Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Erin Carlson, West Virginia University, explores the intersection of environmental humanities and digital humanities to discover how technical communicators can be the bridge between divergent perspectives and describes opportunities for technical communicators to do community-engaged, meaningful work.

Season 1, Episode 22 | 43 min
Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:12.790] - Liz Fraley

Good morning everyone, and welcome to Room 42. I'm Liz Fraley from Single-Sources Solutions. I'm your moderator, this is Janice Summers, our interviewer, and welcome too Erin Brock Carlson today's guest in Room 42. Dr. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of English at West Virginia University, where she teaches Professional Writing and Editing Courses, including Multimedia Writing, Technical Writing, and Writing Theory and Practice. She earned her Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue and M.A. in English from Miami University and a B.A. in English Writing Rhetoric and Communication from Transylvania University. Her work rests in the intersection of environmental humanities and digital humanities, focused on the ways that place, technology and community are wrapped up in one another. She's currently focused on how communities in rural Appalachia are grappling with major economic and environmental changes by leaning into place with all of its physical, social, and cultural trappings as a strength for community building. She's also discovered a new and unique opportunity for technical communicators. And we're very excited, she's here today to share her research, experience and to help us start answering the questions. How can Technical Communicators be the Bridge between Divergent Perspectives? Welcome.

[00:01:28.600] - Erin Brock Carlson

Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.

[00:01:31.180] - Janice Summers

We are thrilled to have you here.

[00:01:34.470] - Erin Brock Carlson

So excited.

[00:01:35.310] - Janice Summers

and such an interesting topic.

[00:01:38.310] - Erin Brock Carlson

Thank you.

[00:01:39.360] - Janice Summers

One of the things--cause there's so much to it and I've been thinking about this all morning and last night, and it's such an interesting--I read the article again just to refresh, but there's such an impact. I want to understand first of the origin of how you got involved in this.

[00:01:59.440] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:01:59.440] - Janice Summers

I think that would be interesting for people.

[00:02:02.800] - Erin Brock Carlson

Absolutely. OK, so I can step back a little and talk about how I got interested in Rural Appalachia and doing this sort of work with community organizers because that's where this started. So my family from Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, I grew up in the Cincinnati area, and there's a large population of folks who migrated from Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, Southern West Virginia that ended up moving to industrial centers, a lot of them in the Midwest. So Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago. So there are these large communities of folks that are originally from rural areas. And so, that's my heritage, and so when I started working on my dissertation, I knew I was at Purdue and the flatlands of Indiana, that I knew I wanted to work on something that was really important to me. And I think even working in an Appalachian context, there's a lot of, I think, opportunities for collaboration and conversation and connection to other areas in the United States, like especially rural areas, which are rural areas and essentially almost every single state, right?

[00:03:13.450] - Janice Summers

Every State yeah.

[00:03:13.840] - Erin Brock Carlson

All over, and so my dissertation was on, I worked with 11 community organizers who were working for non-profits across the Appalachian region, and they were working on lots of different topics for a lot of different firms. So there are folks working on socio-economic inequalities linked to racial disparities and doing like youth-based organizing around that in Charleston West Virginia. There was somebody doing work with, which I've been thinking about a lot recently, with setting up community-owned Internet infrastructure in rural areas, which was really, really cool.

[00:03:48.370] - Erin Brock Carlson

And then folks working around like just basically like economic and environmental degradation in different areas, and so that sort of really rooted me and got me linked into these conversations about environmental risk. Because there's--I live in Northern West Virginia, but Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky are very historically tied to coal mining, and there have been a lot of you know, I feel like that's a pretty popular image in our cultural imagination of what Appalachia is. But there's a lot of unintended consequences of coal mining right. Thinking about like water contamination, like geological changes, things like that, and so sorry, that's a long back story, but then I get here, I get to West Virginia University in my job and I started meeting with folks around the university and I met a geographer named Martina Caretta here at WVU and she studies water, that's sort of her specialty. And so she was tapped into her LinkedIn with this group called the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. And they are a non-profit dedicated to basically like watching pipelines and advocating for water quality and water safety, and so she wanted to do this project with pipelines for a long time, and so I honestly, to be completely honest with you, when I got here, I didn't know much about pipelines and it's ironic because there are over two million miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States, like they crisscross all over the place. But it's like something I was so ignorant that I had no idea but essentially, we ended up working together and doing this project. And it's kind of like with West Virginia, I think kind of a stereotypical image is like coal miners like coal.

