“From ER to Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics: Finding a Place for Professional Communication," by Jimmie Killingsworth

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. “From ER to Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics: Finding a Place for Professional Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14 (2005): 359-73.

Reviewed by David Marado, Miami University of Ohio 

The metaphor of the Burkean Parlor enables a vision of academic writing that is both comforting and inspiring: When we have impetus to speak, we do so; then we listen to others until we have reason to re-enter the conversation. In “From ER to Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics: Finding a Place for Professional Communication,” Jimmie Killingsworth reminds us that he was part of the Environmentalist Rhetoric (ER) conversation at its inception in professional and technical communication, and he returns to the conversation with a more fully realized conception of what writing from places can be. This successful article gives its audience a solid grounding in the ER movement as well as the still-forming Ecocompostion and Ecopoetics movements. And, since his audience primarily includes teachers of technical and professional communication, Killingsworth dutifully explains the pedagogical imperative of his critique. While Killingsworth doesn’t revolutionize technical communication with his theory, he does enable his audience to understand the difference between ER as the subject of a rhetoric and ER as a way of doing rhetoric.

Re-entering a conversation he helped begin in technical communication in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Killingsworth now argues that there is more to ER than writing about the latest crisis. ER does not imply simply writing about one’s environment, but rather the act of writing from places initiates ER. In an interesting version of expanding through reduction, Killingsworth first cautions against the reductionist treatment environmental discourse has become: the kind of bumper sticker mentality that writes the environmental movement as an us/them narrative. Ironically, Killingsworth’s argument for Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics in professional and technical communication is based upon two bumper stickers of his own: “Writing Takes Place” and “Localization Begins at Home.” To get to the message of these two bumper stickers, Killingsworth reiterates where ER has been and then describes how Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics may lead ER to new places.

Writing about environmental issues formed the corpus of ER in the past, and still does to a certain extent today. Killingsworth notes the most influential environmental/rhetoric texts published and discusses the writers who helped form the movement. Rather than a coherent, conscious effort to realize a rhetoric about environmental issues, the ER effort includes writersfrom Wordsworth and Thoreau as well as technical communication specialists like Killingsworth himself (who writes about the politics of ER) and Beverly Sauer (who articulates the rhetoric of hazardous environments.) This spectrum of writers and of writing contradicts the static image of ER that many outside the discipline may hold.

Killingsworth points out that the blurring of disciplinary lines under the umbrella of ER reinforces Burke’s message regarding the hyperspecialization of technical and scientific professions during the Cold War era. By seeing their jobs as only science or technology, the scientist and technologist were cut off from the ethical responsibilities they had as citizens: “In the quintessential work of postwar rhetorical scholarship, A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke clearly had the Manhattan Project in mind when he suggested that it is all too convenient for scientists to seal off their specialization and radically separate technical from ethical issues” (362). This sealing off and separating brings Killingsworth back to the main point of the essay: ER shouldn’t be specialized and un-approachable by all teachers, technical communication or composition. Rather, through Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics ER can become the building blocks of a writing pedagogy. Beginning with Marilyn Cooper’s assertion that “ecology suggests the living ground of a composition, what it springs from, what it requires for its meaning and its appeal to strike home,” Killingsworth builds an argument for Ecocomposition in the technical communication classroom (364). Killingsworth suggests that seeing writing as an ecological activity enables writers to consider what their work will mean to themselves and others “down the stream”; in other words, writing can break the seal and the separation Burke warned us about and make us a part of a greater community. As he puts it in his bumper sticker, “Writing Takes Place.”

Though Killingsworth wants us to consider those who live “downstream” in our writing, technical and professional communication and otherwise, he doesn’t advocate for a simplistic view of community. Instead, he argues for a view of community that is localized instead of standardized. Localization, a burgeoning concept in technical communication, demands that writers reshape standardized documents to fit the local concerns of the communities in which the writing will be used. In order to successfully to localize, writers must be intimately aware of the sites of composition, be they real place or virtual spaces on the Internet. But achieving this awareness is a concern for technical communicators. According to Killingsworth, “above all, the concept of an ecologically rooted textual and rhetorical situation places in question the nearly exclusive concern of professional communicators with workplaces, global discourse communities, and virtual realities” (365). Localization forces technical communicators, indeed all writers, to become aware of the scene of the discourse, to use Burke’s terminology.

Through a questionable, though understandable, example, Killingsworth suggests that location actually affects the quality of writing. While I whole-heartedly agree with him, Killingsworth’s claim seems ill supported. Citing the work of Walt Whitman, Killingsworth notes a marred performance in the poet’s work as his writing moves from the familiar surroundings of the New York islands to the American west and to the global scene (369). The point actually reinvigorates his claim that Writing Takes Place: If we accept that writing takes place, and we realize that good writing recognizes the importance of the Burkean scene, then writing which displays this recognition won’t be marred; or, as the second bumper sticker reads, Localization Begins at Home (or as I would put it, Write What You Know).

While boiling complex arguments down to pithy statements can be fun, Killingsworth pays close attention to the primary audience of Technical Communication Quarterly in the article. In doing so, he closes with suggestions about how Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics can play a role in the technical communication classroom. By offering examples to guide teachers in bringing Ecocomposition and Ecopoetics into the classroom, Killingsworth demonstrates his own grasp of his slogans: he knows that in technical communication theorizing isn’t worth a whole lot if it doesn’t lead to a practical application. Thus instead of leaving readers to forage for ways to enact his ideas, Killingsworth offers five means for bringing the concepts into the technical communication classroom. Indeed, Writing Takes Place, and Localization Begins at home.

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