67.2 May 2020

Mentors and Muses

By Sam Dragga, Editor

Every research project has its sources of inspiration, almost always in the lived experience of its author or authors. The luckiest of scholars, however, also have mentors or muses: that is, individuals in the field who advise or guide the scholar through one or more stages of a research project. This could be, for example, a prominent and prolific researcher who delivers a stirring presentation at a conference and encourages you to initiate study of a related topic, or a wise friend who engages in a series of e-mail exchanges with you or ongoing conversations about your project, or a conscientious colleague who offers comments on the earliest versions of your manuscript. Their impact on the final published project might be briefly cited in acknowledgments, but the nature and scope of this influence is typically invisible.

At my invitation, however, the authors of the five manuscripts in this issue of Technical Communication were all willing to discuss the influence of their mentors and muses. Their comments make it immediately evident that the influence of mentors and muses is as unique as the resulting manuscripts.

“A Study of the Websites of the 42 Double First-class Chinese Universities: How Does Confucianism Influence the Content on Chinese University Websites?” by Daniel Ding examines how the values of ren, yi, and li (i.e., kindness, righteousness, and proper behavior) guide the design of university homepages in ways that might not be readily apparent, especially to American and European viewers. Daniel focuses on five topics: political/national agendas, history and tradition, important people, groups of people, and views of campus. This content analysis, conducted in three visits to each website during three consecutive months, indicates that Confucian ideas about human relationships constitute a vigorous influence on the design of university websites in China. Daniel finds that developers consistently adopt words and images that emphasize support of collectivism, deference to leaders, appreciation of history and tradition, and admiration for public infrastructure (buildings, walls, gates, gardens).

As Daniel explains, this article started with a series of conversations:

In 2008, while I was on a sabbatical at one of China’s 42 Double First-class Universities—Zhengzhou University, I had a conversation with some Chinese professors of English for Specific Purposes who observed my class of advanced technical communication. I was teaching page design that day, so our conversation started with their questions on page design and then it moved on to a discussion about developing websites. One of the professors observed that Chinese websites unusually displayed much more information than Western websites. He gave me two examples: the website of Zhengzhou University and that of the University of Kansas where he had studied for 6 months. He further explained that the homepage of the UK website had only 15 clickable buttons and barely any detailed information on that page. It worked like a table of contents, simple and concise, whereas the homepage of ZU had many more clickable buttons and carried much more information, so much so that the Chinese professor himself was often not sure where to begin to browse.

The professor’s comments on the differences between Chinese and Western websites inspired me to begin the research project. Initially, I wanted to compare and contrast 50 Chinese universities and 50 American universities, but after I began to collect data, I realized that there was too much information to deal with, so I quit in late 2009.

In 2014, I was invited back to Zhengzhou University to give a lecture on culture and technical communication. I met with the professor again. He asked me about the research project; he thought I must have finished it. I told him that I quit because it was simply overwhelming. He encouraged me to finish the research project, but he also cautioned me “not to get involved in politics,” if I also intended that the Chinese be the target audience. He said he had never seen any articles that studied Chinese university websites.

His words encouraged me to resume the research project in 2015. This time, I decided to focus on Chinese university websites only. Studying American university websites could be another project after this one. In 2016, I was invited to give a lecture at China’s Capital University of Economics and Trade in Beijing. There, I met with the professor again, together with some other professors from China’s Beijing University and Nankai University. We talked about technical communication and translation and website design. One of the professors from Beijing University told me that Chinese university websites are “often politically oriented, because they publish CPC policies and carry national and local news and give attention to political leaders.” I had already come to a conclusion somewhat like this, but it was gratifying to hear it expressed by someone who was teaching at a Chinese university.

When I finished the first draft of my paper, I got it to these Chinese professors. I wanted them to comment on the first draft. I particularly wanted to know if they thought my study neglected some important aspects of Chinese university websites. Two of them provided feedback, and both were concerned that my study “is discriminatory against Chinese university websites because I analyze the websites from the angle of Western ideology.” I invited them to tell me what I needed to do to address that issue. They told me that “showing respect to government leadership is a fine tradition” and that my study “criticizes” the coverage of the CPC and government policies.

