Technical Communication and Rhetoric
Utah State University
I am part of a growing cohort of scholars in rhetoric and technical communication whose work seeks to enact apparent social change through our research. As technical communication research and practice become more invested in social justice work, we continue to confront oppressive and unjust legacies of the field, including acknowledging oppression at work in technical documentation and expanding our understandings of how users grapple with the inherent violence at work in these documents.
Part of that effort, for me, is exposing the oppressive and unjust conditions many queer and transgender (trans*) people live with, and the role documentation plays in creating and sustaining those conditions. One area of research that technical communication—even scholarship invested in social justice work—has only now begun to engage in is this intersection between medical and technical rhetorics (Frost & Eble, 2015) and trans* people specifically, especially in the ways ideologies have compounded discrimination, and, conversely, their agentive maneuvers around discriminatory policies. Technical communication should take a closer examination of textual artifacts that support these tactics. Specifically, user-generated guides provide their audiences access to critical knowledge while enabling them to bypass traditional gatekeeping mechanisms.
My research rises to meet that challenge to expose the violence and oppression in some technical and medical rhetorics toward trans* people and to suggest alternative frameworks and concepts for research and practice grounded in activism and justice. In addition to contributing to medical and technical rhetorics scholarship, this research also has implications for digital rhetorics as many trans* folks turn to digital networks–the affordances of which can support anonymity, global access to information, and social support. The rest of this blog will articulate just a few recent and ongoing projects grounded in this thinking.
DIY Gender Transition and Technical Documents
Trans* people around the world face considerable obstacles in gender transition care as a result of economic, ideological, and geographical barriers. Given these difficulties, many trans* people have turned to online forums and Internet commerce to side-step institutions, using materials at hand to gain access to that which is otherwise off-limits. Motivated to understand and to help broadcast barriers to care trans* people face, in 2017, I launched a mixed-method research project with Drs. Jared S. Colton (Utah State University) and Steve Holmes (Texas Tech). This research examines the intersection of cultural, technical, and medical rhetorics and trans* healthcare. Using anonymous surveys and queer theory methodology, this project examined publicly available user-generated trans* do-it-yourself (DIY) hormone replacement therapy (HRT) instructions and troubleshooting (forms of technical communication).
This project asked the following questions:
- What role does tactical technical communication play in online DIY HRT communities?
- How does the unique tactical technical communication that occurs in DIYHRT forums inform the development of a (yet to be articulated) theory of a queered technical communication?
Regarding our second question, our goal was to not only center queer and trans* communities in my research but also to draw on a revitalized queer theory—one that seeks praxis and social change—to advocate for justice.
This work has several facets. One facet applies a queer theory lens to examine extra-institutional (or “tactical”) technical communication as enacted by queer and trans* populations (“Queering consent,” “Tactical technical communication in communities”). Another facet of this research argues for a geopolitical approach to the rhetoric of health and medicine (RHM) scholarship involving trans* participants (“Always Already Geopolitical”). Based on the positive reception of this work and the recent call by Jacqueline Rhodes to find ways to put queer theory “to work,” I believe this project has great potential to impact the fields of queer theory, RHM, and technical communication.
I am currently expanding this project into new considerations. One of those considerations is in the area of design and communication. In the summer of 2019, I worked with Dr. Lehua Ledbetter at the University of Rhode Island to present our respective research projects at SIGDOC—Dr. Ledbetter’s work on YouTube beauty tutorials and my research on DIY HRT with trans* people. We re-examined our research projects to identify takeaways specific to UX and community-based research. Viewed this way, I could see how these user-generated instructions for DIY medical treatments challenged the common understanding of constitutes successful procedural design.
There are several implications to this work. One implication suggests that “successful” UX should be understood as arising from the community itself—especially if that community is socio-economically marginalized. Ultimately, we drew from Kimball’s (2006) notion of tactical technical communication to show these guides were acts of resistance to oppressive dominant orders, and then from decolonial methodology to suggest best practices for community-based research in UX. Another new facet of this research is examining methodological implications for the communities involved as well as building upon established community-based research, participatory action research, and other participant-centered methods to consider uniquely vulnerable populations such a trans* people. Vulnerability as an ethical concept can concretely distinguish, privilege, and enable activist practice on behalf of the needs of trans* individuals and the universe of textual artifacts—formal and informal—that are necessary to support and sustain them. Using the work of Adriana Cavarero and Judith Butler, we offer a detailed introduction to the ethical concept of “vulnerability” as discussed in Cavarero’s (2009) Horrorism and Butler’s (2016) Vulnerability in Resistance. We document how a negative figuration of vulnerability can limit how health and medicine research and we contrast this negative view with an ontological view of vulnerability, specifically for researchers who work with trans* populations. We hope this work complicates considerations of vulnerability for those conducting RHM and community-based research.
As Salamon wrote, “our current ideas of what a body is will be irremediably diminished until trans bodies and subjectivities are considered in a more thorough way” (p. 1). Along that line, how might technical communication and rhetoric be enriched by taking into account the distinctive ways gender transition disrupts concepts of identity, sex, gender, bodily integrity, and nature? In what ways would existing research at the intersection of rhetoric, gender, and technology be challenged by moving beyond stable categories of man/woman to instead include a range of gender identities and expressions? In what ways do transwomen and transmen fit or disrupt that corpus?
Finally, I call on scholars to look for and challenge cigenderism (Ansara & Hegarty, 2012) in technical communication and rhetoric research when it arises (however accidentally). If we are truly invested in social justice, we must not only support new research that centers trans* experiences but also confronts the erasures of those experiences and the legacies of cisgenderism.
Ansara, Y. G., & Hegarty, P. (2012). Cisgenderism in psychology: Pathologising and misgendering children from 1999 to 2008. Psychology & Sexuality, 3(2), 137-160.
Edenfield, A.C., Colton, J.S., & Holmes, S. (2019). Always Already Geopolitical: Trans Health Care and Global Tactical Technical Communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, (49)4, pp. 433–457. Journal Link
Edenfield A.C., Colton, J.S., & Holmes, S. (2019). Queering tactical technical communication: DIY HRT. Technical Communication Quarterly, (28)3, pp. 177-191. Journal LInk
Edenfield, A.C. & Lehua, L. (2019, October). Tactical technical communication in communities. In (2019) The ACM Special Interest Group on the Design of Communication Conference (SIGDOC 2019), October 4–6, 2019, Portland, Oregon, USA. ACM, New York, NY, USA. Link
Salamon, G. (2010). Assuming a body: Transgender and rhetorics of materiality. Columbia University Press.