Spinuzzi Reading Notes

No More Heroes Please: The Problem With User-Centered Approaches

Since we just finished reading Bazerman and Miller’s discussions of genre theory, I can’t help but view Spinuzzi’s argument in favor of genre tracing through the lens of rhetorical motivation (as opposed to exigency, which is reactionary) (Miller 155). Spinuzzi focuses a good deal of effort spends a lot of effort early on in the text on explaining his motivation for developing genre tracing: the way in which rhetoric and technical communication view user-centered design as heroic work focused on rescuing the victimized worker. Genre tracing, according to Spinuzzi is the study of workplace genres and innovations “in sociocultural terms, to scrutinize their genealogies, explore the contingencies that explore them, and plot their trajectories within the activities they mediate” (x).  While user-centered design is based on social constructivism and claims to utilize the worker as codesigner (8-9), fieldwork in user-centered design does not allow for worker agency and does not allow for local exigencies (19). This is a very strong justification for the development of a theory that does truly utilize worker agency. Fieldwork attempts to turn a centrifugal (informal) workplace communication into a centripetal communication that is refined by the designer (21). The problem with this is that formalization replaces quick, changeable solutions with static ones that are not as flexible to changing workplace contexts (21).

The Designer as Hero: An Example of Paternalistic User-Centered Design

I think that this video is very illustrative of the way in which designers see themselves as heroes of those who need their design expertise. Who could be more in need of help than people institutionalized after a psychotic break? This designer, Aga Szóstek, talks about her role in developing a lamp that helps regulating the breathing of psychiatric patients by encouraging them to undertake a relaxing pattern of breathing. The patient testing the lamp was not satisfied with the lamp designs because the lamp was meant to impose a breathing pattern on the patient, and the patient was not able to manipulate the lamp or input data into the lamp. The patient was not satisfied with the design because the lamp didn’t listen to her. When the designers finally came up with a design where the lamp replicated the patients breathing before gradually beginning to impose the breathing pattern on the patient, the patient was satisfied. It made me think of the way in which the heroic designer often strips the worker of his or her agency. The patient using the lamp was not able to exercise agency with the design, but simply had the design imposed upon her, until the designers altered the design to allow the patient more leeway in the operation of the lamp.

Genre Tracing Theory

Spinuzzi points out that one of the central problems with user-centered design fieldwork is that it tends to look at one central cause of workplace problems at one level: macroscopic (the activity; underlying structure), the mesoscopic (actions), and the microscopic (operational level) (27). Spinuzzi explains that the problem with focusing on only one level of scope, as in fieldwork-to-formal user-centered design research, is that it ignores the user perspective and experience, may not allow for the creation of texts that empower workers, and may not allow for “sustainable solutions” (28). In contrast, “sociocultural theory points to an integrated-scope approach that no such lines between the observed person or thing and the context, or between operations on one side and activities and actions on the other” (28). By using activity theories approach to studying the macroscopic level, the mesocscopic level, and the microscopic level as a separate parts of one activity system (36). Spinuzzi says that, “in every sphere of activity, collaborators use instruments to transform a particular object with a particular outcome in mind” (37). Mediating artifact, or instruments used in achieving the goal of the activity, “qualitatively change the entire activity in which workers engage” (38). Spinuzzi explains that the artifacts used for mediation “bear the material traces of an ongoing activity, represent problem solving in that activity, and thus tend to stabilize the activity in which they are used” (39). He explains that genres also serve a mediatory role in the activity system, but they are more than simply tools: “they emerge from cultural-historical activity and represent, reflect, stabilize, and help constitute that activity” (41). Spinuzzi explains that genres, though they are temporarily stable social constructs, change as activities change, but they also provide a memory of the past (42-43). Spinuzzi details the way in which genres are present in the varying levels of an activity system, as well as the role that genres play within those levels. Because we can study genres at all levels, the study of genre within activity systems allows for “an integrated-scope understanding of genre” (47). Since genres operate on several levels in an activity system, and an activity system may contain numerous genres to mediate the work of the activity system, Spinuzzi suggests that we should use “genre tracing” to identify “insights into how much ecologies of genres jointly mediate the workers’ operations, actions, and activities” (49). To address the complexity of genre system, Spinuzzi proposes using a methodology that he calls genre tracing, which explores “those innovations to find out what they might teach us about the messiness of work, the agency of workers, and the ways the workers themselves can better be supported in continuing to develop innovations” (51). Genre theory, according to Spinuzzi, “attempts to integrate levels of scope by tracing a sociocultural unit of analysis—genre—across three levels” (51).

Spinuzzi says that the methodology of genre theory includes:
• Data collection based on an integrated-scope examination of genres, their mediational relationships, and the destabilization involved in them (51). Methods include: Contextual design, participatory design, ethnography, ethnomethodology, customer partnering, and joint application design (51).
• Data analysis is done across all levels. Collected data is analyzed by “tracing a developmental history by examining how genres have been adopted, developed, changed, and hybridized over time in response to the activity’s contingencies” (53). This can be done through the use of activity system diagrams, genre ecology diagrams, videocoding databases, and CDB tables (53-56).
Spinuzzi does describe limitations of genre theory: it is time consuming, it requires trained researchers, it requires a significant commitment from involved parties, and it can be data heavy (56).