[00:05:39.340] - Erin Brock Carlson

Then the second, if you think about extractive industries are really rooted here. right, so you've got the era of coal, then you've got fracking, which I think has gotten a lot of discussion in recent years as well, like in the 2010's is really when fracking took off in Southeastern and Southwestern Pennsylvania and here in North Central West Virginia. And now this third sort of wave, I think, of like energy industry here is natural gas pipelines. And so over the last maybe 5 to 10 years, there's been kind of a big move to build pipelines across West Virginia. And so I found myself in this collaboration with my colleague in geography and talking to these folks who are living sort of at the front lines of energy development in rural West Virginia, and so it's interesting because it's sort of I think, like many things in our lives, right, we sort of like stumble into stuff, but then it all connects, right.

[00:06:36.190] - Janice Summers


[00:06:36.190] - Erin Brock Carlson

There's a reason

[00:06:37.900] - Janice Summers

You have your ear to the ground basically, your little spidey senses are out there and you gravitate towards things, and that was one of the points why I want you to share the origin is because what you walk through, you can walk through this in anywhere on the globe, right. Everywhere there is an opportunity for this, right, especially when you have extractive industries that are encroaching on rural areas. But like you pointed out, there's this coalition that work with all kinds of non-profits in any one region, so pick the region you live in.

[00:07:19.850] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:07:20.370] - Janice Summers

And find that coalition and pick what really calls to you. Chances are they're going to need your special skills if you are in technical and professional communications, right?

[00:07:32.750] - Erin Brock Carlson

Absolutely, and Janice something you said about having your ear to the ground, Something that I found in this research is like you've got, you know you can Google and find groups.

[00:07:43.250] - Janice Summers


[00:07:43.540] - Erin Brock Carlson

But that's not like, those are the really highly formalized groups, right, but there are more sort of ad hoc community action groups that spring up, and you can find them on Facebook a lot, I found a lot of folks organized Facebook, which is really interesting, I think, given sort of the complexities of data politics and things like that.

[00:08:04.910] - Erin Brock Carlson

But it's like it's accessible, it's there and folks use it, right, and so that you can find, like in your community, other sort of groups and collaborative stuff crop up over time. And so having been engaged in the area that you live in, I think is the best way to find these opportunities as a technical communicator to work with communities and members of the community that do that would really benefit from your expertise. 

[00:08:33.350] - Janice Summers

OK, so I just wanted to take that little sideways and point that out, because that was one of the questions we had from people like OK, this is great for Appalachia, but what about where I am?

[00:08:44.030] - Erin Brock Carlson

Oh, absolutely. So I mean something--the figure of two million natural gas, in this--sorry, can I back up?

[00:08:51.380] - Janice Summers


[00:08:51.860] - Erin Brock Carlson

While my work is currently focused on energy development and natural gas pipelines and, you know, development associated with that. That's not the only technically complex development that's happening in any area right?

[00:09:07.490] - Janice Summers


[00:09:07.490] - Erin Brock Carlson

Like there are so many like parallel cases, you could make for different types of industries that I think any of us could really, I don't want to say intervene in, but like respond to, right. So, I'm really focused on natural gas so sorry that's what I'm talking about. But I think it can be translated to different sort of like developments or situations in a community, but also across spaces so you know like that, staggering two million miles of natural gas pipelines across the United States is just staggering to me, and I mean, in West Virginia alone, sorry, I looked at these stats so I could share them. In West Virginia, which is not a very big state, it's not a large state, it's about 24,000 square miles, there are almost 15,000 miles of pipeline in West Virginia alone. So it is just like somebody that we were talking to, that Martine and I spoke with at OVEC often to Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. They do a lot of like aerial tours and take photos of sort of like what the mountains look like from the air, but you can see, like there are photos, you can Google them and see, like the infrastructure of pipelines going to different hubs and transfer sites.

[00:10:34.620] - Erin Brock Carlson

And it literally looks like a bowl of spaghetti, like just the way that they're so interlaced. And so but again, like that is not, West Virginia is not the only place where pipelines exist, right, like I heard there has been a lot in Michigan, actually in Northern Michigan, Mackinac Island, there's been a very long-standing conversation and debate about pipelines up there, obviously in the Western area of the United States, North Dakota and all. I mean they're everywhere, so there's really--and one of the biggest things to come out of this is rural areas. Community organizing and community action in rural areas looks a little different than in suburban or urban areas. And the reason I say that is because when I started doing this work with the community organizers I spoke about that I worked with during my dissertation, one of the things they were all working with sorry, I'm like blocking my dog.

