Chapter 2: Literacies at work, for fun, and at school

2.1 Introduction to studying writing at work

Julie Townsend

Writing studies researchers have a set of tools and lenses that help them understand exactly how, when, where, and why work gets done and by whom. One of the most basic tools is to look for writing and technology that connects people.

Spinuzzi’s Telecorp research

Within writing studies, some research focuses on how texts are used in the workplace (Spinuzzi, 2008). Spinuzzi (2008) works from two main research questions: “How does a telecommunications company function when its right hand often doesn’t know what its left hand is doing?” and “How do rapidly expanding, inter-disciplinary organizations hold together and perform their knowledge work?” (i.). Spinuzzi studies the large telecommunications company, which he calls Telecorp, using both activity theory and actor-network theory, and he pays specific attention to texts, which Spinuzzi refers to as genres, in all contexts of the business and how those texts help to tie together people with activities and help to get work done.

Looking at genres in a new light

Spinuzzi uses the word genre differently than college writers are most likely used to. In high school (and in text-oriented college classes), genres refer to established conventions of writing: historical, fiction, non-fiction, autobiographical, and business reports, for instance. However, in certain strands scholarship in people-oriented writing studies, genres refer to texts very broadly. A genre could be a post-it note, a grocery list, an email, or a Facebook post. In Spinuzzi’s study, some examples of “genres” that are used to tie activities together in Telecorp include a customer’s voicemail message, a summary report of a phone call and employee interactions, and a webpage that details the services that the company offers (p. 11). These genres help to bridge together customers and the services that the company offers. He blends careful observations of reading, writing, and communication of workers at Telecorp and customers and descriptions of what the Telecorp network consists of and the historical development of that network with understandings and lenses from both activity theory and actor-network theory, giving the reader into insights from both viewpoints simultaneously.

For instance, Spinuzzi (2008) describes the steps that happen when a new customer calls Telecorp, which is a long list of detailed processes: doing a credit check, adding the new address and number to the 911 database, and updating the information with the billing department, just to name a few (1). He uses detailed descriptions of genres to trace how Telecorp functions with so many different departments and protocols.

Academic lenses: studying the social with activity theory and actor-network theory

Academic lenses are ways of looking at data that are established by academic writing. Bruno Latour (2005) describes actor-network theory as addressing the problems that often arise when academics use the word “social” (p. 1). Social contexts are made up of people, ideas, writing, buildings, committees, technologies, and all other tangible and intangible “actors.” Activity theory, which shares similar ideas and terminology with actor-network theory, differs in its applications and history. Activity theory is more concerned with learning and psychology, whereas actor-network theory is more focused on politics and alliances (Spinuzzi, 2008, p. 7). In academic writing, especially in the social sciences, researchers choose academic lenses through which they can observe human activities and share knowledge with other researchers in a way that speaks to research that has already been done and contributes to existing academic conversations. Academic lenses, like actor-network theory and activity theory, help researchers to analyze data and come to findings that other researchers in the academic community can compare, relate to, and learn from. For this introductory course to writing studies, writers should try their best to understand and recognize the academic lenses that they read about in this collection and in the academic articles that they read for their own research. Writers may want to try out different academic lenses in their writing for this course. This course asks students to focus on observations that they make about reading, writing, and communication in the activities that they study and report on and begin recognizing and identifying their academic lenses work in academic writing.

Research questions for an activity theory and actor-network theory lenses

Under the lenses of both activity theory and actor-network theory, disruptions are important to study. Normal workflows without disruptions are great starting points to begin descriptions of how work gets done. What kinds of texts are used in a normal work routine? What is a normal work routine and when is it used? What kinds of screens and menus do employees and customers navigate to do business? For writing researchers, understanding everyday texts and how those texts circulate and transform at work are essential to understand exactly how writing is used at a work place. But with any kind of activity, problems occur that need attention. Disruptions are important for understanding how texts develop, change, and work with other texts to allow workers to continue during problems.

