52– Facilitating action in the world, with technical communication researcher Rebecca Walton

June 08, 2021 Utah State University Office of Research Episode 52
52– Facilitating action in the world, with technical communication researcher Rebecca Walton
Show Notes Transcript

According to Rebecca Walton, technical communication is communication that facilitates action in the world. She tells us how listening to people's stories can help us craft documents and policies that better our social environments. Dr. Walton also explains the four R's which help promote justice and how collaboration is key to replacing outdated terminology and practices. 

Rebecca Walton: [00:00:00] Like they recognize the folks who know how to build shelters around here are the folks in the refugee camp, talking with refugees about what would make them comfortable. And so there's a very much a desire to have the expertise filter up through the organization, in their policies and their documentation, where that might not be the case so much in a corporation.

Wyatt: [00:00:31] How could corporations benefit from adopting that perspective? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:00:37] For one thing, I would suspect you to have less turnover, you know, the more we constrain people's agency, um, the less they'll enjoy their jobs. 

Wyatt: [00:00:50] In this episode, Rebecca Walton explains how thoughtful communication can upgrade our workplaces and other social environments.

Rebecca Walton: [00:00:59] My name is Rebecca Walton and I am an associate professor of technical communication and rhetoric in the English department. 

Wyatt: [00:01:07] Along with being a researcher at Utah state university, Rebecca Walton will soon be an associate Dean for USU college of humanities and social sciences. I'm Wyatt Archer. And you could be in the grocery store.

Rolling your eyes at the 10 items or less checkout sign, but you are listening to this instead, a podcast from Utah state university's office of research.

Later in the episode, you'll hear more about Rebecca Walton's work with non-profit organizations. But before we get to that, she'll explain what technical communication and technical writing are. She'll go over some misconceptions people have about justice. She'll talk about the importance of listening and she'll give us the four RS.

We can use it to address workplace injustices. All right. Here's my conversation with Rebecca. So the first time I heard about. Technical writing in any respect. It was at a middle school English teacher who worked at the Idaho national labs before she taught English in my middle school. And so I've always just assumed that technical writing is like, you're writing some manual to power, some new equipment or something like that.

Rebecca Walton: [00:02:19] 

I, I think that aligns with a lot of people's expectations. Um, I think a classic is people think of like software manuals and that's true, but. It's not fully representational, like my own research looks at, um, how people intervene for justice in their workplaces. Um, the, I conducted years of research before this with humanitarian organizations looking at.

They're professional communication within those environments. And so this idea of like, how do we build a shelter in a refugee camp is every bit as much technical communication as how do I install this new? Yeah. 

Wyatt: [00:03:03] Yeah. I'm definitely gonna like dive into like how we built shelters and stuff in refugee camps, but I just would like.

A list of what also falls underneath the technical communication umbrella. So we have software manuals, we have intervening and social justice. What else might be on this list? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:03:21] Well, with the caveat that I define the field more broadly than many, so this is just my way of saying, yeah, this is Rebecca Walton's umbrella of technical communication.

Rebecca Walton: [00:03:31] Right. So first I'm going to define. Technical communication the way I think of it. And that's communication that facilitates action in the world, nobody curls up on their couch with a software manual. You engage with it because you want to do something. And so I think of technical and professional communication as including, for example, Policy manuals, those inform our decision-making on the job.

Um, also think of it as recipes. You engage with recipes because you want to take action with them. And sometimes they're, uh, appealing and enjoyable, um, salt, fat acid heat, gorgeous, fun to read, but I do consider it to be technical communication. I mean, heck there are, there are diagrams of salt crystals.

Wyatt: [00:04:25] So I love America's test kitchen when it comes to recipes and cooking. But one of the things I dislike about them is they will lump a whole bunch of steps into one step. Do you have feelings about that? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:04:37] Of course I do. Um, I taught about instructions this last semester and what you are describing needs.

Nested step. Yes. And so sure if it's going to be dice an onion great. But tell people to leave the root intact so that their eyes don't water from the fumes. Um, yes. Step by step, break down. Uh, you can have sub steps which are called nested steps, nested steps.

