Re: TECHWR-L list management

Subject: Re: TECHWR-L list management
From: Eva Thury <thury -at- DUNX1 -dot- OCS -dot- DREXEL -dot- EDU>
Date: Fri, 25 Oct 1996 19:56:24 -0500

>If there really are 2500 subscriber here, how about some of them
>saying why they read but don't actively contribute? Are you happy
>with your passive role, and content to get info this way, or do you
>feel constrained by an unwelcoming atmosphere?

Constrained? I would say so. Let me describe my background and dealings
with this list to explain the nature of the constraint I feel.

I teach technical communication at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.
Every year in fall term, I teach a class for new students just coming in to
our master's program, and as part of that I have them interact with this
list. I've been doing it for years. In fall term I too monitor the list,
and in December I unsubscribe, grateful for the relief in numbers of
messages, but poorer for the insights and perspectives I've lost.

For my students, "interact with" means to send one message a week to me
discussing their reaction to the list, or, if they are comfortable, to the
list itself. In the past, I simply told them to send messages to the list.
Ours is a graduate program, and most of our students are grownups in the
normal range of tact and common sense typical for that group, so they have
mostly done just fine.

Years ago, I would just teach my students the mechanics of getting on the
list, some elementary nettiquette, and stand back. Now I warn them
extensively about proper posting procedures, and I tell them that list
members are touchy. I always feel a little bit like when I take my son to
his grandparents': "Now remember, grandpa gets tired in the afternoon, and
he doesn't have the same rules we do."

In fact, I feel that the list has gotten tetchier over the years. Last
year, I think it was, I was on the list when some students posted some
"please do a memory dump to help me with my homework" type questions (no,
they weren't my students!), and people reacted with an indignant storm of
protest instead of just calmly saying that that's not the sort of question
we answer around here, or, better yet, just ignoring the post.

This year, in the four short weeks of our term so far, this is the second
thread on what is suitable for discussion. These threads are typically
punctuated with indignation, rebellion, terse threats (some from Eric) and
other bad feelings. Some of my students write to me in amazament over the
tone of messages and feel timid to venture into such dangerous waters. Now
our students are usually not novices: they tend to be people with extensive
background in technical communication. When we talk about the list in class
each week, they have incisive and interesting comments on the postings

Despite their initial reaction, I still think putting my students on the
list is valuable: you folks are an interesting bunch of people who know a
lot. However, I have to say that the list is not a comfortable or pleasant
atmosphere. It is like a home (I lived in one once and don't any more,
thank God), where there is always tension, always concern about a blow up.

So, what I tell my students is to pretend that they are in a science
ficttion novel. They have just arrived on a new and unfamiliar planet and
can't expect to survive unless they can negotiate successfully with the
inhabitants. However, the inhabitants have their peculiar interests, needs
and values, and my students need to observe them until they can respond
appropriately, or else they put themselves in some danger. Frankly, I don't
think this image is flattering to the list, but it makes me more
comfortable that I have not left my students open to being harshly treated
for their innocent mistakes.

Call it corporate culture, or list culture, or whatever you like. Gentle it
isn't. A Darwinian analogy comes to mind...

Another way to look at it is that members of this list seem to disagree on
what they want out of it. I guess I would distinguish between "operational"
or functional use of the list [the request for an answer to a specific
question] and cultural or even emotional use of the list for background,
orientation, training, perspective, support and even comfort. I think the
list in fact serves both (or all three) kinds of functions.

In my opinion, since you ask, people on the list tend to forget that:
* everyone is not like them in many ways: temperament, interests, worldy
circumstances, etc. (and this is a good thing)
* sometimes people just need to get silly
* different people devote different amounts of time to their participation
in the list, often because of the strictures of their lives
* list use (like mine) is or can be cyclical, and a person will not always
know or care if a point has been discussed in the past
* a discussion of a point by one group isn't the same as the discussion of
the same point by another group (Yes, I know that there are "unchanging
truths," like opening a window in Windows 95 is always done the same, but
this kind of discussion is not actually the main part of what goes on on
the list.) That is, the list is interactive, and the same discussion can
turn out differently depending on who happens to be interested in it on a
particular day (As Heraclitus said, "You can't step in the same TECHWR-L

I am NOT suggesting that people should never complain, but I have to say
that I often have to remind myself that this is a hard-working bunch of
people who may well have used all their patience in some other part of
their lives. This makes the list not as welcoming and supportive as I would

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