Saturday, July 26, 2008

Edwin Black and Tech Comm

Why is Edwin Black (and Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Criticism) not used more in Technical Communication (TC)? As I understand it, one great criticism leveled at Neo-Aristotelian (NA) criticism is that it implies an impartial and contingent audience. In order to conduct a NA criticism, the rhetorician must delve deeply into the historical context of the artifact in the hopes of understanding the audience at hand. This is also something that TC strives to do for their deliverables. In other words, can NA criticism and/or Edwin Black's method aid technical communicators to develop effective strategies for audience analysis?

Rhetorical Transaction

For Black, a rhetorical transaction is a complex and a process of three elements of rhetoric: strategies, situations, and effects. These elements are understood as the following [1, p. 133-135]:

  • Rhetorical Strategies: the characteristics of the discourse
  • Rhetorical Situations: extralinguistic influences on the audience
  • Audience Effects: responses to the strategies in the situations

Taken together, these three elements converge to be a complex process (or phenomenon) that can be articulated to describe the effect of an artifact (or deliverable) which he names the rhetorical transaction. Certainly, one could approach TC through this heuristic in most genres including document design, proposals, and web design.

For instance, what are the characteristics of a given deliverable? This sounds like a genre to me. A proposal should contain certain elements while a resume would include different elements. All technical communicators should thoughtfully consider the conventional elements in light of the situation and audience effects. Also, "extralinguistic" influences sounds, to me, close to document design and other strategies of visual rhetoric while Usability would address the audience responses. All three work together to adequately describe the all important context of any deliverable. How would our service-level TC classes be enhanced if we, as instructors, thought about teaching writing through the lens of Black's Rhetorical Transaction?

Of course this is not a comprehensive treatment of Black's method but simply the initial musing for me on this matter. Black's subsequent writing on "Exhortation" and "Argument" may also offer good strategies for TC. I am simply wondering at this point. Hmm.. here is another dissertation topic.

-Safari Bob


[1] Black, E. (1978). Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

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