Wyatt: [00:05:03]  Cause like they. Because they push all the steps into one step within a paragraph form.

And I would prefer it if it was like step one preparation and then it's like ABCD or whatever. And that's what I would like. Is there a time and place for different? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:05:19] Oh, absolutely. So one of the things that we see. And thinking about instructions specifically is often you have one set of instructions and they're used by both novices and experts.

And so you've got to navigate, how do I give novices enough details? So they know what to do while not annoying the experts who were like, right. I know how to dice an onion and so nested steps. And then what we call progressive revelation is really helpful as well. So think about like a dropdown menu, so it can say.

Dice the onion, but there's the little triangle next to it. And if you click it, then it will just drop down that ABCD that you're talking about. That's one strategy for making sort of one document appropriate or useful for both novices and experts.  

Wyatt: [00:06:05] when I was doing this, um, podcast over zoom, I either felt like I was giving so much instruction that I was insulting or I was giving so little instruction that I was rude and like neglectful.

Rebecca Walton: [00:06:17] Instructions are tough and they get a bad rap. Um, I do, I, I do think instructions are a pretty classic tech com genre and, um, yeah, they get a bad rep because when they're done well, nobody notices when they're done poorly. You do notice it's like housecleaning. I tell my students that tech comm is like housecleaning.

If you don't do it, people notice, but if you do it and you do an excellent job, nobody notices anything. 

Wyatt: [00:06:46]  I went over some similar territory with Brianne Lynch. She's brilliant. She's in information technology and learning sciences. Um, how is. The learning sciences approach to human centered design and instruction.

How is that different from yours? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:07:01] I don't know. I CA I don't, I don't suppose I know that particular field well enough to say how they're distinct. I will say one of the things that makes tech comm such an interesting hybrid field is that. You know, we, we do sort of share expertise with a range of other fields.

Wyatt: [00:07:23] I think we tend to think of disciplines is like different countries and there's borders, you know, like this is where geosciences ends and geoengineering begins, you know? And there might be a little like neutral zone or something. Um, but it seems with yours, it's more like, like, like a gas giant or something.

Like what is the gravity that holds tech comm. Together. 

Rebecca Walton: [00:07:49] Yeah. Okay. I'm going to go, go back to my own definition of tech comm and say technical communication is communication. That facilitates action in the world. I might say that I would expect instructional technology. And learning sciences to be focused on contexts of learning and education and tech comm might also address learning in some situations, but not only that and maybe organizational comm and I'm speaking beyond my expertise here.

So yeah, this may not be accurate, but I think of organizational comm as primarily in business environments and certainly tech comm. Occurs in business environments, but also in activism also in fundraising, also in humanitarian orgs. And so technical communication really focuses on helping people to take the actions or make the decisions that they want to be able to make.

And it's not specific to certain contexts. 

Wyatt: [00:08:59] Um, so if I were to follow you on an interesting day of research, um, what things would I see you doing? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:09:05] Mm. So if you were going to follow me on an interesting day of research, um, in this particular study, we are interviewing academics who intervene for justice in their workplace, and it's a narrative inquiry study, which means we just ask people to tell us stories.

Tell me about a time that you. Intervened for justice in the workplace. And you would sit there with me and you would listen to people, tell stories about, well, I was in class and a student used a term and they didn't recognize it as classist or racist. And so I just paused our lesson and we just discussed this term and I historicized it for them.

And I. Um, talk to the class about sort of these oppressive structures, including linguistic structures or words, you know, that we sort of inherit and maybe don't, um, critically evaluate or think about, and yet how pervasive and pernicious this oppression is. And so we all, as a class talked about this and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And if you were me, I think this is fascinating for many reasons, but one of which is. I am such a structured schedule, driven person. One of my questions was. How did you have the time to just pause and they didn't do during that class period, what they had planned to do, they just spent the class period talking through this term and why it was problematic and how it was dehumanizing.

And then what the implications then might be. Um, and this teacher said, oh, you know, I study a lot of justice related issues. And I don't know when these problems are going to pop up, but I know that they will at some point in the semester. So I designed my syllabus to have a few holes in it, on purpose as a justice related strategy.

