2-Hour Technical Communication Theory and Research Exam

Several works on your list focus on gender as a category relevant to understanding teaching. We might take gender as an issue significant in itself, and/or as a synecdoche for issues of marginalization generally. What works from the list have been most useful to you in forming your teaching practice to address issues of marginalization (or inequity/power generally). How have they helped? If you can give examples of classroom practices you've implemented, or problems you've raised/solved, feel welcome to do so.

Studies beginning in the 1970s and 1980s from diverse disciplines such as psychology, sociology, philosophy, and gender studies (For example, see Belenky et al., Chodorow, Gilligan, Noddings, Ruddick) have examined the pervasive ways in which a long history of gender inequality has affected women’s notions of self, knowledge-making practices, access to knowledge, and literacy. The findings from these studies, which include women’s tendency to construct identity construction through relationships with others and the use of personal experience as a means to and ground of knowing, have spurred many feminist teachers to use women’s values in the classroom. Such values include creating an atmosphere of community and collaboration rather than a competitive, hierarchical atmosphere, the valuing of multiple perspectives, and the use of personal experience as a ground for knowledge rather than considering knowledge as coming from authorities only. In this brief essay, I will describe the studies in the field of rhetoric, composition, and technical communication that have been the most influential on my pedagogical practice.

I will first discuss the connection among writing and personal experience and explain how my opinion on personal writing has changed over the years. It seems appropriate to begin with my experiences as a student: In high school and in my undergraduate years, I detested writing personal essays. Over and over again, I was required to write about family members, friends, and childhood memories. I saw such writing as incredibly frustrating; I griped to friends that writing is a way to accumulate new knowledge, which to me automatically entailed doing research. Research papers, I reasoned, were the only texts worth writing, the only way to learn something new. My instructors praised my essays on such topics as my fourth-grade dream of winning the National Spelling Bee and getting on the Johnny Carson show, only to have that dream dashed as I froze during the county spelling bee, and my grandmother’s role as caregiver of my grandfather, who was battling Alzheimer’s disease. I, however, saw those essays as complete wastes of my time. I wasn’t learning anything new; I was only retelling what I already knew to teachers whom I resented for what I perceived as their voyeuristic desires to pry into my life.

I now see that I fell right into the category of “separate knower” in Belenky et al.’s taxonomy: knowers who dismisses the value of personal experience and community, seeing knowledge instead as that which can be amassed from reading the work of experts and synthesized in isolation. When I started graduate school and began conversing with other teachers, I saw how closed-minded I had been. I had known since high school that many of my peers found personal writing worthwhile and enriching, but I had simply assumed they were too lazy to do research. In the course of my conversations with other teachers, I realized that in every class, there would be students who enjoy and who do not enjoy writing from personal experience, and that it is important to do both so as not to alienate either group. In the course of my reading in feminist composition studies, I discovered deeper, more complex reasons to make personal experience a part of the classroom. Florence Howe (1971) emphasizes the importance of female (and male) students’ confidence in themselves as writers. In her reflective essay on her writing course for women, she says that at the beginning of the semester, she asked her students to describe their perceptions of themselves as writers. If they viewed themselves as good writers, she put at + on their paper; if they lacked confidence, she rated the paper -. This was not to reinforce the students’ lack of confidence, merely to show the students, the majority of whom got minus signs, that they had negative perceptions of their abilities that must be overcome. The course was quite radical; the students had optional reading, no hard and fast deadlines for assignments, and no grades, which, Howe claims, gave the students the freedom to experiment and to “fail” and the opportunity to build confidence. Royster, in “A View from a Bridge,” also argues that students must see themselves not only as writers but as intellectuals. Creating an atmosphere in the classroom in which students can draw upon their experiences is, I’ve learned, crucial if students are to see themselves as authorities. Experience can be owned in a way that a critical reading of a text cannot. Both Howe and Ritchie (1999) stress the need to use affective responses to course topics based on personal experience as a way to get out of what Howe calls the “passive dependent” patterns of the majority of students, created by a hierarchical atmosphere in most classrooms. In most class discussions, Howe writes, the instructor asks questions, and the students try to find the appropriate cognitive response, what the teacher wants. Soliciting affective responses in the form of questions such as, “Did you identify with this character?” disrupts the right answer/wrong answer dichotomy and helps to level the hierarchical teacher/student relationship.

Another windfall of using personal experience is the increased student interest in and engagement with the material. In one of my classes, a student was giving a presentation on solving the air pollution problem in China. She was explaining the technical information – chemical pollutants and biodiesel as a solution – and she was terribly nervous. Several times during the presentation she apologized for her pronunciation of English words. I assured her she was doing fine and nodded encouragingly throughout her presentation, and during the question and answer period she offhandedly brought up her personal experience of the pollution in Hong Kong. She told a story of walking down the street and, at times when cars passed, having to put her hand over her mouth because breathing was painful. The other students, who had been uneasy partially as a result of her discomfort during the presentation, snapped to attention and started asking other questions.