[00:11:35.850] - Erin Brock Carlson

I don't know, I don't think everyone wants to see him.

[00:11:38.920] - Janice Summers

I wasn't even paying attention.

[00:11:41.070] - Liz Fraley

He's mesmerized by you.

[00:11:44.830] - Erin Brock Carlson

I'm like, oh my God. Sorry, so one of the things about--I know it's like, come on, like one of the things that I kept hearing from them was like, there are not clear models of how to organize in rural areas, right.

[00:12:06.150] - Janice Summers


[00:12:06.150] - Erin Brock Carlson

So much, but there is great organizing happening in rural areas. There's a really rich history of that across the South and Appalachia. But most of the models that come from like community action organizations come from urban areas and really highly populated areas. So it's like you can go to an apartment complex and knock on all your neighbor's doors or you can set up outside of an eatery or a bar or school or whatever, and catch people as they're walking by. In a rural area where you might be two miles from your nearest neighbor, it's not the same like population density, and so you have to go about organizing in a different way, right, so it's like the models, the way that it looks here is different oftentimes. Like, of course, there are some similarities, but there are differences as well and we need to note that. And so I say this to say like, there's no one size fits all for this kind of work if you are a technical communicator and like you want to engage with the community in this way, but at the same time, the things that I'm learning here about rural organizing, about how technical communicators can sort of bridge these gaps that Liz mentioned earlier, it is transferable to lots of different spaces and places, I think.

[00:13:28.920] - Liz Fraley

 Sounds like a very sort of creative, investigative opportunity, right?

[00:13:36.130] - Erin Brock Carlson

Yeah, I think so, because it's truly like you don't know, and another thing I've been thinking a lot about and that sort of guided my interpretation of this work is expertise, right, so you don't really know what you're going to find you know, so for instance when I started this project like I said, oh, sorry, Liz.

[00:13:55.180] - Liz Fraley

No, that's cool, I'll follow up on that in a minute, go on.

[00:13:58.240] - Erin Brock Carlson

OK, so when I started this, like I said, I didn't know much about pipelines and, you know, within my first last summer, we did around 30 interview that's socially distanced outside, walk along interviews that were masked with folks, and they walked us along their property to show us, ok, here's where the pipeline was going to come through, here it is, here's where it came through and there's all this erosion, all of these things that happen. And one of the things that was so interesting was hearing how, one, different people had experienced the interactions with stakeholders involved in pipeline development, but also the different ways that they described the process. Because every single person understood the process differently and no one was wrong, but it's like everyone had a different way to explain, like how the pipeline came through or how construction happened or what they saw, and so it's like and every single person had a little bit different like experience, but also knowledge about like both their land and also the process, so, again, for instance, there was somebody we talked to who you know, and I guess one thing I should point out, too with pipelines is a lot of the companies doing this pipeline work are based out West where it's very flat.

[00:15:12.040] - Erin Brock Carlson

So you have engineers in like Oklahoma who are drawing up the plans to construct the pipelines, but when you get to West Virginia, a very mountainous state, the topography is very different here, and I mean, you can have somebody looking at the scientific or geographic breakdown of the slopes and things. But when you actually have the crews here on the ground trying to, like, build up a steep slope, the realities of that are a little bit different. And so that's something we heard again and again was like--and sometimes the crews are not from here, sometimes they are from out west and they're used to working in, like, flat land, and so they don't, it's a completely different way of like construction, and it requires that expertise, and so we heard from landowners and community members again and again like, we know that's a really steep ridge with rocky ground and there are certain things that is going to be more difficult to do and ultimately what happens is if you force some sort of construction there ends up being erosion or slips, which is when a pipeline sort of leaks from the erosion and then it starts and then it's a whole thing.

[00:16:23.330] - Erin Brock Carlson

But the other thing is like there are certain features of land that don't show up on a geographical survey, for instance, like Ephemeral Streams that only show up in like April and August or no Agust is too hot, April and September, like those when the surveyor comes out in October, that's not there and that can have a very real impact on how a pipeline or some other entity, whatever it is, is going to sit on land, right. And so it's like these things start when you live somewhere, you know, you might take them for granted and other people might, too, but it's actually really valuable knowledge and expertise that folks have. So, sorry Liz, do you remember what your question was or did I go too far?