I, and you know, what, if nothing pops up, those become work in class days. But because I intentionally designed my syllabus to leave holes, I can take this time to talk. And a really reflective sort of encouraging inclusive way with the students rather than being like, Hey, why don't you use that term in this class?

And then moving on? Yeah, that just shuts people down and people like, no, they did wrong, but they don't know why. And might feel like defensive and embarrassed and won't be equipped to recognize injustice the next time they encounter it. Which is another reason it's so smart for this participant to build holes in.

So you can have an extensive discussion. So if I have this one term, um, contextualized. In the broader sort of history of the term, the broader social structures, the broader implications of dehumanizing. I not only know like, well, I'm not going to say that again, but it also helps me recognize the next time someone says something, wait a minute.

That's that's wrong. And I, and I know why, even though it's not the very same word. So they sort of accumulate this ability to recognize injustice when they encounter it. 

Wyatt: [00:12:27] A long time ago. And I can't even remember what I was reading, but I read something that said that most conflicts armed conflicts in like the history of the world.

There was some type of language barrier there. And so people weren't able to communicate. And I kind of feel like sometimes there's language barriers within like society and within like our English speaking society that we work in and, um, Sometimes it's like political correctness and stuff and criticizing people for how they speak for using outdated terms or like problematic terms.

How do we. Prevent like weaponized language. 

Rebecca Walton: [00:13:07] Yeah. So I'm, I'm having lots of, of relevant thoughts all at once. So I'll try to disentangle them. Um, so one thing I would say is there's a movement and not just in technical communication, but in sort of writing related fields more broadly. Um, to focus on linguistic justice.

And one of these considerations is what's called American standard English. Honestly, it's like upper middle class white people's use of English. That is not the only correct way to speak. And right. It's not the only proper way. Often it's improper for a particular context or situation. It's not the right choice.

And. And I think a lot of policing of language occurs when there is one perspective of what's considered say professional. And if we delve into what that professional quote unquote language is, it's white. Middle-class language and language that's associated with other cultures or other backgrounds or other contexts is deemed less correct or incorrect or only appropriate for marginal, marginal contexts.


Wyatt: [00:14:30] Yeah. Um, I was working with somebody and they weren't from around here. And I was like, oh, like, if you're like talking to this crowd, you might want to say Zion's national park. Um, instead of Zion's national park and they kind of rebuffed that and said like, oh yeah, people at Zions. And I think it's so weird and I don't like it, blah, blah, blah.

And I was just like, okay, like, you're here to serve like that, the people of this state. And that's how they say that. Um, And that kind of bothered me. 

Rebecca Walton: [00:15:04] I, what you're saying makes so much sense to me. Um, my research, particularly, you know, the, the last several years of research on what it looks like to intervene for justice in the workplace, you know, as part of your professional communication, um, At the core of it is respect for other ways of knowing other lived experiences.

I think a lot of this dismissal, like you're talking know about comes from folks who perhaps I feel like if I haven't experienced it myself directly than perhaps it's not true. And, and that's just a really problematic foundation to build on. Yeah. 

Wyatt: [00:15:49] Okay. Okay. Um, what misconceptions do people have about the term justice?

Rebecca Walton: [00:15:56] Mm, one misconception is sometimes people conflate anything good with justice and anything bad with injustice, and that's not necessarily the case. Something can be good without necessarily being just in something can be bad without being injustice. It can just be fortunate. Um, so that's one another, I think, is that.

There are many different ways to conceive of justice and, and most of them can be particularly helpful and appropriate in certain circumstances and potentially harmful in others. And so I think, um, a misconception of justice is that sometimes people take it up and use it without examining what kind of.

Justice conception. Am I using, can I, can I give an example? Yes. Yes. So there are a couple of different kinds of justice that people are probably familiar with, even if they don't know the terms for them. So you've got distributive justice, which means did everybody get a fair amount? And then you've got procedural justice, which is focused on not necessarily what did you get, but was the process of distributing fair.

So process oriented versus outcome oriented. Each has real strengths and each is a great way of conceiving of justice. But neither I would say is a one size fits all the right way to think of justice. So yeah, a conception, a misconception of justice is sometimes that when I say justice, there's one way to think about it.

