Theory Teacher's Blog

Business Writing and a Theory of the Postmodern Subject

I created this class at my school on business writing, which to be honest has been a bit difficult. My areas of expertise are cultural theory, globalization, early American literature, and transatlantic eighteenth-century literature, including the Caribbean, and when I’m not doing those things, I’m usually learning about the Oromo people of Ethiopia. Notice that what’s not included in that list is business writing or any sort of writing pedagogy. But at small liberal arts colleges it’s rare to find a faculty who would include that on his or her list of specialities. Anyhow, the idea for my course is to blend a lot of the standard elements of a business writing class that are taught at most large public universities with the humanistic, critical inquiry and ethical questions that are valued at the small liberal arts Catholic college where I work. Since I don’t know of any textbook that does this, one of my former students and I have begun creating an on-line textbook using a wiki. The wiki allows us to constantly revise and update the text to respond to changes in the world, as well as changes in the teacher. In other words, if a new technology comes along, we can just add that. And if someone else is going to teach the class and has a different way of looking at things, then he or she can just go into the wiki and rewrite some of the text accordingly. Students can also contribute to it.

So, in my blog today (since only people registered for the class can see the wiki textbook), I wanted to put something I wrote for the textbook out there in the public to see what kind of feedback I might get. Also, it kind of relates to the concept of the “subject” that we just covered in my other class, the intro to theory for which I created this blog in the first place. Below is a section from the wiki textbook. To give you some background, the five units for the book are 1) Getting a Job, 2) Internal Communication, 3) Networking and Collaboration, 4) External Communication, and 5) Presentations and Visuals. Currently, we are in the middle of the second unit on internal communication, which includes memos, e-mails, reports, and proposals. For each unit, the textbook has three sections. The first section is simply practical how-to stuff, like what does a memo or a progress report typically look like. The second section is a more theoretically reflective section, which we believe is necessary so that students can actually think about what they’re doing and respond intelligently to changing circumstances; in other words, this is where the humanistic, critical inquiry valued by liberal arts colleges comes into play. And the third section is a bunch of activities and assignments. So, below is what I just wrote today for the “theory” section of unit two.

Diversity, Power, and Democratic Communication

Whether you’re working for a large company, a small business, a government office, or a non-governmental organization, internal communication is what makes the place run. We can use the metaphor of a human body to describe the workplace. Without good communication, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and the right leg might be walking in a different direction than the left. You can imagine a humorous cartoon version of this. Worst case scenario is the workplace stumbles and falls or gives itself a bloody nose.

Unlike the sort of writing that takes place in the university or the public sphere, writing in the private sphere is subject to a range of demands, expectations, and sources of information. We might think of the scholarly writing or the kind of writing that appears in magazines such as Harper’s and The Atlantic as “transcendental” writing. Such writing assumes an ethically pure position of privilege above the nitty-gritty of the work-a-day world. This is the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion of “enlightenment” where the writer or critic positions himself or herself outside the system that he or she critiques. Such a critique is fundamental for society, which is why the institutions that support that position, such as newspapers and the “public sphere” (theorized by Jurgen Habermas), play such an important role in our society. However, writing in the workplace is different in that it puts the individual within a web of demands and expectations that he or she must negotiate.

Furthermore, just as we learned in the “Getting a Job” unit for this course, each and every place has its own unique culture, norms, values, procedures, and organizational structure. Some places may be rigidly formal, others casual. Some may emphasize a hierarchical chain of command and clear lines of authority, and others may value a more open-ended, democratic environment. For some jobs, you may work autonomously much of the time, but in others you may be mostly working as a team or under the direction of someone else. And some organizations may seem like they value diversity and democratic decision-making when in fact they are really top-down, autocratic, and resistant to genuine, positive change.

