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'Make this simple test:' A lesson in ethics in the technical writing classroom.

Technical writing, perhaps even more than other kinds of rhetorical discourse, always leads to action, and thus always impacts on human life (Katz 1992, p. 259)

The question for us is, do we, as teachers and writers and scholars, contribute to this ethos |justifying decisions based on technological expediency~ by our writing theory, pedagogy, and practice when we consider techniques of document design, audience adaptation, argumentation, and style without also considering ethics? (Katz 1992, p. 271)

Before reading Steven B. Katz's article in College English, I always had an uneasy feeling about teaching principles of rhetoric without making clear the relationship between rhetoric and ethics. Katz's article emphasized two points that I thought needed addressing in my classroom:

1. That the area of technical writing, while necessarily circumscribed, is connected to larger concerns

2. That teachers of technical writing may unconsciously pass on to students techniques and values that could serve unethical ends.

Both of these points challenge the technical writing teacher to introduce ethics into the syllabus. In response to this challenge, I went outside of the traditional boundaries of technical writing and used a prose poem by W. S. Merwin to illustrate the moral tension that can exist when one makes connections between effects and their causes. The following is a summary of a lesson plan that I use.

First, I introduce the students to Merwin's prose poem, "Make This Simple Test," on a transparency. They read it to themselves, and then someone in the class reads it aloud. Then I ask students to get into small groups to discuss the meaning of what they have read. I ask them to pinpoint places in the prose poem where the meaning becomes most problematic.

When the small group discussions are beginning to wane, the class reconvenes as a whole, and the groups summarize their thoughts about the Merwin piece. Every teacher will be presented with a different set of questions and responses. Moreover, how each teacher proceeds from here will also vary. However, I do not believe that this will keep teachers from arriving at some critical junctures in Merwin's prose poem.

Let me elucidate some of the junctures that have particular relevance for technical writing. Although I've arranged them in a logical sequence culminating in a more lengthy discussion of the ethics issue, no class, I'm sure, will arrive at all these points in this way.

Reading Aloud. By having a student read this piece aloud, we can see that most people cannot even pronounce, let alone understand the contents of their food. Certainly, much of what is in the prose poem hinges on the fact that accuracy does not equal understanding, a theme I emphasize again and again in my tech writing classes.

Specialization. The food contents section also gives rise to audience issues. As technical communicators, we are always dealing with specialized vocabularies for nonspecialized audiences. Without glossaries, analogies, etc., what kinds of implications are there for audiences who read the data with little comprehension?

Data Overload. The information supply doubles every five years. Most people are unable to use information successfully in this abundance: They do not have the time to distill data into a form that will change their behavior or lives. Communication at its best enables the audience (customer) to make important, informed decisions. By stripping products of their nonessential information (specially designed containers and carefully designed labels), Merwin helps the reader to get through this data overload in order to see that the important information is relegated to the back of the can in small print.

Politics. Richard Saul Wurman (1990) says in his book Information Anxiety, "If Orwell were writing 1984 now, he would not say, 'Destroy the information.' He would say, 'Inundate people with information, they'll think they're free. Don't deny them. Give them more.' Undigested information is no information at all, but creates the fiction that you have accessed it, even though you didn't benefit from it".

This insight by Wurman points out an important relationship between democracy and information: Information can be a way of keeping the voter ignorant. The ubiquitous labeling of our food hasn't improved the general public's understanding of what goes into their food and, as "Make This Simple Test" points out, this can have serious political implications.

Ethics. Sooner or later in Merwin's prose piece, we arrive at the puzzling sentence, "Guess why the babies are burning." Most students wonder what possible connection food content labels can have with burning babies. I point out that this prose poem was copyrighted 1969-70; that is, this is a Viet Nam era poem. The burning babies are probably napalmed babies. The mission of the class from this point, then, is to provide the missing logical inferences that lead Merwin to make this dramatic connection, while at the same time determining whether we agree with him or not.

Now I would like to detail some of my infusions into the class discussion. First, I point out that "technical writing, perhaps even more than other kinds of rhetorical discourse, always leads to action, and thus always impacts on human life" (Katz 1992, p. 259). Also, I may read a chilling memo (written by a Nazi bureaucrat named Just) included in the Katz article to point out that obviously others have missed the moral consequences of what they have written.

Second, I tell them that "Make This Simple Test" gains momentum in the last paragraph. Before this point, most of what is said is familiar and fairly simple. However, when the guessing game occurs at the end, both complexity and ethical considerations begin.

At the beginning of the last paragraph, Merwin provides us with the problem-solving formula of journalism: the 5Ws plus H. If we, indeed, answer these questions (and I try to do so in the class discussion), we find that there is a relationship between the consumer and the food industry that is hierarchical; that is, many decisions are made without the consumer's knowledge or consent. We can see that this is a dangerous position for consumers, who can be manipulated by industry for greater and continuing profits. The consequences of this ignorance have even greater significance for the consumer, as we shall see when we move further into Merwin's final paragraph.