Look for disruptions in activity

When disruptions occur, the lens of activity theory helps researchers find opportunities for learning. Engestrom, Engestrom, and Vahaao (1999), activity theorists, point to knotworking to describe how nodes in a network transform and help to orchestrate complicated tasks (p. 346). When researchers study teams or individuals who are tying together multiple texts, activity networks describe the stable structure and flow of people, texts, technologies, and ideas that makeup the normal actions in an activity (p. 346). However, when a disruption occurs in an activity, the activity network destabilizes and transforms, and the term knotworking (when a disruption in activity occurs and actors work through it) can help observers to better understand the transformations and pulsation of activity (p. 346). How are old texts being used in a new way to handle the disruption? Are new actors introduced to the network? Are new configurations of relationships necessary? How has the activity network transformed to help solve the disruption? With any kind of activity, problems occur that need attention. Both activity theory and actor-network theory lenses offer Spinuzzi (2008) different analytical options to discover findings for the observations that he makes about the texts and people working together during the disruptions at Telecorp to help answer his research question of how work gets done at the rapidly expanding telecommunications company.

Example of a disruption at Telecorp

In one disruption, Annita from the technology help desk finds Geraldine, and the entire sales department, to be pushing work to other departments when they could handle the matter themselves. Spinuzzi details the narrative of Annita, Geraldine, and a customer working with a “cloud” of texts and how those texts are transformed and circulated during a disruption (p. 11). Through an actor-network theory lens, Annita uses the notes that she keeps on the interactions with the hopes that upper management will notice a pattern of negligence from the sales team. She is using her interaction notes that she submits to a larger system to enroll actors to help support her goal to reprimand the sales team. Through an activity theory lens, the technology help desk and the sales department are separate activity networks, with separate histories and goals (p. 12). Spinuzzi uses Engestrom’s (1999) term “contradiction” to describe the issue that the departments are having with each other (qtd. on p. 12). Simply put, the two activity systems disagree on their relationship (p. 12). For the separate activity systems to continue to function and work together, Spinuzzi suggests changes will need to be made to the activity networks (p. 12). Like the plots to movies and books, writing researchers can also benefit by focusing on conflicts and observing how those conflicts are resolved through texts, the changing of texts, and the coordination of texts and people.

Starting workplace writing research

For beginning writing researchers, start with detailed descriptions of reading, writing, technology, and communication in your workplace. What are normal tasks and the normal activity networks in the workplace? What kinds of disruptions occur in those normal tasks? How does the activity network change and adapt to help solve those issues? If the researcher wants to deal with the politics of the situation, with enrolling actors and gaining power, actor-network theory will be more useful. If the researcher wants to focus on learning, development, psychology, and history, activity theory will be a more fruitful lens to use. Researchers can also bridge the gap between the two theories, like Spinuzzi (2008) does in his workplace study of the telecommunications company, and use both activity theory and actor-network theory.

Examples of workplace studies in this collection

Fast-food workers are not recognized for the reading, technology, and communication that they must use to get food out quickly to customers. In the essays “Stressful job, learned lessons” and “Communication at a popular chicken fast-food restaurant” the reader can see how fast-paced environments offer a great place to investigate communication because the coordination of technologies, texts, and communication are often very complex. When college writers think about the word “literacy”, fast-food workers probably are not the first group that comes to mind, which is why “literacy” is a key word that students will learn to re-think and use in this course. Gee (1989) explains that literacy is a collection of discourses. Each workplace has its own discourses. For instance, both of the fast-food restaurants in these essays have their own discourses that include menu items, scripts for taking orders, words that refer to documents and processes that workers are required to use, ways of appropriate dress, and all other specific ways of communication and being that are accepted in the workplace.

Essays in this section include exemplary first-year writing examples of literacies across workplaces, school settings, and hobbies. The reading, writing, and communication in various the various workplaces and other settings allow the reader to get a view of the various discourses (Gee, 1989) and genres (Spinuzzi, 2008) that make up the literacies necessary for workers and customers to use to take part in these business transactions.


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