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Writing Power: Communication in an Engineering Center.

Writing Power: Communication in an Engineering Center

Dorothy A. Winsor. 2003. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. [ISBN 0-7914-5758-3. 173 pages, including index. $18.95 USD (softcover).]

According to Dorothy Windsor, "... power is constructed in the trivialities of everyday life that are so taken for granted as to be transparent to us" (p. 155).


Dorothy Winsor tethers theory to the solid ground of daily practice in her excellent descriptive study of writing and hierarchical power in an engineering center. For five summers Winsor shadowed managers, technicians, and interns at the engineering center of Pacific Equipment Engineering, a manufacturer of off-road heavy equipment, as they produced and transmitted documents. Five rich vignettes anchor widely ranging theoretical sources--Pierre Bourdieu, Clifford Geertz, Cheryl Geisler, Edwin Hutchins, Carolyn R. Miller--to the day-to-day work lives of managers, engineers, technicians, and interns.

Using a rhetorical lens in which genres are forms of social action, Winsor straddles disciplinary boundaries by analyzing the genres of this local context in broader cultural and theoretical terms.

She draws on two distinct and often opposed bodies of knowledge: organizational communications, which "often takes the organizational chart as a representation of power relationships that are not open to question," and critical theory, which "treats ... power as automatically oppressive" (p. 11). Rather than taking either of these positions, she asserts that power has a dual nature, moving both upward and downward even in such a hierarchical organization. In her analysis the local texts of this culture--budgets, data texts, work orders, technical reports--work as "immutable mobiles," inscribing power relations in ways that further the transformation of engineering knowledge into monetary capital.

Anyone who has worked in an industrial setting will recognize the tensions she describes as various sources of knowledge and power interact around documents in ways that are mainly invisible to the participants. Processes of "distributed cognition"--in which knowledge and information are brought together to serve a common end--are not always conscious or harmonious. Engineers, she observes, are often unaware of the rhetorical force of documents they produce, seeing them as "simply factual" even though their ultimate rhetorical purpose may be to persuade. Valuable knowledge might be lost when technicians make observations not specified in the engineers' work orders. Still, she says, technicians are not without means of creating knowledge and exercising power.

The familiar tensions between managing, engineering, and technical departments are rendered through remarks made by those she shadows. In one meeting an engineer jokes that technical people are "measuring instruments"; in an aside to the author, a technician remarks that a specific engineer's "knowledge doesn't always make it to (the work order) paper" (p. 91)

Writing power is significant for three overlapping audiences. First, though her work does not offer new theory, it does provide theorists with much needed grounding and a check against models that depart too far from human experience. Researchers in professional writing and rhetoric will find a useful model for research in naturalistic settings--and a fine stimulus for dissertation subjects. It offers significant insight to students of industrial cultures and organizations, professional and technical writing, genre theory, distributed cognition, and, more generally, rhetoric.

Second, communication faculty who work with engineering students will find sections of the book useful as case studies against which they can analyze and reflect on their writing experiences as interns. Students and professors with knowledge of such environments as Pacific Equipment Engineering will recognize the types and the rhetorical classifications immediately.

Third, those without such experience will enjoy seeing the real-world application of such communication course mainstays as: genre, audience, and text.

We highly recommend this book.

LEONORA H. SMITH teaches at Michigan State University. She has helped develop MSU's new programs at the intersection of professional writing, rhetoric, and culture. A scholarly and commercial writer and editor and a poet/fiction writer, she is exploring digital poetics under an MSU Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) center grant.

HUGH M. STILLEY teaches engineering writing at Kettering University (formerly GMI.) He has worked as an editor for Ward's auto world and taught communications/writing to adults in industrial settings. He currently teaches undergraduates advanced report writing for senior projects.
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Title Annotation:Book Reviews
Author:Smith, Leonora H.; Stilley, Hugh M.
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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