[00:17:09.050] - Liz Fraley

Well, no, it's good, but I'm--It's kind of an interesting thing, so like if I put this in the perspective of technical communications and practitioners, I'm reminded of that story that we keep telling because it was just so wild. The guy on the tractor who's got his docs on a tablet, but his hands are dirty and it's really bright out there. So it's part of--we're talking about, expertise. Expertise are the people who are in the place, who are there. And that is, you know, that is something that as communicators we can use or address or make sure to say, hey, we need to talk to the people who are using our docs or our products and things, because we might not imagine what it really is when their feet are on the ground.

[00:18:00.930] - Erin Brock Carlson

Absolutely, yeah.

[00:18:03.190] - Liz Fraley

I get it's a little sideways from your project but it's an interesting discussion of expertise you are going at.

[00:18:10.630] - Erin Brock Carlson

Yeah, well, that conversation is so important. Like you need to have and I know when we've talked you, Janice and I like of course those conversations are so important, like we all know that. But sometimes it gets lost in the practice right, sometimes it gets lost in the moments from design to distribution, but like that needs to be a priority because that's going to make for the best outcomes, right.

[00:18:38.380] - Janice Summers

Well, and I think here's one of the interesting things in this is when you're talking about leaning into place and where the technical professional writer comes into being, is that they can understand the context of place, create the communication,  based on the user of that communication. So if I need to communicate based on, say, you come out and you're proposing corporate, whatever corporate is proposing in this place, I'm the technical writer, so I can translate that, communicate that back to the people in the place. The people in the place are going to tell me what you're saying, they're going to communicate to me. As a technical and professional writer, I understand the user on the corporate side so that I can then take these things that come from a very urban area and communicate them in a way that's clear and concise and can't be overlooked or dismissed.

[00:19:41.270] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:19:43.220] - Janice Summers

Do you know what I am saying?

[00:19:43.220] - Erin Brock Carlson

Yeah, exactly.

[00:19:44.510] - Janice Summers

And I think that is one of those key things that technical and professional communicators are so talented at.

[00:19:50.750] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:19:51.680] - Janice Summers

Understanding personas of the users on both sides, right.

[00:19:56.690] - Erin Brock Carlson

Yeah, and a lot of that's missing. Something I've observed in this specific context is that's missing. Like there's not only a market, but just like I think a need in a space for that sort of collaboration and conversation to happen, because and I think part of it is like the corporate model of many of these companies that aren't thinking it's very like top-level, OK, this is what worked in X place, we're just going to apply it here willy nilly, and that does not work. And in my opinion, it's not ethical because you have to look at the needs of the users or even the community, the larger community, right.

[00:20:40.300] - Janice Summers


[00:20:40.730] - Erin Brock Carlson

And hear what they're articulating.

[00:20:43.160] - Janice Summers

Yeah. And here's the thing, corporations have a corporate brand, they have a corporate brand, they have a lot of legal teams, that writes a lot of legal documents right, and there's a lot of rhetoric that's wrapped in all of that, that's at a certain type, at a certain language. And that's just they've invested a lot of money and it's like having a style when you're in writing and you have a corporate file and you adhere to the--because they invest a lot of time in that. So that's how things get overlooked, because it's just like we've already invested all this money and this is what we're saying and we're saying clearly it's not our fault you're not understanding it.

[00:21:22.220] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:21:22.730] - Janice Summers

That makes sense?

[00:21:24.860] - Erin Brock Carlson

It does, But I think there's a lot of, like, errors on the exit side of that.

[00:21:34.550] - Janice Summers

I am not saying there isn't. I am absolutely not saying there isn't, but I'm saying from a corporation perspective of understanding.

[00:21:40.370] - Erin Brock Carlson

 Sure, right, right, they have the code, they have the legal team, yeah.

[00:21:43.710] - Janice Summers

Yeah, and as a technical and professional writer, you can see right through that rhetoric

[00:21:48.260] - Erin Brock Carlson

Right, right.

