Month: October 2013

Tribute to John Sterling Harris

John Sterling Harris (1929-2013)
By Donald H Cunningham, professor Emeritus of English, Auburn University


On the evening of 19 September, a storm uprooted a huge white oak in the backyard between my house and the back pond. Its diameter was four feet.

If my memory serves me, an entry in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks reads something like this: “A beam of light passing through an imperfect blind in a darkened room falls upon an open book. It might be made symbolic—of something.”

On the evening of 21 September, John Sterling Harris—teacher, poet, technical writer, and avid private airplane builder and pilot—taxied into position for takeoff, released the brakes, gunned the engine, and climbed out on his final flight. His final illness was a brief pneumonia complicated by many chronic health problems.

PH-Harris-200x300John was the major catalyst in the founding of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. Of all his very broad range of interests, the foremost was teaching; hence, the name of the association and the original title of its journal. Coming from a family of educators (his father was a superintendent of schools and a coach of several state championship teams in high-school football, an uncle was president of Brigham Young University), he regarded the development of teaching skills as the mission of the association.

John worked at the rock face of life—the experience of a teacher and a scholar to be sure—but also one who experienced the western deserts and mountains, worked in a mine smelter and as a steel rigger, and served as an armaments expert and technical instructor of small arms maintenance in the U.S. Army and a missionary in the American Southwest. He built and piloted—and eventually crashed—his own 200-miles per hour experimental airplane, hunted deer, responded to the beauty of Sego Lilies and Aspen and the high western desert of Utah out toward the Nevada line, which most people would call barren.

Isaiah Berlin would have been troubled by John. John’s life was both fox-like and hedgehog-like. For him, everything was, as the saw goes, grist for the mill. He wrote of aversions to technology, love of flying, the Murphy sponge, musical tastes, nomenclature, nostalgia, social and economic change, teaching, the relationship of poetry to technical writing, and instances of literary snobbery. He wrote about aircraft design and firearms technology in specialist magazines. Most importantly, John wrote about knowing things together, that phrase made famous by the psychologist William James, the older brother of Henry. John knew the impossibility of knowing everything, but he believed we should try.

Much of John’s life was influenced by the legacies of his pioneer ancestors, his church, his generation, his teaching, and his living in the American West. Far from being restrictive influences, they formed a more or less cohesive set of perspectives from which John viewed and by which he integrated the world. What converged into the center of his life were the prizing of curiosity (he knew that knowledge is a perishable commodity), problem solving (he knew that to learn, to find information, to analyze, and to think were by far the most important attributes of humans), the vivid sense that we are constantly being challenged and tested (both by events thrust upon us and by our tendency to test our abilities), and the search for permanent values in a seemingly impermanent world.

John was a compelling, blessedly clear, insightful, entertaining, yet instructive, writer and speaker. Many of his articles appeared in theJournal of Technical Writing and Communication, including one that received an NCTE award. John’s essays (many of which appeared in publications that teachers of technical communication or English do not read) and his two books of poetry (Barbed Wire and Second Crop) track closely much of his own life. To see a coyote breaking cover, to observe the ways of ants, to feel the lift of an airplane, to know the other side of the ridge, to slant an antique framing square to read his ancestor’s markings, to test new second lieutenants in garrison drill, to make his own root-beer—these are the kinds of experiences that formed the backdrop that brings into relief John’s life.

A recognized national leader in academic technical writing, John also was in demand as a speaker on his own campus, Brigham Young University. He spoke at several honors banquets in the Spanish Department and the English Department and at College of Humanities Convocations and Commencements. He formally championed the varieties of scholarship in the humanities when he expressed his concerns over what he regarded as his university central administration’s over-emphasis on valuing certain kinds of scholarly activities in the sciences at the expense of the humanities.

John was an unmatched friend of my wife Pat and me for over forty years, during which I had the great fortune to have long conversations with him. We discussed the historical plausibility of some of Mark Twain’s observations (“tall tales”) in Roughing It; whether it was poor design, mechanical defect, or young Sartoris’ hubris that led to his fatal crash in an experimental aircraft; how much Margaret Macomber knew about the power of various rifles at her disposal and the distance between her and Francis. Back in 1969-1970, we discussed topics that we believed were not being taught sufficiently in technical writing classes at the time: whether gender should be a factor in audience analysis; acquisition and access of information, graphics and typography, audience and situation analysis, (although Tom Pearsall’s Audience Analysis for Technical Writing soon appeared); the relationship between the scientific method to technical rhetoric; and the need for usability testing. Since then, most have received standard coverage in the courses we teach.