And everybody shares that when maybe we haven't thought in a nuanced way. 

Wyatt: [00:17:50] Yeah. How does technical, how does good technical communication help with this?

Rebecca Walton: [00:17:55]  Ooh, great question. Okay. So I would say one of the ways good technical communication can support justice is if, for example, We create communication that allows for flexibility and customization and, and that can be in many different ways.

Let's say if it's just in the ways that we present information, maybe I'm going to present information in a video I'm also going to include. Include close captioning. I'm also going to make a written script available, um, and I'm going to have really appropriate. Um, Descriptive text bore, any images that I would use?

Well, that way a person could engage with this information just by reading, just by listening, by watching and listening. So I can get at this information many different ways, which just broadens out the scope of people who can use it. 

Wyatt: [00:19:03] You listened to this teacher, explain how they structure their syllabus.

Um, to have time to have these corrective conversations or educational conversations is probably a better word. Why is listening to these stories important? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:19:18] Oh, thank you for asking that. Um, one of the things I am most excited about coming out of this pilot study, and I say pilot study, we collected well over a hundred stories about specific ways that people have intervened for justice at work.

So cool. Um, but one, one of our first findings is that, okay, let me, let me back up just a sec. Okay. So. We, um, we, my coauthors and I, and I really want to be clear that the research I'm sharing with you today, it's not just me. Natasha Jones from Michigan state university and Kristen Moore from university at Buffalo.

The three of us together have done all of the stuff that I'm talking about, um, with, with this pilot study and stuff. So we wrote about this. Way to engage social justice, um, as the four R's recognize reveal, reject replace. And so the idea was first, you have to recognize that injustice is occurring, then you need to reveal it to others.

And then together you would reject this unjust sort of practice or language or situation, and then you would work together to replace it with something better. We called it, the four RS. One of the things that we did, it was, we were asking, you know, people to tell us these stories of how they intervene for justice at work.

And then we were thinking about like, how did you recognize that was injustice and not just kind of bad or not just uncomfortable or the way that we do things right. Um, and then, you know, like what strategies did you use when you reveal that to others and that sort of thing. And so one of our first findings was that the ability to recognize injustice, bam, in the moment when you encounter it as injustice accumulates through one's lived experience.

And so of course our participants who, um, Occupied multiple, um, positions of marginality. They were experiencing oppression day to day in their lived experience just by virtue of being themselves in, in their day-to-day lives. Um, but everyone occupies some positions of privilege and some positions of marginality and.

And folks were saying, in addition to directly experiencing injustice, another thing that was important to help them accumulate this expertise, uh, you know, ability to recognize injustice was reading about other people's experiences, particularly folks with different. Life experiences. Then they have, um, also having friend groups and networks of folks who have different identities and different lived experiences than they do, and then being willing to reflect on that.

So certainly some folks can read materials by people with other lived experiences and it just bounces off their minds and that's that, but, um, yeah. How, how do we. How do we have this ability? We accumulate it through lived experience, including reflecting on the experiences of other folks.  

Wyatt: [00:22:48] um, um, so you talked about the four RS, um, recognize, reveal, reject and replace.

I think replace is probably my favorite and maybe the one I think is most important because, um, Something can be replaced without even having to tell people that it's been rejected in a lot of ways, but sometimes the words we choose to replace other words with come with consequences and other locations of language.

Do you have any like examples of that and, or, and, or advice about that? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:23:24] Hmm, if I'm going to think specifically about replacing language choice, that one, that's something that I've talked about recently. Um, I got to give a talk to university of Houston. One of the things that I emphasized there is how important it is, um, that we would.

Iteratively sort of go back and check on our language and policies and things like that with this expectation of when we get it right. It's not necessarily going to stay right. Terms change. We know that we know that outside of justice contexts, that the words that we use for different things change. So we should be expecting to sort of revisit terminology and update it.


Wyatt: [00:24:19] I've kind of seen the term partner replacing like husband, wife, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, within academia. That's quite prevalent. And I think that makes a lot of sense for the external communication offices do with like when it comes to events and things of just like, you can bring your partner, you know, that simplifies a lot.