The final three chapters of the text apply Spinuzzi’s methodology to study “the activity of traffic accident and analysis in the state of Iowa” (57). From these studies, he finds that the relationships between genres in an activity system develop over time and genres are adapted to help mediate other genres (Chapter 3). He discovers why destabilizations occur and they ways in which workers develop innovations to deal with these destabilizations (Chapter 4). He discovers the impacts that centripetal formularization of genres by introducing new complications to an activity system and that workers may have to develop centrifugal innovations (Chapter 5). Finally, Spinuzzi explores the way in which genre tracing can be used to create a new method of design that allows workers to play a larger role in the development of innovations while still benefiting from the expertise of designers.

The EPR as Mediating Genre in the WAPS: Destabilization Across Activity System Levels

As I was reading about the levels of genre within the activity system and the ways in which genre destabilization in one level of the system will “necessarily coconstitute destabilization at the other levels of scope,” it occurred to me that I have recently observed the destabilization of an activity system (Air Force promotions) caused by problems with the Enlisted Performance Report (EPR), the genre used to mediate evaluation of enlisted military personnel in the Air Force (47). The EPR is an instrument used by Non-Commissioned Officers to facilitate the evaluation of lower-ranking personnel. I believe that the promotional system (WAPS) could be called macroscopic, while the EPR is a mesocopic text meant to evaluate military member’s overall performance at the microscopic level.

Enlisted Performance Report:

AF Form 910. Air Force EPR.

AF Form 910. Air Force EPR. 1st Page.

The completed EPR includes a numerical score for the overall performance of the Aire Force member. The highest score possible is 5. A score of 3 in meant to be assigned to personnel who meets acceptable criteria. A score of 5 was originally intended for top performers, the best of the best. The EPR score is calculated into formula used to decide who will be promoted to the next rank as part of the Weighted Airman Promotion System. Other factors that are used as part of WAPS include scores on “promotional fitness exams,” time in service, time in grade, and awards and decorations. As well as being used to gauge promotability, the EPR is also important to future career growth. Competitive special duty assignments are important to career progression, but it is nearly impossible to be considered for selection in special duty assignments when the servicemember earned less than 5 on an EPR. The stakes are high, and the perception is that earning a score of less than a 5 can be a career killer. This is why “current Enlisted Performance Report ratings are often inflated. Roughly 80 percent of enlisted airmen receiving the top score of 5, Cody [Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force] said, which renders the rating system effectively useless” (Losey). From extensive conversations with my spouse, who has been writing EPRs since 2007 as a Non-Commissioned Officer (a rater) and who has been teaching leaderships skills (including writing EPRs as a Professional Military Educator, I understand that , while in theory the 5 should be reserved for the top performers, it is actually more difficult to rate an airman lower than a 5 than it is to rate a 5 because squadron leadership must approve EPR ratings, and raters must provide sufficient proof that the airman in question deserves to be rated lower. EPRs with low ratings are often kicked back to the rater for reevaulation or further evidence, which usually must come in the form of a paper-work trail (including Letters of Counseling and Letters of Reprimand). Lack of a paper-work trails suggests that the airman is doing his or her job effectively. Because the results of the EPR evaluation system are skewed by over-inflation of scores, and because of the pressure to earn a 5, both the macroscopic and microscopic levels of the promotional activity system are skewed. At the macro-level, promotions are effected by inflated EPRs. Because time in grade and time in service are calculated into the overall promotion score, along with the EPR score, the inflation of scores may cause high-quality, lower-ranking personnel will be passed up for promotion over those who have been serving longer, even if the person serving longer is actually mediocre. During the fall of 2013, the Air Force conducted a mock selection board for MSgt. to see how such a system would compare to the current system of promoting MSgts. The results showed that, “10 percent of the airmen not selected for promotion to master sergeant would get promoted by a board process, and another 10 percent of airmen selected for promotion would not advance if they had to go before a board” (Schogol and Losey). At the microscopic level, the determination for a 5 can distract the military member from actual duties in effort to check boxes off on the EPR. Volunteer activities and education are criteria in the determination of an EPR score. Those who ignore their daily operational duties to check boxes off of their EPRs are often referred to as “professional box checkers”. Ignoring day-to-day duties can have a negative impact on others who share the workplace and responsibilities. Because of the disruption caused by the inflation of the EPR, the Air Force plans to discontinue the use of the numerical EPR score and institute a written performance evaluation. Applying the foundational concepts of genre tracing theory to the EPR has helped me understand how disruption in one level of the system causes problems in other areas.

Terms/Key Ideas

macroscopic level – cultural-historical; unconscious level;

mesoscopic level – driven by goal-directed action; workers are consciously engaged in this level; involves the execution of tasks with tools

microscopic level – moment-by-moment operations; performed unconsciously after operationalization is learned

Artifact of genre – collaborators use tools to transform objects with specific goals in mind

intergrated reserach scope – examining all three levels: activity, actions, and operation to understand how they interact, coconstitute each other, and how innovations at one level impact these levels

coconstitution – the intertwined nature of the three levels of scope

compound mediation – “the ways that workers coordinate sets of artifacts to help get their jobs down” (48).

Works Cited

Losey, Stephen. “New EPR Could Drop Number Ratings.” Airforcetimes.com. N. p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Losey, Stephen, and Stephen Schogol. “Promoting the best: Tech sgts. may have to impress a board to advances.” Airforcetimes.com. N. p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Vol. 1. Mit Press, 2003.

“User-centered Design: Aga Szóstek at TEDxWarsaw.” Youtube.com. 16 May 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

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