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Commons-Based Pedagogies and the Social Turn in Technical Communication

1. In our contribution to this symposium, we contend that commons-based pedagogies can help technical communication follow out the logic of its social turn. Although this turn has been enormously productive, theoretical conversations tend to be more fully realized than the pedagogical practices of many teachers (ourselves included). In historical terms, this disparity has been a function of the shaping power of institutions, both disciplinary and local, some of which we discuss. The main objective of this essay is to illustrate how the cultural commons can enhance the education of technical communication students in courses framed by a social perspective. Our examples come from, a commons-based website that hosts over 30,000 instruction sets.

2. Since at least the 1980s, scholars have articulated the boundaries of the social turn in technical communication. These boundaries have evolved in waves to encompass nearly every aspect of textual production, reception, and distribution/circulation. First-wave scholars made the case for a social perspective, arguing that writing and communication activities always already inhabit complex human contexts, which involve other texts, discourse conventions, motivations, and worldviews.1 Although rhetoric theory has guided technical communication pedagogy for decades (James Souther dates rhetorically oriented textbooks to the 1920s), the development of a social perspective encouraged a rather different agenda, one that attends to the constructed character of the contexts for instrumental tasks.

3. Second-wave scholars added at least two dimensions to the argument. First, they stressed the pluralistic world of social theory, reminding teachers that the social is not a singular or monolithic concept. Rather, it is something of an intellectual category for a wide range of humanistic ideas, which are not always in agreement with each other.2 The other argument amplified by second-wave scholars addressed the apolitical tenor of social construction. Preliminary work on the social perspective concentrated on consensus and the interpretive acts of negotiation that lead to normative values in communal situations. Such a focus, however, was problematic for teachers interested in questions of power and agency and in communication gestures that regulate belief systems.3 Second-wave scholars, then, promoted an ideological reexamination of technical communication. The field remains occupied by issues of power and agency.

4. Third-wave scholarship is nascent and has just started to develop in a somewhat coherent fashion. In part, its preoccupations include the affective and material aspects of technical communication. Third-wave scholars build on previous work in the social realm, especially ideological work and work that examines the conditional and contingent nature of communication events. And they embrace the historical legacy and basic tenets of social construction. Their program of inquiry, however, shows a contrast when it comes to questions of identity and human agency. Although issues of representation are crucial to any social project, third-wave scholars tend to locate value in what works for people in problem-solving situations. The move from a focus on representation (what things mean) to action (how things function, and to what effect) has become increasingly apparent in the field.4

5. On the instructional side of the equation, each wave has been accompanied by pedagogical development and experimentation. In fact, our own publications on hypertext represent a microcosm of the trajectory for the classroom. Table 1 summarizes this trajectory and offers an example assignment for each wave. There are two things to notice about the table. First, the preoccupations are additive, not substitutive. The social turn has become increasingly complex and sophisticated, encompassing more and more areas of theoretical and practical concern for teachers to accommodate. Second, the assignments involve action and not just analysis. An appealing feature of computer-based hypertext was that it allowed teachers to begin to test—or to further test, in different ways—certain ideas about the social nature of texts. Assignments in the first wave, for example, often focused on issues of authorship. By building collaborative hypertext projects, students and teachers could explore, in an openly visible fashion, intertextual connections and their incorporation into the development of new texts, student texts included. They could also literally collapse the distinctions between writers and readers that post-structuralism troubles. Although it might seem unnecessary to note that scholars with a social vision have translated that vision for the classroom, not all social theorists have been especially interested in pedagogical applications of their work.

Table 1: Elements of the Social Turn in Technical Communication
Waves Preoccupations Publications Arguments Assignments
First Interpretation “Issues in Hypertext-Supported Collaborative Writing” Hypertext can alter the ways groups make meaning. Use hypertext to manage a collaborative project.
Second Interpretation + Ideology “Interfacing: Multiple Visions of Computer Use in Technical Communication” Ideological contexts can shape hypertext use. Analyze the culture of work in hypertext development.
Third Interpretation + Ideology + Affect “Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage” Outdated notions of originality can impede hypertext design practice. Redesign existing Web content for a new context.