[00:21:49.370] - Liz Fraley

But as a person who's working to learn, that's not my job. That's not where I live, that's not what I do, and that's not how I communicate. So the person who's working to learn, I look at things differently and if you're overwhelming me with a lot of this rhetoric, I'm going to miss a lot of things. And I think because more technical and professional writers aren't involved, what happens is it just becomes a political mess. And that was one of the things I was thinking about this morning, because it has nothing to do with my political views. It has everything to do with people. And I think that was one of the things I really got from you and I want everybody else to understand it's not a political view, it's about people.

[00:22:43.670] - Erin Brock Carlson

 Janice, I think that's very true.

[00:22:45.590] - Janice Summers

And only technical and professional writers can understand that and can bridge that without emotion. And I don't mean that in a bad way, I mean just the facts, right, fact and so I think I want everybody to catch that from you.

[00:23:07.910] - Erin Brock Carlson

Well yeah, I think too, I mean especially pipeline development and it's a very--I think the biggest thing and then I think would be important for technical communicators is like energy development is often discussed in economic terms, it's discussed in political terms, it's discussed in like scientific or geographical terms, legal terms, right, all of the stuff, but the lived experiences of the people who are actually living next to the build out like that. That is often not the story, if there's like a human interest story, it's about protests or civic action. And then that's important, too I'm not saying that's not important, but it's a very complex and polarizing issue, and there are people, some people we talked to, were like, I will say the majority of folks we talked to were very anti-pipeline because of X, Y and Z. What had happened to their land and eminent domain, their land being condemned and things like that, but we did talk to people too who--and even some of those people, like there is a nuance to this issue because there are conversations about like economics and job growth and things like that. But at the end of the day, Janice to your point, it's like you have to think about the people involved and you have to I mean, there are definitely things that can be done to improve that communication between company, between like local jurisdiction, between whoever and community members.

[00:24:40.410] - Erin Brock Carlson

And that is missing, and that is something that came up again and again and again, was like the lack of real communication, if there was communication at all. And that is something that, that is a niche and I keep thinking about that because one of the big sort of debates here and I mean, if you look at the conversation article that is linked, if you look at the comments, let me tell you, really elicits a lot of dismissals of my own expertise and accuses me of being some like anyway, go look at them, they're fun.

[00:25:13.830] - Erin Brock Carlson

Anyway, I like economically, one of the big arguments for energy development is like, oh, it's going to bring jobs. And it remains to be seen too anecdotally a lot with a lot of folks will miss the crews working are typically out of state, there's a lot of traveling like it's not necessarily creating like local job growth, there's a lot of like trickle-down stuff but it does not really much of an immediate impact, but something that I kept thinking about is like, but there are spaces--like I'm thinking of the pipeline, once it's in, and part of what a lot of these folks have to live with, is like, this was a really dramatic time of their life when they were trying to not have the pipeline go eight hundred feet from their home. But now it's there, so how do we reckon with this? How do we live with this? And I think part of one for them, easy communication with people associated with the company that's maintaining the pipeline. But also that's an opportunity for jobs and economic growth that is not being taken advantage of, and so it's like--there are like spaces in which you can sort of like make the best out of a situation and actually instead of like putting out this rhetoric of like job growth, job growth, job growth without really and like with very limited sort of evidence from what I've seen and what I've read, there are opportunities that would privilege, like technical communicators and like people that want to do this sort of work that would be I think really fruitful.

[00:27:02.400] - Erin Brock Carlson

But there's just there's like this strange gap, and I think it would address a lot of concerns and a lot of anxieties and a lot of problems in addition to being like, I think, an ethical approach to like helping people live with this very dramatic change in this heightened environmental risk in their daily lives.

[00:27:25.590] - Liz Fraley

And I remember when we were talking about this in prep and it goes back to something you said earlier, you can't just Google around and find those coalitions, right. So even the people who are involved in this situation, now the pipelines here, what do I do? They can't just Google around and find out how do I whatever, right. So I find it not unsurprising, but really cool that it's a technical communications and language and writing professor who found this opportunity and this sort of missing space.

[00:28:05.550] - Erin Brock Carlson

Well thanks, but I think it's there and it's something that like I--cause, you know, I think it's another opportunity for technical communicators to be able to articulate their value in what the skill set of a technical communicator is, and again, this is transferable to other moments of environmental and economic, any sort of development which is constant, right, wherever you live, if you're in a rural area or a suburban area or an urban area like this is something that is there, like it's kind of ubiquitous in our daily lives. So I think that that's really, really key. But, Liz, if I can say something really quick sorry, I'm like, I just thought of something else. Thinking about just the complexity that surrounds these issues and how people do learn about them, thinking because that was something I was really interested in, of course Martina as a geographer was very interested in, like the relationship to the land, sense of home, livelihoods, things like that, and of course, that erosion water quality.

