Subject Matter Expertise redux (meta-discussion?)

Subject: Subject Matter Expertise redux (meta-discussion?)
From: "Jennifer Rondeau" <jrondeau -at- fabtrol -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 28 Feb 2003 13:57:54 -0700

There have been too many words spilled on this subject already, but it's
Friday and parts of the discussion have touched on issues about which I
have very strong points of view. So with apologies to all who are even
more tired of the discussion than I am, here goes. Warning, my
professorial mode seems to be on. Forgive me for repeating much of what
you already know, but it's pertinent to my point.

Although Andrew tends too far toward the polemical for my general taste,
much of what he says is correct, and is in fact what truly great teachers
of writing/communications have said for millenia.

Once upon a time (in classical Rome), what we now call "mere" rhetoric was
the foundation of all education. Communication was primarily oral, not
written, and the art of spoken persuasion was the basis for nearly all
social, political, and economic success. That said, the greatest
communications teacher of all time, Cicero, wrote (and presumably said)
that one could not speak about/write about/"communicate" without having
something to say/write/communicate about. And effective communication
could not happen without substantial understanding of the subject matter
at hand.

Teachers of rhetoric and "communications" (and some teachers of writing)
have followed in Cicero's footsteps ever since. So have their students.
It is certainly true that there are many bad writers around, who don't
know much about the mechanics of writing or about their purported subject
matter. But there are also good writers (far fewer, from my observation),
who know a great deal about what they're writing about, know what they
need to learn, and know how to express their knowledge effectively.

It's not a matter of subject matter expertise, or knowledge, versus
writing. If you take the two apart, you don't have much left on either
"side." This is a misconstruction of education, intellectual activity,
work, etc. that curses much of our culture, not just technical

Case in point, to take the most extreme contrast I know personally. I am a
refugee from academe, someone highly trained in a particular subject and
in communicating that subject matter effectively, even though that's no
longer what I do for a living. One of the things I now do is write
end-user documentation for steel fabrication MIS software (not remotely
related to my official "expertise"). We have software developers, sales
people, and management from a variety of backgrounds. Very few of our
employees know a great deal about steel fabrication. Only one of them can
truly claim to be an SME in all areas not just of the software but of the
fabrication and management processes to which it refers. I work with him
regularly on obscure areas of the program nobody else really understands.
He is brilliant, and very good at explaining stuff orally, when you can
ask him lots of detailed questions and work your way through all the steps
of a process. The written text I get from him, on the other hand,
explaining things I need to explain to an end-user, can most politely be
called turgid and impenetrable.

It is true (I do fundamentally agree with Andrew) that what I do to this
SME's information can best be called editing, not writing. But his
expertise does not remotely guarantee his ability to communicate it, and
to a certain extent his inability to communicate it limits the expertise
itself. (My co-workers would agree, I think, with my assessment both of
his brilliance and of its limitations.)

The only way I can adequately do my "editing" work is to learn as much as
I can, mostly not about software development per se, but about steel
fabrication, data table translation, file formats, work flow, and so on. I
don't claim that my "communications" skills, such as they are, make me
more fit to write my end-user documentation than "my" SME. Nor does my
capacity to ask questions and learn from them. But nor does his expertise
make him more fit to do so. In the imperfect world in which we all live,
we can't all be Ciceros. So we put several of ourselves together, and work
together to produce the best documentation we can.

The larger issue remains (for this list), and we continue to debate it. I
think we do so because we know things ought to work better. The refugee
academic in me would like to excoriate every aspect of the American
educational system, from pre-school through post-graduate education, as
well as the mindless routinization and balkanization (now there's a nice
old academic word for you) of corporate jobs and job descriptions, for
producing a situation in which people learn and are taught in fragments
and bits and pieces and rarely get the big picture of anything, whether
it's hydrostatics or CNC machine software setup or medieval religion (a
few things I know varying amounts about), let alone how to write
intelligibly about any of those things.

I know that what often frustrates me is that I can write about many
different things, not because I'm a "good writer," whatever that is, but
because I know a fair amount about a lot of things, and know how to learn
more, and then explain what I know and have learned. The reason is not
that I know how to learn and ask questions (pace many contributors to this
discussion), but that I was lucky enough to get an education that laid a
pretty solid subject-matter foundation for many things. Included in that
subject-matter foundation were the skills to communicate what I learned. I
can write about steel fabrication software even though I've never handled
a press brake or the back end of a GUI because I know a fair amount about
engineering and construction in general. I have a point of reference. But
very few people value such a frame of reference any more -- indeed, they
distrust it -- precisely because they haven't learned this way themselves.
I see corporate training programs falling over all the time (I've
mentioned an example in an earlier post) for this very reason.

My apologies for returning -- and at such length -- to what I know many
feel is this very dead horse. It'll come back again, though, and I think
that in the long run we'll all be the richer for all the discussions. I
know that some of what I've said here simply re-phrases what others have
already said better. But I hope I've also added something to someone's
thinking about the issue. I know that other people's posts have made me
think about many of my assumptions, and to reconsider some of my ideas and
attitudes (pace Tom Murrell). A month ago, I would probably have said
that writing mattered most. But many folks have made me look again at
things I've always known, and see them in different ways, and in different
contexts. That matters, both to my thinking about the world I live in and
to my survival strategies. Thanks to all for a great list.

Jennifer Rondeau
FabTrol Systems, Inc.
jrondeau -at- fabtrol -dot- com


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