But I think that when people feel pressured to say partner, instead of one of those other terms, it inhibits like personal revelation because suddenly, you know, less about that person. Um, and like if somebody prefers to use partner, I think that's great. But also if somebody says husband or wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend, you get to learn a little bit more about them as humans.

I guess you have any thoughts on that? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:25:02] I really do. Yeah. I think you've raised a great point, which is there is no sort of silver bullet, one size fits all perfect term to get to use. I think a big part of respectful language use is being a good listener. Um, I've had colleagues say. Folks think that they're being so inclusive when you know, this is an example.

Um, if, for example, I, as a woman had a wife and I introduced this as my wife. So-and-so if other people say, oh, this is Rebecca and her partner, it sort of erases the language that I wanted to use. So I've had. Yeah. Like I said, I've had, I've had gay friends who have been able to marry their former partners who have then become their husbands or their wives, and they want to use that language.

And so I think if we don't listen carefully, then we're not going to be able to speak as respect. 

Wyatt: [00:26:02] Yeah. Yeah. And it's just interesting. Cause they thought so hard to be able to do that. And then it got neutralized a little bit. 

Rebecca Walton: [00:26:10] You're exactly right. 

Wyatt: [00:26:10] Yeah. Um, What other advice do you have if somebody is in a position to select a replacement for term?

Ooh. So are, how are replacement terms selected?

Rebecca Walton: [00:26:23] I guess the one thing I, I will say is that terminology's important, but a lot of what we're seeing in our research is it's not just language replacement, but sometimes it's like, Policy replacement or, or practice replacement or HEC replacing the readings.

And of course, you know, it's, it's a lot of sort of action related choices that aren't even just about one word. Um, but I guess my biggest, my biggest thing about that last one replace, I got two, two big things, two big things. Okay, good. Um, the first one is that should be what we call coalitional the idea there is.

Almost never should a person be individually solely only based on themselves and their own perspective and knowledge be replacing something because we only know what we know. We only have the lived experience we have, and if we're going to be replacing something with that's more socially, just. I alone am not social I'm I'm an individual.

So it's going to be really important to have a coalition or like a group of folks who are at least temporarily aligned to make this replacement together so that you can come in and say, you know, well, I don't think we should say partner for everything because it erases this right. That people have fought for it to be able to say, I am Bob, and this is my husband, Michael.

And, and then S for other folks to go, oh, wow. That's a great perspective that I hadn't heard. Okay. Alice, think together about what would be a better replacement, so replacements really need to happen in coalition, so that they're more, more just, and not just differently unjust. Yikes. And then second, I would say, we've got to remember that pursuing justice.

It's iterative, you know, things change over time. We've got to expect to replace again. And that doesn't mean that we were big fat failures necessarily the first time it could mean all right. That was better than last time. And now we recognize a new problem. So now we're going to replace it again and not feel like, oh, forget it.

Throw up our hands and give up. Yeah. Yep. Pursuing justice is iterative. It's complex. Okay. It's worth it. 

Wyatt: [00:28:51] So let's dive into your work, um, in refugee camps or in that situation. Um, so just take me your favorite example or the best example. 

Rebecca Walton: [00:29:02] Okay. So years ago I got to do a lot of international research, which I really enjoyed also.

And I mentioned earlier that example of building a shelter at a refugee camp and how that's every bit. Uh, technical communication topic as much as installing software. Um, that particular example came from a study. It was a super long complicated study, um, where we got to partner with the international Federation of the red cross red Crescent.

And they. Recognized that much of the expertise in their organization existed at sort of quote unquote the lowest levels. So the folks who are like volunteering within their own communities, uh, Especially in sort of far-flung rural areas, et cetera. And so like how to do their work of disaster preparedness and disaster response was residing with these particular folks, but not necessarily filtering up through the organization and getting into their official communication and procedures and stuff.

And they wanted that because they respected that expertise. It was such a cool study because we got to do, um, over 90 interviews with, on the ground workers, volunteers, primarily with red cross red Crescent, um, in many different countries. So that example from the shelter came from when we were in a particular refugee camp.