Despite notable pedagogical development and experimentation, the work of teachers has not always reflected the richness and complexity of theoretical conversations about the social.5

6. To illuminate some specific strategies for third-wave approaches as they relate to the cultural commons, we now turn to a brief sketch of an assignment that would be suitable for an introductory course in technical communication (or, with very little modification, any introductory communication or writing course). The assignment focuses on the use of one commons-based website,, which describes itself as “The How-To Manual You Write.” Currently hosting more than 30,000 how-to articles, uses general wiki collaboration tools for creating instructions for activities ranging from the basics of needlepoint to learning American Sign Language.

7. WikiHow offers a useful site for teaching and learning because

  • the articles cover a wide spectrum of practical activities (so students should be able to find something they are interested in);
  • the quality of the texts range from very good to sketchy—there is room for improvement;
  • the instructions themselves are open to editing and (most importantly) to debate over specific edits and revisions (and those debates are retained on site for later reading);
  • the status of author and the ownership of text are actively deconstructed (often in productive ways) in wiki environments.

8. The assignment described here assumes that students have already been introduced to basic technical communication concepts and practices such as functional prose style and the use of images. These concepts and practices might also be initially introduced, either with readings or guided discussion, during the assignment below. The assignment begins with a discussion of the cultural commons:

  • What are the roles and activities that individuals engage in to contribute toward a cultural commons?
  • How are individuals rewarded?
  • How is participation encouraged?
  • How and when is participation discouraged?
  • How do users of the site occupy (or how they are placed within) different subject positions as they move across user, author, editor, and community member roles?

(Many students are already familiar with resources such as Wikipedia, but they may not have actively contributed to the site. A background reading on Wikipedia may be useful for highlighting both the functionality and the social dynamics of the site, which are sometimes contentious.)

9. A primary goal for discussion is to help students see the ways that identity in collaborative texts is at least partially—sometimes primarily—actively constructed as a textual object and process. In the samples, the wide variation in how “user” functions as an agent and how “instructions” function as a genre demonstrates the actively constructed nature of these terms. And the role of “author” oscillates between the traditional, elevated expert and socially constructed, mass agent, more of a vector than an identity, as instructional texts emerge, are revised, and are tested within the community. Although those roles are not invoked explicitly in many cases, the traces of ongoing negotiation over them can be surfaced during analysis and embodied action—as user, as editor, as writer, as community member—throughout the assignment. Furthermore, as bodied individuals work within the site, they are constructed with different (sometimes contradictory) levels of differential power: User becomes editor becomes author becomes commenter, although no single individual is ever completely free to simply step into a new role. The communal discourse, among other strong forces, structures the possibilities (sometimes conflicting) of various roles.

10. The assignment following this discussion has four steps. First, select a demonstration article for introducing the assignment. For the demonstration, choose an article that can be done with materials at hand or with materials that are easy to assemble. The Card Tricks section of works well, given the relative complexity of some card tricks and the minimal supplies needed (usually just a deck of playing cards). The traditional “Cops and Robbers” card trick is a good option.

11. Second, without actually working through the instructions, ask your students to evaluate the instructions based on general instructional writing principles such as the use of numbered steps and active language, images, and explanations. For the Cops and Robbers example (at least the version posted at the time of this writing), the instructions are numbered sequentially and written in active voice, but the instructions lack pictures. In addition, active steps are mixed in with explanations.

12. Third, split the class into teams and have one team member follow the instructions while the rest of the team takes notes. In either case, students observing the activity should record what the user is doing, where they have to re-read or re-do steps, and approximately how long each step takes. After the tests are complete, ask teams to report back to the class on the results of their tests. At this stage, the goal is to collect possible revision points (both to improve the instructions and to provide students with objects for later analysis).