The use of personal experience in the classroom can sometimes facilitate conflict. In Ritchie’s (1999) ethnographic study of Barbara diBernard’s class, she points out that diBernard was prepared for conflict and tension, that diBernard knew the material discussed in class would make some students angry. I am a rather nonconfrontational person and am generally uncomfortable with conflict (I know this may be in part due to my socialization as a girl/woman), but Ritchie’s study went a long way toward giving me permission to accept conflict as part of the learning process and trust my own instincts as to when I should intervene in such conflict. For example, last fall I taught the SEAM section of Rhetoric 1101, and there was more racial diversity than in most classes at this university. Based on my five years of teaching experience, I know that students are more likely to be active in discussions when they can share personal anecdotes. In the SEAM section, which centers on identity and multiculturalism, we discuss race, and while I do not want to gloss over what can be productive conflict, I do not want my teaching practice to disenfranchise or oppress further students who are already underrepresented and, to an extent, alienated in the institution of higher education.

In addition to the integration of personal experience into knowledge making, another feminist value I have come to hold in high esteem is group cohesiveness, or the creation of an atmosphere of collaboration and community rather than competition. Lay (1993) cites the need for groups (groups of students and groups of practitioners) to engage in “off-task” talk. People who are working together must form relationships. Relationships among students can enhance the exchange of knowledge and enable students to benefit from other ways of thinking, other perspectives. These can be in the form of experiences, or they can be alternative perceptions of material. Lay (1996) explains that computer culture is gendered, with the dominant style of thought being hierarchical; she uses top-down programming as an example. She compares the top-down model to what Turkle calls the bricoleur style of programming, in which programmers learn not by coding modules of a predetermined design invented by an upper-level designer, but by rearranging code and parts of the program and experimenting with different configurations. Lay argues that technical writing as a discipline has been influenced by the sciences and the culture of high technology, and consequently, some technical communicators and instructors of technical communication have the habit of mind of seeing the world in binaries. The feminist technical communication classroom, Lay claims, must have a communal atmosphere that accommodates diverse learning styles and perspectives.

Lunsford (1999) extends the discussion on collaboration by problematizing the notion of authorship, specifically the author as solitary, originary, and proprietary. She sets forth a feminist rhetorical approach to authorship that rejects the metaphor of property for intellectual work, a metaphor of which feminists should be suspicious, because women were once considered to be property and weren’t allowed to own property. Lunsford argues that a feminist approach to authorship would place the value not in the product or in the author, but in the “unfolding of the discourse.” To that end, and to the end of building a cohesive learning community in my teaching practice, I am using weblogs, a technology that enables students to give each other comments on their ideas (invention becomes a more social act). Students not only write about their essay topics and other issues that are important to them, they also write about their daily experiences: their love of the Green Bay Packers, their transition from high school to college, their part-time jobs, and even misfortunes they suffer, for example, the loss of a beloved pet or getting their bicycles stolen when they were chained up in front of Lind Hall. The other students post comments sympathizing with their peers – and cheering them on when they post about good things that happen to them – and this enables the class to interact outside the classroom. As I continue teaching, I hope to explore further how weblogs can be used in feminist teaching practice.


Ritchie, J. (1990). Confronting the ‘essential’ problem: Reconnecting feminist theory and pedagogy. Reprinted in G.E. Kirsch, F.S. Maor, L. Massey, L. Nickoson-Massey, & M.P. Sheridan-Rabideau, (Eds.) Feminism and composition: A critical sourcebook (pp. 79-102). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Howe, F. (1971). Identity and expression: A writing course for women. Reprinted in G.E. Kirsch, F.S. Maor, L. Massey, L. Nickoson-Massey, & M.P. Sheridan-Rabideau, (Eds.) Feminism and composition: A critical sourcebook (pp. 33-42). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Lunsford, A.A. (1999). Rhetoric, feminism, and the politics of textual ownership. Reprinted in G.E. Kirsch, F.S. Maor, L. Massey, L. Nickoson-Massey, & M.P. Sheridan-Rabideau, (Eds.) Feminism and composition: A critical sourcebook (pp. 180-193). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Lay, M.M. (1993). Gender studies: Implications for the professional communication
classroom. In N.R. Blyler & C. Thralls, (Eds.), Professional communication: The
social perspective
(pp. 215-229). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Lay, M.M. (1996). The computer culture, gender, and nonacademic writing: An interdisciplinary critique. In A.H. Duin & C. Hansen, (Eds.) Nonacademic writing:
Social theory and technology
(pp. 57-80). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Royster, J.J. (2000). A view from a bridge: Afrafeminist ideologies and rhetorical studies. Reprinted in G.E. Kirsch, F.S. Maor, L. Massey, L. Nickoson-Massey, & M.P. Sheridan-Rabideau, (Eds.) Feminism and composition: A critical sourcebook (pp. 206-233). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.