The Challenger

Right on the Left Coast remembers The Challenger explosion, twenty years ago.

Commander Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, Judy Resnick (who can be seen on the IMAX video To Fly on earlier missions), Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, El Onizuka (for whom Onizuka Air Force Base, the Blue Cube, in Sunnyvale, California was named), and teacher Christa McAuliffe. Touch the face of God for me.

But this particular paragraph is why I talk about the Challenger in my freshman English writing classes and my business writing classes.

We all remember the freezing temperatures that caused the O-rings to fail. The NASA video explains that the O-ring failure caused flames to shoot out of the side of one of the solid rocket boosters, weaking at least one of the bolts that connected one of the SRBs to the external tank (the big thing on which the shuttle sits). Eventually, that SRB started rocking back and forth since it was no longer securely held to the tank. That movement, and the stream of flame emanating from the SRB, weakend the tank. Given the aerodynamic stresses it was experiencing, the tank essentially ripped apart. The shuttle did as well. All of the fuel in the tank, much of it liquid oxygen, became a huge vapor cloud when released into the atmosphere. That, and the smoke trails from the two solid rocket boosters, is what we saw that day.

At Purdue, not too long after the explosion, we got copies of memos that had been sent to the NASA guys from their engineers. The engineers said that the secondary O-rings were showing a problem at freezing temperatures.

As was explained to me, and I repeat, the engineers didn’t explain what secondary O-rings are, they assumed their bosses knew. And the bosses knew what secondary means. That means back up. So, as long as there was no problem with the primary O-rings, the shuttle should be fine. Because of that thinking, nothing was done about the faulty secondary O-rings.

But the secondary O-rings weren’t back ups. They were just another kind of O-ring and when they failed, the shuttle and the people within it, died.

When I am speaking about memos, because the engineers wrote memos, or I am speaking about jargon, because they used jargon their audience did not understand, or when I am speaking about audience… At some point I speak about the Challenger and its loss because of secondary O-rings and a miscommunication.

Many of my students were born after the Challenger and don’t know there was any other shuttle ever lost besides Columbia.

I also tell the students, in the interest of closure, that after NASA realized what the problem was caused by, they hired aerospace engineers who had liberal arts or management background to translate the memos from the engineers to the management. One of my friends, a Purdue grad, was hired for that express purpose.

But if the engineers had thought to be more clear about their legitimate concerns, if they had thought about their audience more, perhaps the catastrophe could have been avoided. Or if the management had asked questions instead of assuming they knew why the memos were sent the catastrophe could have been avoided.

It is always easy to see in hindsight the problems and the solutions.

This particular problem, communication, and its result, dead people, is an extreme example of the need to write clearly for your audience. I tell the students that I hope they are never in a situation where lives will depend on their clarity, but that they might be. Know your audience. Be specific. Give enough details that an uneducated (in that area) person can understand.

But for the families and friends and students of those lost in the Challenger explosion, the tragedy is far more than a lesson in Aristotelian rhetorical theory.

And I, for one, don’t want it to be forgotten.

A Compilation of Gender Isues Noted in Technical Writing Classes, pt. 6

This paper was originally presented at MLA in 1992.

This is the conclusion written and given in December of 1992.

After this paper was composed and submitted to MLA, I taught technical writing three more semesters.

Summer class aberration
The class I taught this summer had two papers in it which contradict two of the gender issues compiled from a review of past major paper assignments. One of the papers was from a male student who dealt with a female stereotypic topic: How Family Affects Work. Kenny explained his topic by saying, “Family areas such as marital satisfaction and child care responsibilities have an impact at work. Some effects that family can have on work include decreased productivity, increased pressure on supervisors, and a need for an expanded family policy. This report investigates these effects and what employees and organizations can do about them.”

Another student used personal anecdotes as a method of persuasion in his paper on job loss. Drew chose the topic because his father had been out of work for over a year. He quoted some research on psychological affects of job loss and wrote, “Many can hide the symptoms of dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. However, with my father, the signs are present if you look deep into his eyes.”

I do not have any explanation for why, in the summer of 1992, two students wrote papers which by-passed the gender differentiated approach to writing assignments.

I do not think that these two papers discount the significance of the issues I noted through examining approximately four hundred student papers. Rather, they offer a new avenue of questioning to pursue. Are they the start of a new generation of students who are not only able to be females using male strategies but also males using female strategies? If they are not, then their aberration from the norm is worth examining. What makes them different and how can we pass the differences on to other students?

Part 5

Part 4

Part 3

Part 2

Part 1

A Compilation of Gender Isues Noted in Technical Writing Classes, pt. 5

This paper was originally presented at MLA in 1992.

This is the original conclusion, which was sent in with the original paper in January of 1992.

Six years and four hundred students have been enough to note some gender issues in my technical writing classroom. Female students write on gender-related topics; male students do not. Female students use personal anecdotes as persuasion; male students do not. Both female and male students use sexist language, despite education and punitive attempts to change their language usage at least for one course.

What are the implications of these facts? Our students reflect the world around them. As Deborah Tannen noted in You Just Don’t Understand, men and women have different styles of communicating.