I was a bit surprised because in my study I never said anything negative about the Chinese university websites; instead, I just show what the websites display and analyze the web content from the perspective of Confucian ideology. One of the professors who provided feedback was actually the one who had told me that the Chinese university websites were often politically oriented. So when he said my study was biased, he probably meant to tell me that I should not focus on the political aspect of the websites, just as the professor from Zhengzhou University had advised me.

Our email exchanges focused on ideology, though they occasionally commented on other parts of my study, such as the use of university gates and walls. Now I can still remember what they said to me in the final email to me: “The study as it is can never be published in China.”

“Inform or Persuade? An Analysis of Technical Communication Textbooks,” by Regan Joswiak and Mike Duncan, examines 10 of the leading technical communication textbooks (including the book adopted for STC’s Foundation Certification, Technical Communication Today) for their coverage of informative and persuasive purposes in oral and written technical discourse. The study offers a semantic analysis of keywords and their permutations (e.g., inform, informative, persuade, persuasive) occurring in tables of contents, chapters (including examples and checklists), and indexes. Regan and Mike find that this long-lived separation of informative and persuasive in rhetorical purposes is inconsistently explained and applied, especially in discussions of oral presentations and technical reports. Their advice, as a consequence, is that textbooks drop this distinction as artificial and focus instead on the persuasive purpose of all technical discourse.

Regan’s mentor on this research project is also the article’s co-author. As she explains:

This article started as a seminar paper in the Research Methods course I was taking while I was in my master’s program at University of Houston-Downtown, and Mike was the instructor for the course. After reading it, he encouraged me to expand the work and pursue publishing it, so we collaborated on the piece, with him contributing to the theoretical background.

The idea for the paper came about, actually, because of Mike’s commentary in the course and because of another course that I took with him my first semester in the program, Stylistics and Editing. One of the textbooks we were reading in the course demonstrated the same dichotomy as the ones in our analysis, so when I was later taking the Research Methods course, I thought back to this and felt the topic would be interesting to examine. Without Mike, however, I can guarantee that neither the seminar paper nor the article would have happened, so I would like to highlight the extent of his influence.

Other than Mike, if I go back further, I could point to my influence as an undergrad. My first heavy exposure to rhetoric was through Dr. Carroll Nardone while I was attending Sam Houston State University. I took Argument and Persuasion, Advanced Composition, and Studies in Rhetoric with her. She ultimately encouraged me to think about language in ways that I hadn’t considered before through the readings and analyses my classmates and I conducted in these courses. It’s really because of these classes that I was able to see the role of persuasion in communication and texts.

Meanwhile, Mike traces his thinking about this project to a graduate course with Michael Leff (1941–2010), Professor of Rhetoric and Chair of Communication Studies at the University of Memphis. As Mike explains:

He would always press me on my belief in the universality of persuasion in language. First, I thought it was because I was the English Department interloper, but then I realized we were having an extended conversation. I remember he asked at my dissertation prospectus defense if I thought all communication was rhetorical, and he was scowling somewhat as he asked. He did that a lot. My answer was that it was, but some language was more persuasive or more obviously persuasive—an improvisation that given the resulting grunt, seemed to satisfy him enough at the time. I’ve been trying to refine that off-the-cuff answer ever since. He was generally resistant to expanding rhetoric willy-nilly – and for sound reasons – but I also thought, and still do, that a “big rhetoric” was ideal for teaching purposes as a good way to introduce rhetoric to students who hadn’t thought much about it before.

In Regan’s and Mike’s resulting article, we thus observe ideas that link three generations of scholars.