13. Student reports should examine how the user is being constructed (with particular attention paid to the roles taken on within the team).

  • When people read and use these instructions, what roles are they being asked to assume?
  • Do users have some space to adapt the instructions to their own local situation?
  • What skills are users asked to bring to the situation?
  • What is the social role of users within their own situation?
  • What parts of the instructions explain background information to the user?
  • What parts of the instructions merely tell the user to act without understanding?
  • How are the observers (the non-user team members) situated as agents—evaluators? Data collectors? Potential authors? Community members?
  • At what points do the instructions (and discussions) move across genres and media—into personal fulfillment narrative, into essay, into satire, into expository text?

14. The assignment switches gears at this point to analyze the rhetorical context for and for instructions in general. Begin by having students review the Discuss and History tabs on the Cops and Robbers Card Trick page, noting problems that other participants in the community have noted. Then branch out to looking at the discussion and history for other articles:

15. Finally, as a short in-class or out-of-class assignment, ask students to address the following questions:

  • Do the discussions provide a forum for users? Writers? Both? Are these groups distinguished in an explicit or implicit manner?
  • What types of edits are commonly made (e.g., clarification, explanation, re-sequencing)?
  • What types of justifications are offered for edits?
  • What range is there in what counts as “How To” instructions? How much background, rationale, or exposition is offered? In what situations or for what topics? Do some of the samples seem more like overviews or reports than instructions? Does the community seem to support these other types of texts? And what, textually, distinguishes one type of text (instruction) from another (narration or explication)?
  • How does the community deal with hostile individuals (in Discuss threads or otherwise)? What activities seem to be perceived as hostile (by “original” authors and by the community in general)?
  • What types of topics seem to be the most controversial? How is controversy productively dealt with?
  • What types of topics seem to be the least controversial?
  • Do people feel a sense of ownership over the articles they have written? Do they feel a sense of community? How can you tell?

16. If you want to focus the assignment more concretely on instructional writing, as a capping activity (after discussing responses to the above questions) ask the students to find, test, and then revise one instruction sample. Their revision suggestions should include a Discuss post that follows some of the best practices for making and justifying edits, based on class discussion and their own research.

17. This brief pedagogical module highlights the tensions that exist among the subject roles offered by cultural commons sites and the traditional, functional roles occupied by users of instructional discourse. By switching among these roles—user, author, editor, community member—and analyzing the ideological constraints at work in the community and genre, students come to understand how different individuals struggle over meaning and authority. Such exercises (and there is a nearly infinite range) offer students multiple, embodied, and active positions within which they can engage with the social, ideological, and material aspects of technical communication.


1. For example, using work from the sociology of science as a theoretical backdrop, Charles Bazerman discussed the nature of research laboratories and how their protocols influence the ways in which scientists conceptualize and write up experiments. He also considered the publication procedures disciplinary communities invent in order to regulate and validate scientific knowledge. In another early effort, Lester Faigley presented the social perspective as an alternative to the textual perspective, which focuses on the formal features of technical communication documents, and the individual perspective, which focuses on the cognitive processes of a writer. He used a series of representative vignettes from the nonacademic workplace to demonstrate broader effects of discourse, including its capacity to “define, organize, and maintain social groups” (235).

2. For example, in a frequently cited article from 1993, Charlotte Thralls and Nancy Blyler differentiated three social approaches to technical communication: the social constructionist approach, the ideologic approach, and the paralogic hermeneutic approach. What was particularly instructive in their discussion was the extent to which theorists who share key presuppositions can branch and diverge.