When they must communicate with each other in groups, both change their styles but the women change more. Female students have to learn how to cope with a previously male-only business world.

Their papers on gender related issues are a way of seeking to learn how to adjust, I think. Female students use personal anecdotes as persuasion because these are seen as persuasive by women; however, not all female students employ it. Even those students who had personal reasons for choosing their topics did not always include this information in their papers.

Neither female nor male students are using inclusive language; it is uncomfortable and unaccepted. So the female students use language which excludes them from the very things they are attempting to gain entrance to by completing their university degrees.

The workplace, including the university, is still a male dominated environment to which women adapt either because of conscious choice or because it is easier to fit in than to be different.

A Compilation of Gender Isues Noted in Technical Writing Classes, pt. 4

This paper was originally presented at MLA in 1992.

Sexist language
A third gender issue that I have noticed in my students’ writing is their use of sexist language. Even though at the start of every semester I discuss with them the implications of using sexist language, cite research which shows its prejudicial effect, and discuss my policy of counting off for the use of sexist language in their writing, my students, both female and male, continue to use sexist language in their papers. And all of them use “he” as opposed to the possible implementation of exclusionary use of “she.” They continue to do this despite the fact that such usage negatively impacts their grades.

One student wrote on the productive employee, “he,” though the student writing the paper was female. Only her one page summary of the paper used inclusive language. I have found a few students who attempt to vary their use of “he” and “she” rather than use a “he/she” split or the plural pronoun. At least half of the students who have used this alternating of pronouns have used the “she” pronoun for subordinates and the “he” pronoun for managers. The other students either alternated pronouns every paragraph or every scenario.

At first, when thinking about this topic of gender issues, I thought that the use of sexist language was connected to the fact that I presently teach at a small Christian university in the South.

In reviewing my student papers, however, I found that the students at a large public university in the Midwest also used sexist language.

I have not found a theory about why students would use sexist language, even when its employment is detrimental to them, but I would propose that either they are more comfortable with the sexist language than they are uncomfortable with the grade or the use of sexist language, when I have specifically prohibited it, is an attempt at a power play.

My present students have a stereotype about feminists as loud, aggressive, and rude. Perhaps this view influences their language usage. They want to fit in with their peers and find this more important than a paper grade. Sometimes I wonder if their language would change if their circles of influence frowned on exclusive language, but only sometimes. The rest of the time I try new techniques for presenting the material so that they will understand the importance of using inclusive language. So far I have not found a means of impressing them with the real world significance of their language.

To be continued…

A Compilation of Gender Isues Noted in Technical Writing Classes, pt. 3

This paper was originally presented at MLA in 1992.

Argumentation style differs
During the course of my teaching, I have noticed a difference in the argumentation styles my students have used in presenting their papers.

Personal argumentation
Only my female students have ever included examples of personal argumentation in their papers, even when the topic assigned was a business proposal for their own businesses.

For example, Joyce worked on the topic of superior-subordinate relationships in the workplace and included her personal code of ethics for dealing with these situations in her paper. She set this up appropriately and presented an interesting discussion of her personal philosophy and how she arrived at the conclusions she reached, mostly through her religious and career experiences.

Cindy presented a business plan for a cleaning service, work in which she gained experience helping in her mother’s business. One point Cindy made read, “A few years ago, I helped my mother clean houses when she started her own business. I also helped her set up appointments and buy supplies.”

Another student, David, created a business plan for setting up an accounting service. The person who provided most of the information through interviews for this paper was Mr. Hancock. David quoted his advice on starting a business and some pointers for making the business successful in the first year. Nowhere in the paper is it mentioned that Mr. Hancock is David’s father.

Overall the women seemed to use more personal supports for their line of argumentation than did the men. This usage fits in with current linguistic theory which says that men do not respect personal anecdotes as persuasion, but see them as intrusive and unnecessary (Roberts, Davies, and Jupp).

Work Cited

Roberts, Celia, Evelyn Davies, and Tom Jupp. Language and Discrimination. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1992.

To be continued…

A Compilation of Gender Isues Noted in Technical Writing Classes, pt. 2

This paper was presented at MLA in 1992.

The topics chosen by my students seem to be influenced or divided by gender.

One semester I had students working for a real client on the possibility of setting up a wedding video service in the city in which the university was located. One of my students, a female, proposed looking into the amount of personal credibility a videographer needs when starting a business and the manner in which the credibility is established. None of the videographers she interviewed, all men, thought that credibility was an issue. None of them had ever been asked for references or questioned about their past experience.

This student was surprised by this finding, since in her work she had often had to justify her competency. She did not investigate whether the videographers received all their clients through personal referrals, a circumstance which would have provided credibility for them. Even if most of their clients were referrals the fact that the videographers did not expect them all to be is shown by the advertizing they did.

Superior-subordinate relationships
In teaching technical writing I have had many women deal with the question of superior-subordinate relationships, but no men. The two highest quality papers dealt with two different aspects of these relationships.