It is now a commonplace idea held by many theorists and business leaders that companies increasingly value diversity and horizontal communication. Why is this so? What was wrong with the old model, where the boss told the employees what to do, and they did it. After all, the military has a clear hierarchical, vertical, and centralized chain of command, and what’s wrong with that? Actually, today’s military has also been affected by the “postmodern condition” and have become more horizontal and decentered. The reason why companies discovered the benefits of democratic decision-making and the important role of diversity is the same reason why nation states did. What is sarcastically called the “old boys network” at the top (or, we might say, the “rich white men”) didn’t always make the right decisions. They were less innovative and responsive to changing conditions on the ground, and were subject to something called “group think.” Group think is when everyone gradually thinks the same way even if that way turns out to be really, really wrong. One Nobel-prize winning economist (Paul Krugman) famously compared stock brokers to lemmings who just followed the leader off a cliff and didn’t think for themselves. Catastrophic events like the Thai-bhat crash in 1997 and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 were the result of “group think”, when thousands of individuals engaged in unwise and unethical behavior. Hence, diversity and democratic decision-making are not just noble principles for a just and equitable society. They are also perceived to be the foundation of good business and a necessary antidote to the evils of the old boys network. Free and open communication are essential for a competitive, innovative organization. Moreover, our postmodern appreciation for horizontal communication not so coincidentally happens alongside many new communications technologies such as the internet and e-mail that allow information to flow in all sorts of directions with the touch of a button. New communications technologies create new organizational structures and forms of internal communication, even though traces of the old forms remain. (For instance, e-mail basically follows the conventions of the old-fashioned memo, except in a quicker, more casual form and more easily sent to a diverse array of people.) Likewise, college professors began to celebrate the internet and such on-line communication technologies as course-management software (e.g., Moodle), chat rooms, and social networking sites as ways to “decenter” and “democratize” the classroom, appreciate the knowledge students bring to the class, include a wider diversity of student voices, etc., etc., etc.

However, as theorists as different from each other as Stanley Deetz, Slavoj Zizek, and Gilles Deleuze have argued, much of this “new-age” business model that seems to liberate workers from the old power structure actually just creates a new and even more complex demand. Workers must be more adaptive, more agile, and more responsive to changing conditions. This new demand instills within the postmodern labor force an ever-present anxiety, requiring constant personal development. Moreover, diversity and democratic decision-making are valued only up to a point — so far as they continue to serve the basic power structure. As the philosopher Deleuze argued in a brief and somewhat famous essay “Society of Control” (in which he responds to Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish), what makes the new form of control so challenging is precisely the ways in which the chain of command is no longer simple, linear, and top-down. Rather, it is more like a web of relations in which the protocols for communication are situational and ad hoc. As a result, the roles we play and faces we wear (like professional masks) are also more complicated. Organizations focus on team building and blur the boundaries between “work” and “leisure” in order to boost morale and improve the lines of communication among all the different members of the organization. This is believed to improve productivity and efficiency. However, the “casualization” of the workplace doesn’t result in more liberated labor. Just because we now wear jeans on “casual Fridays” and go river-rafting with the boss does not mean that we are getting a better paycheck or that we are really our boss’s equal or buddy. Corporations increasingly give all of their employees the formal title of “assistant manager” or even “manager” when in fact they are not really managers at all — just paper pushing, number crunching assistants, as the TV show The Office famously mocks. Both the British and American versions of this show are symptomatic of the anxieties employees feel in the workplace where the chain of command is ambiguous and the democratization of communication lacks clarity.

In fact, the casualization of the workplace and the multi-directionality and diversification of communications technologies means that the demand for effective workplace communication is all the more intense. In essence, the workplace remains rife with ideological contradictions and dilemmas, in which workers are subject to conflicting expectations and demands. How to negotiate those conflicting expectations and demands and become a more ethical person is the reason why a course such as English 315 “Business Writing, Civil Society, and Professional Careers” exists. At the end of the day, however, this sort of writing is an experimental writing, not a following of strict formulas. The more you do it, the more you practice this sort of communication, and the more you think about the choices you make and how you perform different roles at different times, the more this complex web of relations will make sense.

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February 19, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. Have you ever heard of the book called “Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Williams and Colomb? This was one of the textbooks for a graduate-level class I took called Writing Center Theory and Methods. Much of the book is geared toward business writing, and it has a strong ethical component, along with practical writing advice and exercises.

    Comment by Betsy | February 20, 2012 | Reply

  2. Well (since you asked for responses via FB), though I’m sympathetic to your project, I see a few things I take issue with – first of all, your notion of what makes workplace writing unique (“Unlike the sort of writing that takes place in the university or the public sphere, writing in the private sphere is subject to a range of demands, expectations, and sources of information.”) I would say that ALL writing is subject to a range of demands, expectations, and sources of information (that is, all writing is rhetorical) – it doesn’t seem necessary to your larger point to make this distinction, anyway. Also, not sure the “old boys’ network” is responsible for group think – in both of the crashes you mentioned, we were already squarely in the New Economy (actually, since the late ‘70s), and the flattening of the hierarchy you talk about had already taken place long before that…but this is a pretty minor point.

    More generally, I’d be interested to hear what the students make of it – it seems that you’re kind of calling them chumps for wanting to take part in such a system, but at the same time you’re telling them that they need to learn to communicate better in order to be the most effective chumps they can be…

    Comment by Jodie Nicotra | February 20, 2012 | Reply


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