adaptation to technical writers in an expansive network composed of diverse organizational cultures.  Leaders of such a network must “build shared consciousness and purpose,”  technical writers can play a key role assisting leaders attain this aim.  Writing in such a context requires consideration of the reader, the removal of jargon, or the development of lexicon common to all.  It seems to me that technical writers in similiar context would be well served by continually engaging with readers, to ensure not only that messages are clear and concise, but effectively contribute to knowledge production.  The infrastructure of the network McChrystal described provided many alternate technological means to accomplish this reader engagement during the drafting process: f2f, video teleconferencing, document sharing, telephone.



After reading Katz and Ornatowski, and after our discussion in class on Tuesday, I’ve been struggling to figure out what it means to teach ethics—in writing classes in general and in professional writing classes in particular. Flipping through Locker’s textbook, I see the hard-core instrumentalist approach (basically, don’t lie on your resume or CV). “Ethics” doesn’t even appear in the index. I’m still waiting on my copy of Peeples, so I haven’t been able to look at that yet. But I guess I have a few sets of questions/concerns, some of which I’ll have to figure out for myself before inflicting my regime of ethics on students: What do/will I mean by “ethics” in the writing class? I think it’s important—critical, perhaps—to try to get students to understand the implications (theoretical) and consequences (actual) of their rhetorical choices. Katz, to me, would be an extreme example for this kind of discussion. But what do I want them to take from Katz and from any discussion we might have? (Certainly more than polite classroom shock that this could happen.) How do I want them to act—in the workplace, for example—with Katz in mind? And how can I “teach” these ideas through an assignment or activity? Is a lesson in raising awareness, in “making sure you think about your rhetorical choices” enough? And things actually get more complicated, I think, in Ornatowski. The engineer Stephen is certainly thinking about the effects of his rhetorical choice between “hopeless” and “fruitless,” but is this really a question of ethics? If the choice is about what will be the most acceptable way to present a critical failure to the boss, whose ethics are being served? So what would I be teaching my students here? And I guess this links up to my ultimate concern—what is the effect of our stressing an ethical program that students, realistically, won’t be able to implement in the workplace? Are we teaching them that thinking about doing the ethical thing, perhaps even wishing that they could do the ethical thing, is enough? That seems to lie at the heart of the problem that Katz presents.

Interesting article

I haven’t had a chance to read it, but the abstract sounds interesting enough….It is kind of old, but has anyone read this?

Ronald M. Lee, (1984) “AUTOMATING RED TAPE: THE PERFORMATIVE VS. INFORMATIVE ROLES OF BUREAUCRATIC DOCUMENTS”, Information Technology & People, Vol. 2 Iss: 3, pp.187 – 204

Abstract: Bureaucratic red tape involves communications that are not only informative, but also performative, representing the exercise of bureaucratic authority. Automation efforts, to be effective in reducing red tape, will need to include these authority aspects as design variables. A concept of bureau-cratic software is suggested.


Info Ecology

Nardi offers that an information ecology is “A system of people, practices, value and technologies in a particuliar local environment. In information ecologies.” In Information ecologies, the spotlight falls not upon technology, but on human activities served by technologies. Spinnuzzi illuminates the social memory/tradition of use of genre and “genre ecologies.”. For Spinnuzzi genre developed so [people] can accomplish activities; his definition of genre shares the focus upon human activities.

The question I would ask of both Nardi and Spinnuzzi’s work is:

What assignment could one develop that focuses upon rhetorical human activities performed with tools?

Such an assignment would include the following questions:
– How have the activities in a particuliar ecology adapted over time?
– How have technical writers used tools to persuade within this ecology?
– Provide an example of a writing technology, would you call it an artifact?
– How have people used rhetorical tools to display/define expertise in this ecology?

Lesson Plans for Rhetorical Ethics

Developing Lesson Plans on Rhetorical Ethics

As we begin exploring ethics in technical writing, and perhaps developing lesson plans for the classes we developed, I found the following link to a syllabus developed by Lindsey Latour and Tina Urbain for their class:

Rhetorical Ethics in the Introduction to Professional Writing Classroom (


I found this document interesting for several reasons:

– My first stop was their bib/refs.  Our reading includes two essays that they identify as the central works regarding the subject, the Katz and Ornatowski pieces.  (They provide useful synopsis and thought provoking questions to include in a study guide for each) 

The authors make a convincing case that not only should rhetorical ethics be introduced very early in a technical writing program, but that those early sessions should be taught as a block of lessons. (As opposed to dispersed over a semester)

– Finally, their project could serve as a useful model for packaging our own syllabi.  They include an introduction describing their method(ology), provide a brief synopsis of each reading, define outcomes, offer two lesson plans with grading criteria for assignments.  There Bib/refs when combined with Prof Hawk’s could inform/feed our own reading selections on ethics.

info eco

Although it may not have sounded like it in class, I do like Nardi & O’Day’s approach to the idea of information ecologies. And as I mentioned, their explanation of an ecology sounds like a more dynamic conception (a 3-D version, if you will) of  the rhetorical situation. I’m still wary of their “we are not cogs” position in the following comment, but I do really like the way they talk about what the ecology allows for, in the third sentence: “In an ecology, we are not cogs in sweeping sociological processes. Instead, we are individuals with real relationships to other individuals. The scale of an ecology allows us to find individual points of leverage, ways into the system, and avenues of intervention.”

Isn’t that one of the central lesson we hope our students will take from whatever writing class we are teaching? We want them to find a way in, a place to land—whatever metaphor/cliché you prefer. So I like what the idea of information ecologies could bring to a professional writing classroom.

As far as assignment ideas go, I’m having a hard time moving beyond the find-an-ecology-and-write-something-about-it stage. The Wolff idea that Christian posted looks interesting so I’m going to take a closer look at it. And I like Matt’s ideas about keystone texts.

Perhaps a good place to start would be with the concept of “diversity,” as explained by Nardi & O’Day. While they speak of diversity in people/knowledge/skills as well as tools/texts, I think I would focus this assignment on the tools/texts. There would be great value, I think, in students’ learning about all of the different kinds of informational and persuasive texts the populate any given information/workplace ecology. So that would be the starting point for the assignment: I would ask students, after they’ve read about this idea, to identify such an ecology and the texts that circulate through it. From there, they could engage in classification, explanation, analysis, and other kinds of writing exercises. (Clearly, I’m still thinking about this one …)

Information Ecologies assignment

Obviously, the first part of the assignment would be for the students to read the text by Nardi and O’Day. Then, a possible connecting task could be:

Think of an information ecology that you are a part of and describe the way it functions. What are the keystone species within it? What is its habitation? What are the different spheres of influence and commitment?

Alternative: A copy shop, a bank, and a library are all ecologies. What about a university, a sports team, or a fraternity? Pick one and find out if it is an ecology or a community by looking at its structure and the way it functions.