Those extended conversations during long rambles through inner cities and challenging hikes in wilderness areas are etched in my memory, reverberating in my mind even unto this day.

John’s older brother Richard and his wife Sue predeceased him. He is survived by his three children, Steven Bradley Harris, Scott Jefferson Harris, and Polly Anne Harris, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

John and Sue chose to be cremated and scattered around the historic house they lived in for 51 years in Springville, Utah.


My Teaching Life: S. Scott Graham

GrahamMember of ATTW since 2006

Occupation: Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Director of the Scientific and Medical Communications Laboratory

Institution: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


On my desk is a pile of books recently ordered from Amazon (Cult of the Modern Factish Gods, Cartographies of Time, Solving Problems in Technical Communication), a code book for a directed content analysis project (hot pink so no one steals it from the lab), and a pack of small screwdrivers (part of a failed attempt to repair my office Ethernet connection without waiting for Building Services).

Most dog-eared print reference

I dog-eared a textbook once in third grade. By the time my teacher was done with me, I was psychologically incapable of ever dog-earing again. Yet, somehow I’m still entirely willing to underline, highlight and scribble illegible notes all over margins and dust jackets. In any event, I’ve got a fairly large number of color tabs and bookmarks (including a fare card from a city I no longer live in) protruding from my copy of Haraway’s Modest Witness.

Most frequently referenced website

Besides Twitter and Reddit, my most reference website is probably either GoogleScholar or FDA.GOV.

Currently reading for pleasure

I’m currently reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Although, to be completely honest, that’s half work and half play.

Currently reading for scholarship or teaching

CultureoftheDiagramI just finished John Bender and Michael Marrinan’s The Culture of the Diagram. It’s a beautiful fusion of rhetorical theory, cultural studies, and art history for the study of technical visuals from 18th Century print media to contemporary 3D modeling. Super cool.

Favorite writing instrument/hardware

A desktop computer with ergonomic keyboard and widescreen or multiple monitor setup—I like being able to have enough real estate to draft at 120%+ magnification while having a slew of informative PDFs and websites open and visible at the same time. Before I went all digital with journal articles, I used to write with piles of sources arrayed in a semi-circle around my desk. Piles have become an essential part of the drafting process for me, even though now those piles are virtual piles on my computer desktop.

Most influential book of your teacher training

WritingNewMediaWysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Self, and Sirc’s Writing New Media and Sean Williams’ “Thinking Out of the Pro-Verbal Box” were pretty much my go-to-texts during my TA practicum. And they are still a major influence on my pedagogy today, primarily in my commitment to a comprehensive multi-modal communication education.

Favorite technical communication class to teach

I just finished teaching a new combined graduate/undergraduate course in social, political, and ethical issues in scientific and technical communication. It was a fantastic mix of visual rhetorics, science and technology policy, critical/cultural tech comm and alt-academic/ alt-industry job possibilities. My favorite class to date and I can’t wait to teach it again.

Best reason for teaching technical communication

My favorite part about my job is helping graduate students turn themselves into independent scholars. My dissertation advisor (Carl Herndl) was committed to providing opportunities for graduate students to participate in collaborative research projects with faculty, and I’m committed to paying that forward with my own students. That’s one of the reasons I started the Scientific and Medical Communications Laboratory at UWM. Sure it’s a great place for my own research, but it’s also part of an infrastructure for ongoing research assistantship funding designed to help as many graduate students as possible get firsthand experience with mixed-methods research and collaborative publication.

The next big thing…

Big data. Of course, I’m in no way the first person to suggest this. We’re already starting to see scholarly and pedagogical attention devoted to the effective and ethical use and representation of large datasets. Whether it’s climate modeling, GIS-integrated mobile apps, or the latest in NSA surveillance programs, big data is increasingly becoming an integral part of our communications landscape. My personal challenge is to start work on tech comm-native big data. We have an emerging opportunity to learn exciting new things about technical communication genres, for example—things that can only be learned from a systematic investigation of a million exemplars.