In “The Pedagogical Opportunities of Technical Standards: Learning from the Electronic Product Code,” Jordan Frith focuses on the Tag Data Standard published by GS1. The 126-page TDS document (with 74 more pages of appendices) specifies the data format of the Electronic Product Code (EPC) and how this data is carried on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. Jordan’s analysis of the TDS document identifies several deficiencies that would make for productive classroom discussion. For example, the document fails to display instructions in a consistent design, fails to indicate which sections address which of five intended audiences, fails to refer readers to 9 of the 14 appendices, and fails to highlight technical terms in the text that are defined in the glossary. Jordan proposes that instructors consider using technical standards like the TDS in their teaching because these documents are important examples of technical communication, composed by multiple authors for multi-layered audiences, offering multiple opportunities to discuss information design and usability.

Jordan’s start on this project was subject to the indirect influence of researchers in a related field:

My biggest influence for this project actually fell outside tech comm to the related field of information studies. My “muse” in a sense was Susan Leigh Star (and also Geoff Bowker) who did such important work on infrastructure. I wasn’t in contact with either one (Susan Leigh Star is deceased), but I felt like my work was in conversation with their important contributions to the field.

Star and Bowker did a lot to encourage social scientists and humanists to dive beneath the surface to explore the infrastructures and hidden documents and materials that hold our world together. That focus on the stuff below the surface is what got me interested in standards. Standards, after all, are ubiquitous and hugely consequential. They shape so many things we encounter, but they remain mostly invisible. I was inspired by their work to “make the invisible visible,” and I was particularly interested in doing so for pedagogical purposes as a new way of thinking through teaching technical communication.

Star and Bowker have been fairly widely cited in technical communication scholarship, particularly their concept of boundary objects. But I was particularly receptive to their work on infrastructure for this piece. Even though I don’t frame this article as focused on infrastructure, that belief in the importance of the often ignored, mundane documents of everyday life is what got me started examining the pedagogical potential of technical standards.

Since writing this article, however, I’ve also been working closely with Sarah Read who has also explored some of the oft-ignored documents that shape technical communication. And we are currently working on a book together on technical communication as infrastructure that includes extended work on technical standards.

“Recursive Participatory Mentoring: A New Model for Mentoring Women in the Technical Communication Workplace,” by Lisa Melonçon and Liza Potts, reviews the existing research on the subject of mentoring. Lisa and Liza find that the majority of studies focus on settings in higher education and that studies of industry settings typically adopt the convention of the experienced mentor and the naive protégé as definitive. The available mentoring models neither encourage collaborative relationships nor acknowledge that a series of relationships for different kinds of knowledge sharing might be necessary. Lisa and Liza adapt the mentoring model of the academic organization Women in Technical Communication in order to make it applicable to women working in industry. Lisa and Liza discuss the six dimensions of their new mentoring model, illustrate its impact with a pertinent case, and identify five steps for effective implementation in a variety of job settings.

Lisa and Liza claim a shared influence on their research:

This project came out of our broader concerns and commitment to mentoring women. Since both of us have industry experience and still do consulting, we were inspired by the many women we have mentored and how the process we describe works across different kinds of workplaces. In some ways there is not one individual influence, but rather, a collective necessity borne out of our own previous workplace experiences and what we’ve learned from working with Women In Technical Communication in higher education. We would both name Pat Sullivan as a key influencer of this project. Pat has been a mentor to both of us during our time in higher education.

The scope of this collective influence on our thinking about mentoring includes a determination to make sure safe spaces are provided for women to discuss issues that are unique to their jobs. Outside of providing space, women in the workplace have taught us the value of listening and accepting that there are always multiple paths and ways to achieve the same goal. That is, women need to match their mentoring experiences to who they are. Our experiences mentoring and being mentored and matching that to our understanding of the research process was what led to the updated mentoring model we present in this issue. This collective influence was driven in large part from the lessons we learned from Pat about space and listening and providing an empathetic response to women’s concerns and issues.

Pat’s influence is legendary in that she is likely to be named by a large number of women in higher education, and she also embodies many of the characteristics that are present in the model that we describe.

