C&W Keynote 1: Techne Needs Praxis


James Porter opened this year’s Computers and Writing conference with an address all about the relationships among the rhetoric, history, change, the modern university, and most specifically, the principles of techne and praxis. The rhetorical principle of techne, he reminds us, is not just “to make” but to make a difference, to change the world, to move toward Better Things. It is important to recognize that techne (the craft of making something beautiful and useful, as Porter defines it) is not everything, though it is many things. Rhetoric and making differences have always been more than one thing. We know this. We also know and recognize that current university systems are not well-designed to support our rhetorical arts. At least in part, Porter says, this is because rhetoric is and always has been transdisciplinary.

The refreshing review of Greek rhetorical terms in this keynote was wonderful as 1) a foundation for the rest of this particular conference, and 2) a stepping stone to thinking more deeply and actively about our own relationships with both our scholarship and our institutions.

First up in the classical rhetoric review was the word-of-the-conference: techne. The skill or craft of making something useful and/or beautiful, which making requires a specialized knowledge and awareness of use, audiences, cultures, contexts, and materials. In addition to this definition, we also have a few counter-definitions. Techne is not…

  • praxis (action or doing)
  • tribe (mechanical/algorithmic repetition of a task)
  • kakotechne (false art, chicanery, eristic, manipulation, lying, flattery)

Making useful, beautiful things does not happen just by accident, or just by following the rules. The great example Porter draws on in reviewing these terms is “making a good cup of coffee.” (Go skim through this year’s #cwcon #kn1 hashtags for a great array of photos and other snapshot thoughts from Porter’s talk.)

The Knowledges of Making Coffee:

  • tribe = knowing the mechanical steps of making coffee (I, as a non-drinker-of-coffee who only rarely dares to make it for my husband, am barely at this stage)
  • episteme = knowing the properties of coffee, its chemistry, process, etc.
  • theoria = knowing why people like coffee, what they want from their coffee
  • techne = knowing how to actually make of a good cup of coffee
  • metis = knowing it’s smarter and safer to set a coffee cup down on the counter instead of handing it to a customer

This example seemed to resonate with so many at the conference not only because most academics love their coffee, but also because it so handily shows that knowing about tools, knowing about processes, knowing about conventions, and design knowledge all work together in important ways. These crucial intersections are something the talk comes back to, and something I find myself still pondering now, almost two weeks later.

Accentuating Porter’s point about rhetoric as inherently transdisciplinary was his discussion of cross-disciplinary teaching opportunities. His data visualization class, as one example, is listed in three different departments. This becomes evidence for an argument that students need transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary degrees. That rhetoric really does belong in more than one or two university spaces. Porter is not asking a new question when he asks us “How do we make our argument for why we should be involved in all those transdisciplinary spaces?” It’s a perennial question and an ongoing cause—we technorhetoricians will likely need to battle for our places in the shifting structures of 21st-century universities. And I think we all can recognize that as an important battle to engage in.

Porter emphasizes that our field is not meant to be some distinct sphere where words get dealt with and nothing else happens. Rhetoric is not remediary, and not mechanical—it’s “capstone material” and it is how the university meets the world. Our expertise in writing and rhetoric can fit together with everything, with all that is necessary for the public good. Pondering the history of the university, Porter posits that if we started over from scratch, tomorrow, to build a new educational institution, we would have “centers” and “programs” much more agile than our current “departments.” Perhaps in that imagined university we would not have to fight over which department owns which words in exactly which course titles—we would be more prepared to share and collaborate in deep, meaningful ways for the good of the students and the planet.

There were several nice, thought-provoking, and introspection-causing moments during Porter’s keynote, and I’ll end with just two that stood out most to me. I loved his brief discussion of the ancient Greek virtue xenia, or hospitality. The core to this virtue means being open and welcoming to every passing stranger, just in case. Those who look like strangers to us, after all, might be divine beings wandering on the earth. It is understandable that our 21st-century culture doesn’t share everything with ancient Greece, but wouldn’t it be nice if we shared a little more of this attitude?

I also loved that Porter acknowledged the limits of definitions even as he tossed them out here and there throughout his talk. Definitions are handy, he says, but they always hide the stories and traditions that created them and that still surround and encapsulate those terms. Even while we rely on the useful shorthand of definitions, we hopefully won’t forget the nuances and richness of stories and histories.

Both of these—remembering hospitality for each other and remembering the power of our stories—feel like very Computers-and-Writing-ish things.

About Author

Amelia Chesley

Amelia Chesley currently teaches technical communication as Assistant Professor at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. Her research interests include intellectual property, digital archives and public knowledge collections, online communities, and sonic rhetorics.

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