[00:29:16.230] - Erin Brock Carlson

But, and I'm interested in that, but I was really just like, how did you learn about this? Where did you go for information? What were the information literacies you needed? and so, you know, it's interesting, a lot of people heard about it through oftentimes there's a notice in a newspaper or an article to sort of tell you a lot of times companies will host public meetings to tell you basically what's happening or it's like a listening session, but they kind of already made the plans most of the time. And then sometimes two would be like community-led groups and Liz, like to your point, like, you know, the community organization might not have a Web presence cause oftentimes the people doing, this is a labor of love and what happens is like you might get a lot of momentum and then people get really burned out after a while and they sort of, it's very amorphous, like things will spring up and then people will kind of dissolve or people move away because they decide to sell their land because they don't want to stay and fight and for very good reasons, because it's kind of like a David-Goliath situation.

[00:30:23.960] - Erin Brock Carlson

But one example I'm thinking of and I think this sort of comes back to a lot of what we've been talking about, about expertise and language is on how in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, which is really close to D.C. There were some folks out there, there was a particular community where they were building like a plastics, big fiberglass, processing plant, and they needed to build like feeder pipelines, gas pipelines to the plant, and it was very controversial because it was like close to a school, all these things, and so this pipeline, this feeder pipeline was going to go through an old cemetery, which was kind of an abandoned cemetery, but it was an African-American cemetery that went back to the early 1800's, there was a plantation nearby. So and basically what ended up happening was like this abandoned cemetery, this community was like, we need--first of all, we need to like, we don't want a pipeline going through this really important sacred place like, so these folks, one person is a schoolteacher, one person owns an Apiary like that was her families, it's these people that are just like we have to figure out what to do, and so it's like a lot of learning on your feet.

[00:31:44.960] - Erin Brock Carlson

And so you know, one of them I was talking to and she was talking about, just like the amount of going through city council, going through historic preservation commission, going through the registry of historic places and trying to get the land protected, when one, there's really not much of a written down history, like just learning all of these different ways in and talking even about dealing with legal language and writing letters, and the whole time she's talking about the needs and they had kind of an ad hoc thing that cropped up, but there was never web presence, there was never a Facebook group, there was never-- it was very, you know, person to person and the whole time she's talking about this, and they're still working together. I'm like, you need a technical communicator like, that's what you need. You need somebody that can sort of act as like a site of translation and sort of like collect and organize these things and be able to articulate the connections and be able to you know.

[00:32:46.130] - Erin Brock Carlson

The whole time I'm just like, but the thing is, when you talk, people don't know, typically many people don't know what a technical communicator is and can do. And so it's like, you know, cause I think she said something to me, like they've been working with a lot of lawyers like with pro bono work and that's great. But like, the lawyer--that was the first thing she thought of, it was like lawyer.

[00:33:08.100] - Liz Fraley

Yeah, yeah.

[00:33:08.380] - Erin Brock Carlson

It's not necessarily like that's not exactly what, in my opinion, based on what the needs that she was articulating, I don't think that's, I think a technical communicator would have been perfect, you know.

[00:33:20.760] - Liz Fraley

Well, exactly. So and I've been thinking about every time you talk, you found something really important here. You found a really new place for communicator's to have like serious impact. And, you know, one of the big conversations in practitioner circles is always, well, I've got to have a portfolio, how do I get a portfolio? I have got to write some docs where do I get that? This is a perfect place to go from the ground up and create a shining portfolio piece and have meaningful impact while you do.

[00:33:55.620] - Erin Brock Carlson

Absolutely, absolutely, and so I think it's just because I think the variety of documents and discourses and groups that sort of come into communication and sort of like intervene or, you know, cross over in these spaces and in these conversations is so immense that you, yeah, like a technical communicator would be able to really like--and there are so many needs and so many needs in situations like this that range from public-facing communication, like, no, I don't want to say public relations, that's not really it. But just like public-facing communication, clarity, like translating complex documents, like our bread and butter, right, all of these sorts of, you know instruct like what to do, like what do you do in this situation? Because it's a very--and I mean and I'll say this and you can kind of guess sort of my political leanings with this.

