Dr. Miriam F. Williams on Race and Ethnicity in Tech Comm

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm, this is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Miriam F. Williams from Texas State University, who recently co-edited a collection entitled Communicating Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in Technical Communication. She joins us today to talk about how the field of technical communication can better understand how issues of race and ethnicity influence both user experience and the experiences of technical communicators themselves.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Miriam. We really appreciate you coming on today and I’d love to talk with you a little bit about some of the ideas that come up in your new collection. Specifically, in the introduction you write that technical communication has been slow to wrestle with two core elements of American identity: race and ethnicity. Why do you think we’ve been slow to address these issues?

[Miriam Williams] Well as you know compared to other fields and other areas of English studies, we are a relatively sub-field of English, and with that said I think it takes time to develop these areas of inquire. I think this is as good a time as any for those of us with this interest to explore race and ethnicity. And I’m happy to say that quite a few of us do have this interest, so I’m excited.

[Weber] What can bring us up to speed?

[Williams] Good question, there are quite a few tech comm scholars who are interested in the work. We need to publish quite a few of us are teaching courses related to these issues. I think we’re really doing a good job, I really do, but conducting research, quantitative and qualitative I think is a good start.

[Weber] Great, great, well I’m glad to hear that you’re optimistic. Now let’s talk a little bit about some of this research. It seems to me in this book that you talk about sort of two different elements of race and ethnicity as they relate to tech comm. One is the way that it shapes user experience, can you give some examples of how that plays out? How might race or ethnicity shape user experience?

[Williams] Alright, I have a monograph that I wrote a while back, 2010, where I looked at some historical regulations, the name of the book is From Black Culture to Recodification, and I’m going to talk about the historical perspective, which is very important-.

[Weber] Sure.

[Williams] -As it relates to African-Americans and Latinos and all of the historical modernized groups. From the historical perspective, in that particular book, I discuss plain language laws and also laws ended up informing manuals that were distributed by banks to customers in the early 1900s. The purpose of the manuals for farmers and businessmen, businesswomen, mostly men at that time-.

[Weber] Sure.

[Williams] Of new regulations related to farming technique. In my research I discovered a manual, I’m in Texas, the name of the manual was Texas Laws Made Plain. Unfortunately, this manual, and I was shocked, but I guess I shouldn’t have been, this manual included outdated and repealed laws that had previously forced Black children into a form of indentured servitude until the age of 21. So, while the laws had been repealed, the business people in Texas had codified these laws in manuals, that’s the historical perspective and I’m-there are tons of examples. Flourice Richardson’s chapter in the edited collection that you spoke about addresses some historical perspective. But as it relates to contemporary issues, some work that I’ve done recently is-includes a case study related to environmental agencies.

[Weber] Okay.

[Williams] One in Houston and they use quite a few strategies to communicate environmental science to predominately African-American and Latinos in particular. These areas often have a higher percentage of land fields and other environmental hazards, you’ve heard of environmental racism?

[Weber] Right, we have problems in Alabama as well.

[Williams] Yeah, I can imagine and so the audiences are distrustful if a regulator, an environmental regulator, comes into this neighborhood they say, “Well, we’ve helped,” well but you have two land fields in a six mile radius, there’s a history of distrust. So, I think this particular agency in Houston they coupled community forums with door-to-door outreach, in an effort to get to know the citizens and also encourage them to report air pollution. So, outreach coupled with plain language and plain Spanish, you know plain English and plain Spanish. In some areas in Houston and Dallas and other areas throughout the country there’s a large Vietnamese population growing, and so these agencies they have to use tech comm principles like plain language, but they also have to consider the distrust and attempt to get to know the citizens and I think that’s very important. That’s what I’ve seen in recent cases and you now my-I don’t know if you know this, but most of my research relates to government work and so that’s what I’m seeing. If you look at the edited collection, you’ll see that matters related to trust are often there whether the author states it explicitly or not.

[Weber] So that’s one of the big issues is sort of bridging this gulf of trust between whoever’s producing the communication and the-some of the particular audiences who are receiving the communication. And obviously usually someone who’s producing the communication is in some position of power, you know you mentioned the example form Texas, and the more recent example from the air control, but it sounds like this more recent example is a bit more of a success story with the-kind of?

[Williams] Well it-I.

[Weber] Yeah, a step in the right direction?

[Williams] A step in the right direction. That particular case was interesting because some of the actual regulators, are scientists, who you know, who know-they go out and inspect facilities, some of them were actual from the areas. You know they grew up in the area, so those-they knew more about the history of the neighborhood and they were able to communicate more easily, whether it’s in English or Spanish, with the citizens. And so that may be part of the success, the agency had a diverse you know employee organization as it relates to the actual workers.

[Weber] It’s a great argument for increasing the diversity of whoever your body of technical communicators is because it allows them to then reach a larger segment of the population effectively. And that sort of brings up the next sort of element of your book, which was you know, so there’s the way that race and ethnicity affect the audience that’s receiving the documents. There’s an element of the race and ethnicity of the technical communicator themsel£-.

[Williams] Right.

[Weber] -that comes up in the book, and one of the things you say is “The technical communicator’s identity as a Person of Color or not informs their rhetorical moves and whether these moves are effective,” can you give any examples of this dynamic at play?

[Williams] One example that I thought was very interesting was Dr. Theresa Coleman’s discussion; she worked as an institutional researcher at a historically black college. Institutional researchers they’re those folks that collect the data and send it off to accreditation agencies. What we found is that many of the colleges, these historically black colleges, were founded right after slavery and have continued to have strong ties to religious organizations that initially funded them, beyond her being an institutional researcher familiar with SPSS and the requirements for accreditation, the person had to know a bit about the appropriate use of language as it relates to history and religion. And she told me a story about how, and I don’t think she put this in the chapter, but she actually had to-she found herself having the learn the Negro National Anthem, and so she had to become culturally competent. The data, of course, the data needs to be correct and she needs to write clearly, but the audiences included religious institutions that she had never interacted with, she was you know not a particularly religious person.

[Weber] Right.

[Williams] So she had to learn this language and she had this history and the cadence, you know there’s different rhetorical styles that were expected for the different audiences, I think that’s a good example of how this identity of the writer, who viewed herself as a statistician had to evolve a bit.

[Weber] That’s a great example and it seems like the theme that’s really running through is sort oflearning the culture and understanding the culture that you’re communicating to which is of course a dominate theme throughout technical communication.

[Williams] Right.

[Weber] And again raises the question of why it took so long to come around to some of these issues, but it is a, really a natural flt you know for people who are researching and practicing within technical communication. Did you have sort of any parting advice or thoughts for where the field or the discipline can go next?

[Williams] Well I just think we need to continue to address audiences that we have not discussed before and you know I’m excited about it. You know for years I mean-if you look at some of Emily Thrush’s work and Carolyn Booth, both of them mention you know the fact that we hadn’t done work in this area, and so I think those of us who are currently addressing race and ethnicity, needs to in our work acknowledge other areas that have not been addressed. And with that I think future technical communication scholars will you know address issues that we haven’t thought about. I don’t want to judge you know other scholars harshly because they haven’t touched this area, I think we research areas that are of interest to us, so I’m just excited that we’re doing a lot of work in that area right now.

[Weber] Terrific. Well keep up the good work and congratulations again on the collection. [Williams] Okay and thanks-thanks for talking to me.

[Weber] Hey no problem, I really enjoyed it and I appreciate it.

[Williams] Alright, have a good one.

[Weber] Alright thanks Miriam.

[Williams] Bye.

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Episode 17