Technical Communication and Apologia

In Apologetic rhetoric, Technical communication on December 9, 2009 at 9:34 am

Though many scholars, students, and practitioners in the field of technical and scientific communication may not have studied apologia or apologetic rhetoric, the field has gained new insight through this area of study.

One example is Michael Moran’s (2003) analysis of a commercial report written in 1586. The report was written by Ralph Lane in response to criticisms upon his return to England after leading a failed colony. Moran’s (2003) analysis helps establish the value of apologia theory as a lens for analyzing technical and business communication. Similarly, Carol Siri Johnson (2006) described how studying an apologia artifact may help scholars gain insight into technical processes. In her examination of the iron industry in early America, Johnson analyzed how Peter Hasenclever described the iron industry in a letter he wrote to justify his expenditures in 1773—thus, shedding light on the technical process of building ironworks and “the way knowledge traveled” before the use of printed technical manuals and reference books (p. 175). Additionally, Timothy Sellnow (1993) examined the use of scientific ethos in Exxon’s response to the Valdez oil spill, focusing specifically on the use of skepticism.

Finally, Sullivan and Martin (2001) described how apologia and account theory can equip technical communicators to better understand and evaluate justifications for their actions. According to Sullivan and Martin, technical communicators who are faced with an ethical dilemma should ask themselves what accusations could result from their decisions and “what story will I tell about it when called to give an account” (p. 269).

While these scholars have demonstrated the usefulness of apologetic rhetoric theories in studying technical communication, only Moran’s (2003) study actually analyzed a business or technical document using apologetic rhetoric as a method of analysis. In fact, in my analysis of 91 academic articles published over the last 40 years (published in Communication Yearbook 33), only three studies were identified as analyzing a business and technical document. That means, in addition to Moran’s (2003) study of Lane’s report, only two other studies over the last 40 years have focused on the use of apologetic rhetoric in business or technical documents—and both of those (Coombs, 2004; Huxman & Bruce, 1995) analyzed corporate position statements and news releases, rather than actual technical reports or documents.

The work by these scholars has helped establish how business and technical communication can be examined using apologetic rhetoric as a lens; however, a large gap still exists in understanding how reports and documents negotiate blame and responsibility as well as record acts of wrongdoing on the public record and shape the reconciliation process. My research in this dissertation extends the focus on apologetic rhetoric and documentation by analyzing how apologies are documented in the gacaca trial system and what role that documentation plays in the process of reconciliation.

I argue that technical communication is a burgeoning area of scholarship with the potential to reshape what is known about public apologetic exchanges and, therefore, deserves more focused research. I also argue that technical communication scholars and practitioners are perfectly positioned to research the bridge between technical communication and apologetic rhetoric as well as uncover and analyze the documentation, processes, and ethics of apologetic rhetoric.

An example of such an analysis can be seen in an earlier blog post on “Documenting Apologies in Gacaca Trials.” That post stems from my dissertation research in which I put forth two claims about the broader impact of the documentation setting in gacaca trials.

First, I demonstrate how Rwandan culture and values shape not only what is documented but the entire process by which it is documented—including which individuals give testimony; what questions are asked; and how that knowledge is quantified, measured, and recorded. In other words, the presence of these elements in the official document shapes the apologetic exchanges that take place by narrowing the attention of judges and requiring perpetrators to offer specific information in order to fulfill the requirements of the document. Second, I discuss how the presence of those elements in the document shapes more than just what is documented but also how the events of the 1994 genocide are discussed and remembered in the official government history.

Overall, the influence that documents and documentation processes have on apologetic rhetoric is under analyzed and too often overlooked completely. This is just one example that demonstrates why future studies on the impact of documentation and technical communication are warranted.

Related Posts on Technical Communication and Apologia:

Assignment for Business Writing, Technical Communication, or New Media Course

Why Technical Communicators Should Care About Apologia

Documenting Apologies in Gacaca Trials

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