Rhetoric and WHAT?

25 May

What the hell is ‘rhetoric and scientific and technical communication’?

That’s a question I’ve gotten from almost everyone who has asked what field I’m doing my PhD in. This post is my working definition, subject to much revision in the coming months, no doubt. Let’s start with “rhetoric”…

Not “mere rhetoric”!

So, many folks think of “rhetoric” and they think of the persuasive or obfuscative uses that politicians and lawyers make of language. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Those things are rhetoric, I think. But rhetoric as an academic discipline is more.

Carolyn Rude (2009) characterizes the central question of research in technical communication as:

How do texts (print, digital, multimedia, visual, verbal) and related communication practices mediate knowledge, values, and action in a variety of social and professional contexts?

She was talking specifically about technical communication, but I think that makes a pretty good definition of rhetoric, really, so I’m going with that for the time being.

Technical and scientific communication may be neither

Folks who know that I taught legal writing at the University of Minnesota Law School for six years have asked why, in light of that experience, I’m in a program for scientific and technical communication. (That unwieldy phrase shall forever after in this blog be abbreviated “S&TC”.) As it happens, S&TC is often neither scientific nor technical (as least in a narrow sense). Here are some thoughts about the meaning of “technical communication” from scholars in the field.

According to Johnson-Sheehan (2009) “Technical communication is a process of managing technical information in ways that allow people to take action.” I’m working with this definition closely, because this is the definition Johnson-Sheehan uses it in his textbook, which I am using this semester to teach a course to undergraduates in “Technical and Professional Writing.”

Durack (1997) characterizes technical communication as having these characteristics: it is found in industry and government and in “the intersection between private and public spheres”; it has a “close relationship to technology”; it “often seeks to make tacit knowledge explicit.” I’ll address that last item another time, because I’m not sure I agree with it. The rest works for me, but only because Durack defines “technology” very broadly, including examples like “prepaid health care plans,” “social services in hospitals,” “flextime” and other examples of the principle that “[t]echnology refers equally to knowledge, actions, and tools.”

If we take “technical” and “technology” to have such broad meanings (and I’m not sure how we would narrow them), then legal writing is technical writing.


Durack, K. (1997). Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 6(3), 249-60.
Johnson-Sheehan, R. (2009). Technical Communication Today (3rd ed.). Longman.
Rude, C. D. (2009). Mapping the Research Questions in Technical Communication. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 23(2), 174 -215.

From a trip to Rio (nothing to do with RS&TC - just fun!)

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