Thursday, February 14, 2013


Yes, I know that it is Valentine's Day.  I have already told mine that she is my Valentine--not that she needed the reminder.

This blog post is not about that.

It will be no secret to those few who read this blog with even as much regularity as I update it that I devote quite a bit of thought to my teaching.  The argument could even be made that I think about it too much, that I am wasting mental effort on something that is not my "real" work of humanities research--or that I am wasting my life on several things that do not matter ("Why do we need to teach this crap, anyway?  And what good is it to look at a poem like that?  Who cares?").

I am not going to address the issue of such arguments at the moment; I bring them up only to acknowledge their existence and use them as context for what I do want to discuss: a perhaps not so strange idea I had about my teaching.

One of the things that I tend to do in my classrooms is to bring in examples of the kinds of writing I want from my students.  In my remedial and developmental classes, I am obliged to explicitly teach expository modes such as description, narration, and contrast.  I therefore bring in passages from my own understanding of English-language literary canon and more mainstream publication that I find illustrate those modes.  In my more "normal" first-year composition classes, I bring in examples of short literary-critical essays, so that students can actually look at what one ought to look like, rather than trying to guess based on preconceived notions that are almost always wrong.

In my technical writing classes, I bring in examples of technical writing that I come across in my own (entirely too slow) readings.  Sometimes this is in the form of committee reports published in Profession, CCC, College English, and the like.  Sometimes it is in the form of reports and proposals I have had to do, although redacted--there are some things about which it is not appropriate for students to know...

One of the things that I hope to point out to the technical writing students with the examples is that technical writing ought to be clear and explicitly instructive.  It focuses primarily on the efficient transfer of information, rather than presenting knotty concepts that tease the reader to think through them or attempting to foster a specific range of aesthetic response (as much literary writing does).  And that means that it ideally supplements clear and lucid presentations of evidence, solid explanations of how that evidence functions, and an explanation of any unusual terms in it with clear graphics and paratextual features (subject headings and sub-headings, for instance) that guide reading effectively and facilitate quick reference.  Sentences will be of mixed length, usually simple in structure; parenthetical phrases and subordinate clauses are minimized.  Vocabulary will be of a somewhat but not fully formal register, with jargon in place but (in most cases) defined either upon first use or in a glossary at the end of the work.

It occurred to me as I was looking over materials for my play of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG that the gaming materials are themselves fine examples of technical writing.  The core book for the current edition of the game offers a fair bit of data--simple explanations of game-play mechanics and examples of the kind of narratives that drive the game*--with explications of game play and discussions of how the core rules interact with themselves.  Graphics abound, including art meant to impart understanding of cultural norms and mores and tables that neatly encapsulate the evidence that is described in detail in the text, and the information throughout is neatly divided by clearly distinguished hierarchical chapter and subject headings and sub-headings.  They join an extensive index in facilitating quick reference, and that index joins a substantial glossary that clarifies a great many terms that are unfamiliar to those newly approaching the game--the jargon of the RPG experience.

I have nursed the idea for some time that I ought to do some kind of paper on the topic (have I ruined my ability to do so by making this blog post?)--sometime, when I have time and the other projects I already have on deck are done.  But I had the thought within the past day or two that I might use the game as an example of technical writing for my classes.  I am already quite the nerd--who else would teach English?--so that I would risk little abrogation of my teacherly identity by bringing in such materials, and the example would serve to highlight the extent of the socio-cultural space which technical writing can occupy.

The only question I have, then, is about the manner in which the material would be received, both by students and my colleagues.  Would I be excluding students yet more by bringing in materials from a sub-culture which I occupy but which many if not most of those in my classroom do not?  Would my colleagues look at me (even more than many do now--"You're young; you'll feel like I do when you have some experience") as frivolous?  Should I worry about either?

I welcome the input of those of you who do look at this from time to time, however many you may be.

*I suppose that comments about this will be required at some point, but one of these per day is enough for me, I think.

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