And we were speaking with volunteers about sort of how they knew what they knew and then how that knowledge got documented. And this person was saying like, well, I was building a shelter. In the refugee camp. And some of the folks who resided in that camp, you know, came by and we were talking and they were saying like, nobody's going to be, nobody's going to stay in that.

No, one's going to agree to live in that. And so we asked them why, and they said, well, you're hanging these mats, these of these woven mats. You're hanging them on the wrong side. And when you hang them on that side, it represents death. And so you're, you know, you need to move it over here to make the shelter a place that we would want to stay.

And so the volunteers, of course, they're like, oh my gosh, thank you so much for that expertise. So they not only started building the shelters appropriately for that particular group, but they modified the documentation about how to build a shelter and shared it. Out with other folks throughout that camps so that folks would know how to do it properly.

And that was a really important way of correcting and improving technical communication in that particular context. 

Wyatt: [00:31:49] And so they're kind of at the bottom of this organization, um, and sometimes creating change there and is difficult. 

Rebecca Walton: [00:31:57] That's true. And I think, um, In general, the organizational culture at humanitarian orgs values that expertise at again, quote unquote the lowest level.

Wyatt: [00:32:10] How could corporations benefit from adopting that perspective? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:32:15] Well, for one thing, I would suspect you to have less turnover, you know, the more we constrain people's agency, um, the less they'll enjoy their jobs. Uh, 

Wyatt: [00:32:27] how can, uh, what kind of tips do you have for people? Um, kind of pursuing justice in whatever sphere they are working in?

Rebecca Walton: [00:32:37] Well, I'm a big fan of the four R's. And so maybe I would say. Intentionally, invest in accumulating the ability to recognize injustice, just, um, by seeking out perspectives, other than your own specifically perspectives of different marginalized groups that you might not be a part of, um, read widely. And when you read and when you listen, be willing to reflect sometimes.

Can make a person feel defensive. It can make me feel defensive, being willing to reflect on that as the first step to being able to improve the institution. 

Wyatt: [00:33:27] Have you been surprised by research findings? 

Rebecca Walton: [00:33:31] It was interesting to learn about the role that written communication can play in the reveal. So I've recognized injustice.

Now I'm going to reveal it to others. I guess I thought I would hear people telling a lot of stories about oral exchanges. Somebody said this and I spoke up, um, and we did hear about that. But another thing we learned is how useful written communication can be. So for example, this participant, um, talked about.

How they were trying to get their organization to put together a diversity statement that was like really specific to their little area. And they felt like their coworkers, um, were well-meaning and good coworkers and that sort of thing, but really uncomfortable talking about race. Anything other than sort of diversity as a concept, writ large.

And so they did a bunch of other things, but. To get to the written communication part. Is they at a starting place diversity statement that they sent out to their colleagues in written form before the meeting. And then when they all came in, they all had the statement in front of them. And people were like so much more actively engaged with trying to like express how the particular work of their working group was relevant to supporting diversity.

Again, like specific to their own work practices and contexts. And this participant was saying that they felt like a really key reason for that active engagement was that people were engaging with a written document. And so they felt like they could workshop a document and not the ideas. It also gave them something.

That they could think on ahead of time, this written document. So written documents can do a lot of good work for us and reveals and, and I guess that was a little surprising to me. 

Wyatt: [00:35:32] Um, so I guess just like they could interact with the document because they weren't trying to control what other people were thinking, but they were just trying to inform the document.

Rebecca Walton: [00:35:46] Yeah. Yeah. I think you're exactly 

Wyatt: [00:35:49] right. Last question, actual last question. If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about, um, the way we communicate, what would it be?

Rebecca Walton: [00:36:04] I'd make us better listeners,

Wyatt: [00:36:10] some pretty simple advice, but you made it to the end of the episode. So thanks for listening to this episode of, instead, if you enjoyed it, please share it with a friend. Leave us a review, subscribe to the podcast and go follow at instead podcast on Instagram, this episode was produced by me. Why at Archer, as part of my work and the office of research at Utah state university.