One dealt with the question of ability and equality. Joyce argued in her paper that though individuals have many different skills, our society rewards some subordinates with pay equal to or greater than their abilities, while others are paid less than their competence warrants. The jobs she discussed as examples are dominated by men in both the superior and subordinate positions, but her career as a secretary clearly influenced the recommendations she made at the end of her paper.

Another paper on the same topic focused on the role of the female subordinate in corporate America. Judy discussed inequities within the system, reasons for them, potential problems when they are removed–such as executives traveling together and the attitudes of their spouses to this long distance mixed group situation, and indications that these inequities are being slowly reduced.

Stereotypical coverage
Topics covered in the major papers have included sexual harassment, gender differences in leadership, and the problem of balancing a family and a full-time job. Yet my students seem to choose topics that fit the stereotypes, or cultural expectations, of their respective sexes.

Only my female students have written about superior-subordinate relationships. Perhaps this is because my female students are more aware of their position of subordinates as they enter the workplace. Perhaps it is because my male students feel challenged by the idea that they should be underlings (Tannen).

My student who wrote on personal credibility was amazed that the videographers did not consider the relevance of credibility. She had, probably because women tend to be more concerned about relationships that are developed in all spheres of their lives (Gilligan). Only my female students cover topics on gender-related issues. I suppose this is because they see the implications of it for their lives.

Works Cited
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.

Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. New York: Ballantine, 1990.

To be continued…

A Compilation of Gender Isues Noted in Technical Writing Classes, pt. 1

This paper was presented to MLA in 1992.

My experience
In teaching technical writing to approximately four hundred students over the past six years, I have noticed differences in my female and male students’ approaches to their long report assignment. The major paper for the class is a study of a problem or situation that the student thinks will be useful in their work experience, although sometimes their choice has to fit into an overarching scenario, such as setting up a new business.

How topics chosen
Topics are generated by the students with approval being contingent on the feasibility of the study for a semester long project and a ten to fifteen page final paper.

I have found that topics which are stereotypically female– superior-subordinate relationships, personal and professional credibility, family-career balances, and gender issues– are never chosen by my male students, though I have several papers on these topics each semester.

I have also found that my students’ methods of argumentation are slightly different. My female students often intersperse personal comments or relate the material to themselves within the text while my male students, despite their personal involvement with the subject, do not.

Even with these two differences, the language of the two groups was not as differentiated as I expected. Few of my students paid any attention to the directions to avoid sexist language; both female and male students used male inclusive language. In this paper I will present the topic, argumentation, and language differences and similarities that I have found in my classes’ writings and present theories to account for them.

To be continued…

Science writing readings

Huckin’s article … I didn’t know there was a term for it.

 I wonder a little about being able to justify it.  I guess I will go back and look at the other articles he says are done in the same genre.

            “Writers belong to multiple discourse communities…”

is an interesting statement and one that I will be dealing with in my dissertation, if the company I want lets me study their stuff.  All their writers are scientists, working as tech writers.

            “Was this of interest to composition teachers?”

  I wonder that myself sometimes.  But I think that this topic I am looking at will be of interest to tech writing teachers.

            I thought it was interesting that Nate had fewer connectives and demonstratives and article ratios than the scholars.  Even for a formal paper, most people don’t write the same way as they would for a journal article.  I also think it is interesting that Haswell is invoked to corroborate, after the fact, their intuitive response.  Haswell says a competent writer doesn’t need all those things.  They take that to mean that Nate is a competent writer.  That also implies that the ten scholars are not.

            I thought they were silly to say that he was rejecting one community for a new one.  They aren’t members of multiple communities?  Being a member of one doesn’t necessarily reject the others, unless they are philosophically or politically opposed.

            Voice.  Huckin mentions voice, just saying he was using different voices.  Where does that come from?  Where is research on voice?  What is voice?  Why doesn’t anyone talk about this?  Have I missed the literature?

            I didn’t think the two methods, context-sensitive text analysis and rhetorical criticism, were all that different.  I got the idea that rhetorical criticism could easily be part of a context-sensitive text analysis.  Is this true?  If not, could you give me some pointers?  I’

ll go read the book, but I want to know if I am missing something.

Thomas N. Huckin. “Surprise Value in Scientific Discourse.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (38th, Atlanta, GA, March 19-21, 1987).    

I know longer remember which Haswell article I was referencing.  But his vita is available at

5 ways of thinking of audience

 Coney : “Think about your audience” reminded me of some work I saw, read, and used during an advanced comp class.  I think I’ll print and attach a copy of some questions about voice.  I think a similarly exhausting, if not exhaustive, list of questions about audience would be useful to define our assumptions about audience.

            I liked the taxonomy of readers, although I don’t think I would have had I not already been exposed to the idea.  Not sure why.

            reader as receiver of information

            reader as user

            reader as decoder

            reader as professional colleague– social constructions community creating meaning?  If so, how different from below?

            reader as maker of meaning


Coney, M.B.  “Technical readers and their rhetorical roles.”  Professional Communication, IEEE Transactions 35.2 (June 1992): 58-63.