3. As Thralls and Blyler put it, consensus can be “not so much an index of agreement but an exercise of power” (17).

4. Technocultural operations transform readers into users in online environments (Selber). This shift is also discernible in research methods that illuminate spatial relationships, which position more than define elements in a rhetorical system (Sullivan and Porter); in organizational perspectives that locate usability in and across workspaces instead of in isolated artifacts (Johnson-Eilola); in cultural studies that account for the embodiment and materiality of literacy (Palmeri); and in efforts to characterize the role and function of technical communication (Slack). Jennifer Slack, for example, calls for a “cartography of affect” that maps information flows and blockages in institutions that rely on functional discourse. She admonishes the field to concentrate less on defining identity and more on understanding what particular identities might enable (or not) in specific communication situations and on understanding how affective relations shape the possibilities and prospects for communication exchanges. Her recommendation is to stay focused on mapping the actual practices of technical communicators, because identity categories, even well-defined or mature ones, cannot guarantee respect, stability, or agency for either practitioners or the field.

5. For example, textbooks often organize technical communication courses around predetermined genres: proposals, progress reports, instruction sets, technical descriptions, resumes, and the like. In such formulations, the ground rules for communication frequently assume certain genres, specific media. But as the paralogic hermeneutic approach suggests, students should write in a particular genre only if that genre seems to offer the right response to a communication situation. Complex, real-world solutions frequently require innovative thinking about genre and media, not a priori responses. Another institutional constraint on pedagogy is the orientation of the field toward issues of plagiarism and originality (see Johnson-Eilola and Selber). Although many in the field claim to take a social approach, teachers still often expect their students to produce what are considered to be thoroughly “original” texts—texts that make a clear distinction between invented and borrowed work, between that which is unique and that which is derivative or supportive. But following the logic of the social turn, “unique” texts should hold little inherent value in technical communication. Instead, teachers should be encouraging students to learn ways to use existing information to solve real, concrete issues.

Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles. “Scientific Writing as a Social Act: A Review of the Literature of the Sociology of Science.” New Essays in Technical and Scientific Communication: Research, Theory, Practice. Eds. Paul V. Anderson, R. John Brockmann, and Carolyn R. Miller. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood, 1983. 156-184.

Faigley, Lester. “Nonacademic Writing: The Social Perspective.” Writing in Nonacademic Settings. Eds. Lee Odell and Dixie Goswami. New York: The Guilford Press, 1985. 231-248.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Datacloud: Toward a New Theory of Online Work. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart A. Selber. “Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage.” Computers and Composition 24 (2007): 375-403.

Palmeri, Jason. “Disability Studies, Cultural Analysis, and the Critical Practice of Technical Communication Pedagogy.” Technical Communication Quarterly 15 (2006): 49-65.

Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.

Selber, Stuart A., Johndan Johnson-Eilola, and Cynthia L. Selfe. “Interfacing: Multiple Visions of Computer Use in Technical Communication.” Three Keys to the Past: The History of Technical Communication. Eds. Teresa Kynell and Michael G. Moran. Greenwich: Ablex, 1999. 197-226.

Selber, Stuart A., Dan McGavin, William Klein, and Johndan Johnson-Eilola. “Issues in Hypertext-Supported Collaborative Writing.” Nonacademic Writing: Social Theory and Technology. Eds. Ann Hill Duin and Craig J. Hansen. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996. 257-280.

Slack, Jennifer Daryl. “The Technical Communicator as Author? A Critical Postscript.” Power and Legitimacy in Technical Communication: Volume I, The Historical and Contemporary Struggle for Professional Status. Amityville, NY: Baywood, 2003. 193-207.

Souther, James W. “Teaching Technical Writing: A Retrospective Appraisal.” Technical Writing Theory and Practice. Eds. Bertie E. Fearing and W. Keats Sparrow. New York: MLA, 1989. 2-13.

Sullivan, Patricia, and James E. Porter. Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices. Greenwich, CT: Ablex, 1997.

Thralls, Charlotte, and Nancy Roundy Blyler. “The Social Perspective and Professional Communication: Diversity and Directions in Research.” Professional Communication: The Social Perspective. Eds. Nancy Roundy Blyler and Charlotte Thralls. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993. 3-34.

Stuart Selber is an Associate Professor of English and Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and an affiliate associate professor of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) at Penn State University.

Johndan Johnson-Eilola is a Professor of Communication and Media at Clarkson University.

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