[00:35:00.600] - Erin Brock Carlson

But like thinking about it is typically, you know, it's in the best interest for development companies, for people to not know what other people, what other landowners are getting in terms of like negotiations and so like the whole thing is also kind of shrouded in secrecy and ways, and so it's like it's a very complex, confusing situation and it doesn't always have to be, and so I think that there are a lot of niches, different spaces, depending on what your expertise or what your skillset is to sort of get involved in these conversations.

[00:35:39.370] - Janice Summers

Well, I think one of the most important things, cause you know, whenever there's corporation going up against urban area, you will often find corporate interests will prevail because it's Goliath, the big monster. But I think that with the technical and professional communicators, oh my gosh I just lost my train of thought, but they can bridge those gaps of complexity.

[00:36:09.720] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:36:10.590] - Janice Summers

Smoothly and efficiently because they are trained to make the complex simple, and to illuminate and instruct and inform people in a way that is easy for them to comprehend.

[00:36:24.280] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:36:24.910] - Janice Summers

And that's at both sides.

[00:36:26.920] - Erin Brock Carlson

Yes, absolutely.

[00:36:28.030] - Janice Summers

I aim make things confusing intentionally, maybe not, but maybe they are. And those who are trying to understand and navigate in an area that is uncommon for them, and maybe it is there's a lot of personal stake at it. So you have emotion involved in it.

[00:36:48.070] - Erin Brock Carlson

Absolutely, and I think Janice, oh, I'm sorry go ahead.

[00:36:51.780] - Janice Summers

No, no, no that's okay, go ahead.

[00:36:53.620] - Janice Summers

I was just going to say, it's like, again, like those conversations, like there are certain things that don't have to be so confusing. No one we talked to was like, oh, this is easier, this was clearer or it was you know. But even people, a lot of folks who talked to you and this again, goes back to the conversations about like the economic necessity and sort of the fact that in many of these communities, Gas and Oil is like the industry and everyone's brother or sister or mom or dad or whoever, family member or friend works for Gas and Oil, right, so it's like it is intertwined in the lives of many of these communities. But even people that, many people we talked to had worked in Gas and Oil and knew this stuff and it was still more confusing than it should have been, right,  and so, like, there is a gap there, so I want to go up to something like Gas Exec and be like, listen. One, there's a whole market here for you. Two, it will improve your PR significantly, and three will just be, you know, but also, again, whichever side, you know, community-action groups-community sort of organizations too need it. 

[00:38:09.050] - Erin Brock Carlson

So it's just this really rich space where I think a lot of good work can be done, and  I'm just sitting here looking and thinking about it quite a bit like how to make that happen you know.

[00:38:25.520] - Liz Fraley

Yeah, what a way, we are two minutes shy of time and what a way to end it. Looks like there's nothing to follow up of that.

[00:38:35.890] - Janice Summers

Well, I think there is. I really want to get that call to action for people is, you know, find community, outreach organizations.

[00:38:45.440] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:38:46.160] - Janice Summers

In your local area, right, that's kind of where you started.

[00:38:50.770] - Erin Brock Carlson

Yes, yes, so I think being engaged in your community and listening to what's going on and watching, something that's really funny and maybe it's because I've always until now been in sort of like transitional places in terms of like knowing I wasn't going to live there forever. But joining and if you still are on Facebook joining community Facebook groups, I have learned so much about what is going on, in addition to like these are things like who left this refrigerator out on like Grand and North or something for three weeks, but like sometimes you really do learn like people organize. People organize, using the tools that are available to them, right, so like being present on these platforms, in listening and looking at city council minutes, everything is on zoom now, so you can, I go to city council meetings and listen to them as I like cooking and stuff now at this point, but like, that's how you find these opportunities, and so it's you know, sometimes it is in Google and you can find it. But other times it's about what you're saying Janice, is like being embedded and listening and finding these niches and being open and invited into these conversations and into these spaces and it's, I think are really important I think it's a really important and meaningful opportunity for technical communicators so.

[00:40:15.290] - Janice Summers

Yeah, and another thing I want to stress to those that are technical and professional communicators, not everybody knows what you do, and it's not because they don't value what you do, they just don't know that on the back of that aspirin bottle, there was a technical writer involved to write those instructions. Once they understand that every aspect of their life is touched by a technical professional writer, they start to get it.

