64.3, August 2017

The Magic and Mechanics of Research

By Sam Dragga

Every research project is a curious interaction of magic and mechanics. Magic—in the creativity that inspires the research questions, in the ingenuity that devises the research methods, in the perspicacity that interprets the results, and in the sensitivity to audience and purpose that elicits ideal words and illustrations. And mechanics—in the scrupulous review and citation of previous studies, in the rigorous execution of research methods, in the meticulous compiling of results, and in the conscientious preparation of manuscripts according to publisher guidelines.

Ordinarily, we relegate magic and mechanics to separate sections of a research report: we isolate mechanics in the methods and results sections while we extract all the magic for the introduction, analysis, and conclusions. This separation, however, obscures their reciprocal relationship. I would thus like to share with you, insights from the authors of the four articles in this issue about the magic and mechanics of their research.

Carolyn Boiarsky’s “Effects of Communicating with Emails and Texts in Risk Communication: Information Poor, Writer-Based, A-Synchronous” investigates the impact of electronic messaging on the communication practices of managers in crisis situations, specifically, the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010, and a landslide at a construction site in Skokie, Illinois in 2015. The article examines messages in this array of cases for evidence of three frequent failures: insufficient information, a writer-based instead of reader-based orientation, and formatting inappropriate to the information.

Carolyn explains how she developed interest in this subject of risk communication:

It was the article by Herndl, Fennell, and Miller (1991) about the Challenger that first piqued my interest in risk communication. I went delving into the Appendices of the Report of the President’s Commission on the accident and discovered that as far back as 1978, eight years before the explosion, Morton Thiokol was aware of the problem. According to the article, the engineers at Three Mile Island had also been communicating about a procedural problem prior to that accident.

Then, in 1992, the Chicago Flood occurred and the news media were mentioning a document that had been written several months prior to the flood, warning about the problem. I managed to get a copy of that memo. At this point I decided to try to discover the reason readers didn’t heed these warnings and began to study the rhetorical aspects of the documents to see if there were commonalities among them. I discovered there were. I’ve discussed these factors in my new book, Risk Communication and MisCommunication: Case Studies in Science, Technology, Engineering, Government, and Community Organizations.

I’ve continued to examine the written communication between engineers and engineers and managers as new disasters have occurred. Prior to the 2010 BP oil rig explosion and the February 2017 break in the Oroville Dam in California, emails had been sent warning of potential problems. My students have become very aware of my interest. As soon as they hear about an environmental problem, they begin a search to see if they can find the documents written before the event that warned there was a problem.

Thus the magic in the provocative reading that leads Carolyn to more and more reading and ultimately the inspiration of a theory that explains the available evidence. Carolyn also notes, however, the important mechanics of research that make available the materials that inspire:

Obtaining the original documents for these cases was not very difficult, though sometimes it took a long time. The investigations and resulting final reports that include the primary documents that are written in relation to these major disasters are done by government agencies and are, therefore, in the public domain. Anyone can go online and google them. It is also possible to file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the federal or state agency involved. Sometimes, once these documents are made public because of a request by the news media, the government publishes them on the internet. In addition, I have found that members of the news media are very helpful. Although many newspapers are legally unable to provide the documents that they have received via FOIA, the reporters are very helpful in providing information on how to submit a FOIA request.

Emily January Petersen’s “Articulating Value Amid Persistent Misconceptions about Technical and Professional Communication in the Workplace” reports on interviews with 39 women working in the field of technical communication. The practitioners varied in age, class, industry, organization, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, and marital/family status but shared the experience of devaluation on the job (e.g., categorized with administrative assistants, ignored in meetings, dismissed as inessential). Tactics and strategies for addressing and correcting misconceptions as well as resisting and abolishing stereotypes prove important resources with which technical communicators must be equipped.

Emily’s inspiration for this research project derives from a series of distressing interactions on the job. As she explains,

My first experiences in the workplace as a technical writer/editor were upsetting because of gender bias. I found that my male managers and colleagues were more interested in how my biology would make them uncomfortable or change the schedule and makeup of the department, rather than paying attention to my contributions to the team and how the company and its structures could be adjusted if and when motherhood happened for me. In addition, I faced several incidents of sexual harassment, and those experiences, coupled with the overall bias I faced as a woman, led me to want to explore how women in technical communication were faring.

Equipped with this insight, she engaged in the mechanics of research and writing and revision, building a dissertation and, with the aid of anonymous reviewers, adapting a portion of it for this journal article. And that intensive process itself generated new insights with implications for teaching as well as ongoing research:

I heard stories of misconceptions and devaluation over and over again in the many interviews I conducted. Yet I kept facing skepticism from colleagues in the field who wanted to claim that we have already covered the issue of value and that we have solved it. I found through peer reviews, conferences, and networking with other scholars that so many believe this issue has been resolved. I think we have certainly considered it and written about it, but if practitioners are continuing to face difficulties and still have stories to tell about how they are misunderstood and left out of conversations with SMEs, then we still need to pay attention to it.