In “Audio Description: Making Useful Maps for Blind and Visually Impaired People,” Megan Conway, Brett Oppegaard, and Tuyet Hayes demonstrate the process of translating visual information to acoustic information using the example of National Park Service tourist materials. Insights from blind, visually impaired, and sighted stakeholders inform their effort, as does empirical evidence from the field and research on the practice of localization. From this mixed-methods inquiry emerges a series of tentative guidelines for the creation of more accessible maps through audio description. Especially important is that translators identify the map’s purpose (e.g., crossing territory versus displaying topography) and offer a brief overview of key features or sections of the map before proceeding to a detailed description that allows individual exploration of the site. The influences on their thinking about this project were several.

For Megan, building on a lifetime of experience as a deafblind individual, the opportunities for conversations with blind or visually impaired people about their experiences proved especially important:

My “muse” for this work is my own experiences as a visually impaired person (in fact a deafblind person) and the experiences of my friends and students over the years. As an academic, I have sat through many presentations that inspired me to think more theoretically about problems of accessibility and equal access to the world around me, but nothing is more “inspiring” than showing up to an activity, expecting to have a good time but finding yourself isolated and left out of that activity because you can’t see and/or hear what is going on.

To me, the need for audio description is a no brainer, and solving the various problems of how to do it well so that people who are blind or visually impaired get the most out of the experience is like figuring out the puzzle of how my own life can fit into the rest of society. While doing research for this project I had the opportunity to talk with other people who are blind or visually impaired about their experiences, their thoughts about audio description and how to make it better, and their words are what drove my thinking when working on this project and this article.

For Brett, it was the rhetoric scholar Gerard Goggin:

I had some key discussions about this topic with Gerard Goggin, the Wee Kim Wee Chair in Communication Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Dr. Goggin published the first international study on Digital Disability in 2003, and he has integrated his interests in emerging communication technologies and disability studies for decades, including the books Disability and the Media (2015), and the new Routledge Companion to Disability and Media (2020), plus numerous benchmark journal articles.

I wanted to find common ground between technical communication and disability studies that created a fertile discussion space for scholars and practitioners from both disciplines. Dr. Goggin’s transdisciplinary work in this area provided inspiration and also many concrete examples of how that sort of discourse could be done. In my talks with him about the challenges of this, and related projects, he gave me both encouragement and practical guidance that I appreciated. He was one of the first to welcome me into this research community many years ago, and his work is the model for anyone bridging communication and disability studies, especially when that bridging relates to emerging media topics.

And for Tuyet, the key influence was Brett, who invited her to contribute to this project as a research assistant. In this capacity, she focused on identifying and reviewing the existing and pertinent studies of the topic and, thus, immersing herself in sources of inspiration.

The insights offered here about mentors and muses, I think, make the case for instituting Acknowledgments as a required section for published research articles. In a field that cultivates interactivity, networking, and a constellation of relationships, we ought to operate on the simple expectation that researchers will readily identify the individuals whose wisdom and generosity have made possible the manuscript’s publication. I don’t think this required section ought to be a generic “to my spouse and family for their love and support” or “to the reviewers and editor for their perceptive comments” but a specific identification of advisors and guides for their precise contributions to the inception, continuation, or completion of a research project. In adding this required section, we would reinforce the humanity of the research we do and the community of attentive and receptive colleagues from which it arises.

In this discussion of mentors and muses, I would also point to a key section of this journal, Recent & Relevant, and, specifically, the retiring editor Lyn Gattis, the incoming editor Sean Herring, and their conscientious monitors who continuously check research journals across this and related fields for articles that might guide the teaching and practice of technical communication. I know that my research and writing as well as my editing of this journal profit immensely from their influence. Their efforts in every issue bring to light a wide array of pertinent research and bring to my notice important studies that I likely would fail to find. I appreciate that Technical Communication is the only journal in the field that offers this easily accessed and reliable source of inspiration, and I acknowledge the R&R mentors and muses who make it possible.