[00:40:41.590] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:40:42.570] - Janice Summers

So, I think that's one of the things never be shy away, don't be scared away by somebody who doesn't know what it is you do or understand what you do. They just don't.

[00:40:53.330] - Erin Brock Carlson


[00:40:53.850] - Janice Summers

But when you start doing, boy, they get it.

[00:40:56.420] - Erin Brock Carlson

Yes, they do, and they're excited about it. They are excited about it, absolutely.

[00:41:02.390] - Janice Summers

Yes, because if you ever want to feel heard, talk to a technical writer, cause they listen, really listen.

[00:41:16.440] - Liz Fraley

Didn't you say that they were all like, what are you doing out here English professor?

[00:41:20.160] - Erin Brock Carlson

Oh yeah, when we would go out, Martina, they're kind of like, ok, a geographer. And then they would look at me and be like, why is there an English--you're in English? Like, what are you doing? So then I got to give my spiel, so they're like a bunch of people living out in rural areas in West Virginia that know what technical communication is now so.

[00:41:38.290] - Janice Summers

We have a deep passion and understanding for technical writers

[00:41:47.590] - Erin Brock Carlson

It was cool though, because, I mean, it speaks to that--I mean, like I feel like even in the academy and I know or even in industry, like not everyone knows what we do. So it's like refreshing to talk to somebody that is like in a completely different context than we are right, and explain what we do, and I feel like there's a lot of excitement, it's like, oh, really? Like that's really important and interesting, and you're like, yes it is. Thank you.

[00:42:14.520] - Janice Summers

Well, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you.

[00:42:17.250] - Erin Brock Carlson

Thank you, I had a great time.

[00:42:18.490] - Janice Summers

Thank you for taking your time to come here, it's been a delight

[00:42:23.580] - Erin Brock Carlson

Thank you.

[00:42:24.270] - Liz Fraley

It has been great. I'm so excited to have had you in here in Room 42.

[00:42:28.120] - Erin Brock Carlson

Thank you.

[00:42:28.120] - Janice Summers

Hopefully we've gone through some of the questions, we may have missed them, but then people can reach out to you directly if they want some advice or guidance, all of your information is included. So if we missed your question, sorry, but you can hit Erin up directly.

[00:42:43.760] - Erin Brock Carlson

Absolutely, please do. I'm always happy to talk about this. Just don't leave a mean comment on the conversation piece that's linked to my profile. I've had enough of those, just email it to me directly if you're going to do it.

[00:42:57.300] - Janice Summers

Don't be a troll, everybody out there, don't be a troll.

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In this episode...

Erin Brock Carlson is an Assistant Professor of English at West Virginia University, where she teaches Professional Writing and Editing courses, including multimedia writing, technical writing, and writing theory and practice. She earned her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue University, an MA in English from Miami University, and a BA in English and Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication from Transylvania University. Her work rests at the intersections of environmental humanities and digital humanities, focusing on the ways that place, technology, and community are wrapped up in one another. Driven by a commitment to investigate the ways that communities can unexpectedly leverage their resources to address wicked problems, her work often utilizes participatory research methods, including photovoice and participatory mapping.

She is currently focused on how communities in rural Appalachia are grappling with major economic and environmental changes by leaning into place (with all of its physical, social, and cultural trappings) as a strength for community-building. By treating place as a strength, rather than a weakness, we can re-frame conversations that often trail into stereotypes and generalizations, further reifying problems. In her collaborative project focused on pipeline development in West Virginia, she conducted over 30 interviews with rural residents directly affected by pipeline development on their land, finding that pipeline development is a fraught and often stressful experience, riddled with complex processes and protocols.

In this episode of Room 42, we travel the intersection of environmental humanities and digital humanities to discover how technical communicators can be a bridge between divergent perspectives. How we might be able to fill in thick, complex, convoluted scenarios—scenarios like energy development in rural areas, where landowners and energy companies often fail to see eye-to-eye?

Lived experiences are often excluded from the larger conversations about issues like energy development and the residents they are supposed to serve. These conversations are often couched in only environmental or economic discourse. This is where the unique skills of technical and professional communicators can create clear and consistent communication between multiple stakeholders and open up a unique opportunity for technical communicators to do community-engaged, meaningful work.

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Filed under: Room 42, Season 1

Key concepts: audience and context, research, soft-skills

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