Given what I learned about misconceptions, I have started addressing it as a practical concern for students entering the workforce and I’ve started thinking about ways to address devaluation at the college level. I see interdepartmental events and cross-disciplinary coursework and projects as ways of getting students from SME fields and technical communication to talk to each other and work with each other. There is a continuing need for those of us who teach future practitioners to be creative about the ways we teach students to learn by doing and to interact with students from other disciplines.

Rhonda Stanton’s “Do Technical/Professional Writing (TPW) Programs Offer What Students Need for Their Start in the Workplace? A Comparison of Requirements in Program Curricula and Job Ads in Industry” discusses the findings of a survey of hiring managers and recruiters in the field of technical communication regarding the skills and experiences expected of entry-level practitioners. The findings of this survey were reinforced by evidence from job ads for technical writers on Indeed.com, CareerBuilder.com, and DICE.com. The article proceeds to examine the compiled list of job requirements in light of the course offerings of academic programs to determine whether education and training are available to students for each of the expected skills.

Rhonda’s inspiration for this research project derived from the intersection of job experience in industry, readings in the field, and job experience as a program administrator. She explains:

Because I worked as a corporate recruiter some during my time in industry, I was interested in job descriptions and requirements. One of the best known job boards did not provide quality candidates for me, so I didn’t use it. The research I read about job ads/job postings in TC, however, looked at only that job board.

With recruiting in my background, my interest in the relation between job requirements and TC programs became even more important as I prepared to take over the technical writing program at Missouri State. A daily (constant) concern I have now, as program director, is to make sure that the requirements we have for our students are preparing them well to transition into the workplace. For majors in TC, one of the goals of graduation is to land the first job. Instructors can help students prepare for their job search by understanding how the job ads appear.

In addition, as a former recruiter, I know how very expensive it is to replace an employee who leaves, and in the computer industry where I was, a “new” employee may not contribute to the company’s bottom line until he/she has been employed for an entire year. If that employee stayed just one more year, that wasn’t very long in comparison to the investment the company made. When employees believe it’s time to move on to a different company, though, it is important for them to understand the job search processes and how to navigate through those successfully.

Rhonda also acknowledges the mechanics of research. “Getting participants for the survey was the biggest challenge,” she notes. “I persisted, however, because publishing is one of my job requirements.”

Kristen R. Moore’s “The Technical Communicator as Participant, Facilitator, and Designer in Public Engagement Projects” reports on a field research study of professional public engagement specialists and their efforts to cultivate dialogue in a community about a prospective railroad corridor project. The article finds that technical communicators involved in public engagement initiatives must be participants, facilitators, and designers of the dialogic process.

Kristen comes to this research project through readings and community activity related to social justice, finding inspiration at the intersection of the practical and the theoretical, of the material and the ideal:

I’ve long been interested in how we make decision-making projects more equitable. I think it’s our responsibility as technical communicators to see the fissures and slippage that might allow for more just decisions—and these often happen in seemingly mundane places, events, and projects, like building a railroad or facilitating to a public meeting.

When (in 2008) I learned about the work that this organization was doing (tackling communication and justice problems from within transportation planning projects), I knew I had to learn from their ideas, to research their strategies, and to bring them back to our field, which hasn’t always understood public engagement in the ways they enact it. By that I mean, although public engagement seems to clearly exist for the edification of communities, I haven’t seen it understood as a social justice project that can also be profitable. Their approach to public engagement isn’t mere philanthropy—it’s a business model that builds from the assumption that we can make our communities better through public policy and government mandates. This makes me hopeful. It also attuned me to the need for alternative theoretical perspectives and sites for developing technical communication strategies.

I do think that locating technical communication in new ways broadens our expectations for the field and the potential for change through technical communication. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to see our potential for enacting meaningful, if small, change.

Kristen also acknowledges the simple mechanics of managing a field research project: for example, transit to and from the research site and public meetings, taking notes during meetings, or keeping records of informal interviews and conversations with clients and citizens.

While the conventions of the research report typically isolate magic from mechanics, I think it is instructive for us as a field to explore the points of their intersection and interaction by detailing the researcher’s experience with brief and candid narratives about how magic influences mechanics and vice versa: for example, “This idea displayed itself in my mind as a map and that image encouraged my learning how to build maps with this application and ultimately to develop the map that I included here as Figure 1.” We could also apply the magic and mechanics of research reflexively to identify the vital characteristics of this reciprocal relationship. For example, through empirical studies we could address a series of important questions about the research process: Does the reciprocal relationship of magic and mechanics differ according to the individual? according to the research project? according to quantitative versus qualitative studies? What are the factors that make this reciprocal relationship more or less productive of noteworthy research? more or less productive of a gratifying research experience? of a cost-effective research experience? How do writing and research technologies invigorate or dilute this reciprocal relationship?

If we would explicate this reciprocal relationship, including it in research reports and integrating it in education and training, we could reinforce the humanity and fragility of the research process. We could also cultivate technical communicators who are more and more aware and agile in building knowledge—more stirring in their exercise of mechanics and more industrious in their pursuit of magic.