In the middle of this last paragraph, the guesses become ones that have to do with time, both historical and evolutionary. Here the author calls for understanding how we have arrived at a time when we do not grow or hunt for most of our food, but depend upon a food industry; or how we have arrived at a time when there are substances in our food that our bodies cannot identify. The implication is that knowing about the history of this process will make us wonder at its validity--maybe we've made an evolutionary leap in the last 200 years that is a dead end. Whatever our answer, I think it is clear that it is dangerous to accept the workings of a culture without a historical context.

Finally and most important, we come to the last section of the paragraph, the section in which the "babies are burning." Here we can do a number of things to emphasize the interconnectedness of the world today. It is easy to show that what happens in the United States economy has ramifications all around the world. As has been stated many times, the fact that the U.S. has 6% of the world population and uses 30% of the world's resources has some serious implications. For instance, was the Gulf War a matter of principle or oil? In like fashion, can we hypothesize, as does Merwin, that there is a connection in our willingness to consume food that is processed by a profit-centered industry and the napalming of babies in Viet Nam?

This latter question can be addressed graphically by having students create cause-and-effect clusters, with the hub category being "Processed Foods." From here, students attempt to see what kind of cause-effect chains they can create, and whether they can link the killing of babies in Viet Nam with the food industry. Whether these chains are valid can be part of the class discussion. But the point is that ethical dilemmas start making their appearance when we make such chains. Certainly, somewhere in these student chains problems such as carcinogenic preservatives/sweeteners, soil depletion, the demise of the small farmer, animal rights, pollution, etc., will arise.

W.S. Merwin's prose poem "Make This Simple Test" is an excellent way to introduce the ethical consequences of what we do as technical writers. Moreover, as I have shown, it is additionally useful in emphasizing some of the other aspects of technical writing:

* The problems of specialized vocabularies and the concomitant need for glossaries, analogies, etc.

* The use of problem-solving strategies like the journalism heuristic

* The importance of historical research in understanding a process.

Because of these benefits, I like to use this exercise before I have students work on reports. But wherever this exercise is used in the classroom, I find it is a good way to get out of the narrow confines of traditional technical writing and into the larger realms of human action and ethics.


Katz, Stephen B. 1992. "The ethics of expediency: Classical rhetoric, technology, and the holocaust." College English 54 (March): 255-275.

Wurman, Richard Saul. 1990. Information Anxiety. New York: Bantam Books.


Blindfold yourself with some suitable object. If time permits remain still for a moment. You may feel one or more of your senses begin to swim back toward you in the darkness, singly and without their names. Meanwhile have someone else arrange the products to be used in a row in front of you. It is preferable to have them in identical containers, though that is not necessary. Where possible, perform the test by having the other person feed you a portion--a spoonful--of each of the products in turn, without comment.

Guess what each one is, and have the other person write down what you say.

Then remove the blindfold. While arranging the products the other person should have detached part of the label or container from each and placed it in front of the product it belongs to, like a title.

This bit of legend must not contain the product's trade name nor its generic name, nor any suggestion of the product's taste or desirability. Or price. It should be limited to that part of the label or container which enumerates the actual components of the product in question.

Thus, for instance:

Contains dextrinized flours, cocoa processed with alkali, nonfat dry milk solids, yeast nutrients, vegetable proteins, agar, hydrogenated vegetable oil, dried egg yolk, GUAR, sodium cyclamate, soya lecithin, imitation lemon oil, acetyl tartaric esters of mono- and diglycerides as emulsifiers, polysorbate 60, 1/10 of 1% of sodium benzoate to retard spoilage.


Contains anhydrated potatoes, powdered whey, vegetable gum, emulsifier (glycerol monostearate), invert syrup, shortening with freshness preserver, lactose, sorbic acid to retard mold growth, caramel color, natural and artificial flavors, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bisulfite.


Contains beef extract, wheat and soya derivatives, food starch--modified, dry sweet whey, calcium, carageenan, vegetable oil, sodium phosphates to preserve freshness, BHA, BHT, propylene glycol, pectin niacinamide, artificial flavor, U.S. certified color.

There should be not less than three separate products.

Taste again, without the blindfold. Guess again and have the other person record the answers. Replace the blindfold. Have the other person change the order of the products and again feed you a spoonful of each.

Guess again what you are eating or drinking in each case (if you can make the distinction). But this time do not stop there. Guess why you are eating or drinking it. Guess what it may do for you. By whom. When. Where. Why. Guess where in the course of evolution you took the first step toward it. Guess which of your organs recognized it. Guess whether it is welcomed to their temples. Guess how it figures in their prayers. Guess how completely you become what you eat. Guess how soon. Guess at the taste of locusts and wild honey. Guess at the taste of water. Guess what the rivers see as they die. Guess why the babies are burning. Guess why there is silence in heaven. Guess why you were ever born.
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Author:Settle, Martin
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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