The Center for Writing Studies

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Special Field Exam: Sample Rationale

Literacy Studies: Writing in Communities and Workplaces - Teresa Bruckner

Like others in the discipline of Writing Studies, I am interested in enlarging the sphere of our attention to include texts that are neither literary nor school-based. Literate practices in the community and workplace could encompass such diverse texts as grocery lists, Post-it notes, appointment calendars, email, and forms. One feature these texts share is their utility: people use writing to do things in the world. This tool-like quality supposes that texts are historical, material, mediational means. I am interested in exploring texts as parts of larger systems of activity and in exploring how people use texts to shape social organization: to coordinate efforts, to make decisions, to determine what the work at hand consists of. This sociocultural view of literacy raises a host of questions, including how texts can be both meaningfully familiar and novel, how texts are materially produced and circulated, how systems and their associated texts change over time, and how texts might constrain as well as afford human agency.

Two researchers whose work has especially interested me are Bruno Latour and Edwin Hutchins, who explore how physical artifacts/tools are used to translate phenomena- in-the-world into information. Latour’s concepts of centers of calculation and hybrids of human and non-human actors will be a useful framework to observe writing in the community and workplace. Aside from seeing how calculations are embedded in tools, Hutchins also explores how those tools have changed over time, and I think this historical dimension adds richness to his work. Activity theorists such as Engestrom also view human activities as part of larger systems of goals and mediational means. Their work appears in the first section of the reading list, along with the work of genre theorists and others who explore the dialogic relationship between the historical, the social, and the technical.

Asserting that texts are functional does not, however, delimit a range of functions or determine in advance what people are doing with any one text. It may well be that various people within and between activity systems use the same text to achieve different goals. This suggests that, as a researcher, my method should be to go into the community and workplace to see what people do with texts and ask for their explanations. My assertion that texts are functional, however, might not be shared by my informants, who might be more inclined to see texts as containers for meaning. Balancing multiple perspectives will be one of my tasks as a researcher. Since I expect the major part of my dissertation work to be case studies of how people and texts interact, the second section of the reading list comprises work in an ethnographic tradition, mainly from workplace studies, social studies of science and technology, and literacy studies.

The focus of my dissertation will be form-filling as a textual practice which emerged in particular historical conditions and has changed over time. Forms seem to be an almost iconic feature of contemporary life; like death and taxes, they are always present and always detested. Yet the inability or reluctance to fill out forms can have a very real impact on people’s lives in terms of what they are or are not allowed to do. One result of my research might be a better understanding of how people learn to be successful form-fillers. I might also begin to identify how forms function in centers of calculations like government offices and workplaces. Finally, I might suggest how form designers view their task, and the consequences of the materials they use to achieve their designs. As well as having an opportunity to explore the contexts for a literate activity, I also hope to bring the concerns of writing researchers closer to a larger public. The third part of the reading list includes historical studies of writing, business communication, and technology.