icon: manual typewriter keyboardEng606:
Issues in Professional & Technical Writing: Ethics


Course Access
Arts and Letters

English 606:
Issues in Professional & Technical Writing: Ethics

3 hrs.
John Rothfork  
BAA 324 (Babbitt Academic Annex [next to the English bldg.])

None; graduate status


Texts: Almost all the elements for this course are available online. Textbooks are the big exception. Ebooks are still limited to popular books. 

      charles taylor: ethics of authenticity
  1. Dombrowski, Paul.  Ethics in Technical Communication. Allyn Bacon; ISBN: 0-205-27462-5.  $115 list; Amazon used $10.

  2. Arnett, Ronald C., Janie M. Harden Fritz, Leeanne M. Bell.  Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue & Difference. There are two editions of this book; a first & second edition. Either will do. Amazon

  3. Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press; List $28; Amazon has used copies for $10.

Course description:

As the title indicates, this course will focus on the ethics of professional & technical writing. This is not personal ethics, but professional ethics. In one sense, the ethical obligation of the profession seems crystal clear: to provide honest, accurate, safe, & usable information to end users, clients, & customers. There is an obvious concern to protect & warn readers about dangerous processes. On the other hand, if you were employed by the tobacco industry in the 1950s you would undoubtedly have been involved in producing documents that were evasive at best & often outright lies. Star Wars related promises & proposals in the 1980s produced similar questions about honesty. The Challenger space shuttle disaster illustrated still other rhetorical & ethical problems for journalism. Views on global warming or childhood inoculations are often less than scientific in the sense of offering personal or ideological views. When you begin thinking about the ethics and professional writing, the crystal clear can quickly become cloudy.

A course like this is an important preparation for working as a professional or technical writer, not so much because the work is fraught with ethical concerns (although some areas can be, such as working for a weapons or DoD employer), but because of the situation of working under & for SMEs (subject matter experts) who, of course, have beliefs, methods, views, & value judgments of their own. If you are new to professional writing, this is the biggest change from the rest of the English dept. curricula. Prof. writing is not self-expressive writing; it is not creative writing; it is not academic writing; it is not single-author controlled writing. We do not have the authority to control document content or even methods of development. We are almost always ancillary partners with an SME who usually thinks we are artsy types who know little about the technical content & even less about the culture of science & engineering. So, the writing situation often presents us with moral or value concerns, including conflicts with the SME about audience or end-users.

I don't mean to paint a bleak picture of professional / technical writing. Academic writing also comes with its share of conflicts & concerns but they tend not to be so immediately involved in the writing situation & we are familiar with the culture of academe. I do mean to suggest that our concerns in the course are about writing for industry, not secondary level English teaching or academic writing.

Course numbers imply that this is nearly the last course in the Certificate or M.A. program. It helps if you have taken eng522, which focuses in part on postmodern notions of social construction. This is a presumption for both the Arnett text & Taylor's book. This is what the "communication" in the title of Arnett's book means. It alludes to social construction in discourse communities.  In analyzing cases and issues in this course, it is important to remember that we are dealing with social constructions about what is legal or moral. What is legal does not fall out of the sky. It is not universally obvious or intuitive. It is socially constructed by legislative, judicial, political, economic, and public discourse. Views often change over time and issues often generate multiple views that seem to never reach consensus.

Course structure:

The course would seem to logically fall into two sections: theory & application. We will not, however, dwell on elaborating historic ethical theory. Two or three major systems remain popular for academic discussion: Aristotle, Kant, & Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham). Less popular or familiar outlooks that we will consider include Confucianism (Asian views), & feminism, an ethics of care, & PM (postmodern) ethics. Ethical outlooks directly derived from religious belief are usually too limited in authority to appeal to the broad range of people involved in any profession & involved in an American secular legal system. They obviously remain important for personal ethics.

Dombrowski's book has dated cases, but their historic character means they have been the subject of a lot of scholarship even if they haven't been entirely decided:

The important part of the course is located at the COURSE UNITS page, which offers a list of hyperlinks to the pages that constitute the course. 

 Each unit is designed for 3-4 days of study in our brief 5 week schedule.  Use the calendar tool to check dates by clicking on calendar in the left column (the course navigation column). 

What to do in the course:

Sample "What to do page":
What to do for unit 04
  1. Read Paul Dombrowski's, Ethics in Technical Communications,  ch. 4: pp. 81-120.
  2. Read the associated Webpage, "04_Dombrowski."
  3. Do p. 115, #1.  Post your answer in the discussion area for unit 04 (20 points).
  4. Due either: (20 points; post to the discussion area)
    • p. 118, #6: Poirier & Brauner, "Ethics in the Daily Language of Medical Discourse."
    • p. 118, #8: "Scientific Research: Continued Vigilance."  I couldn't find the document listed in our text. The links given in the text do not work. This link accesses documents generated by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, but not the paper mentioned in the text.  You can easily find other related documents by doing a Web search on the topic of human subjects in scientific testing.

Total: 40 points for unit 04.

Lessons do not offer the same number of points. 

In addition to unit activities, like those illustrated above for unit 04, you must write an analytic paper on a moral dilemma that is relevant or significant to the community of professional & technical writing. A dilemma means equivocation or offering arguments for opposite solutions or reactions. Here is part of the description of the assignment:

What to do for the course project or major paper

  1. Read Dombrowski, Ch 8: "Ethics Exercises."
  2. Choose & describe a case. Ours is a rhetoric class, which means that you paper should offer rhetorical insight into the contexts or audiences concerned about the issue rather than offering argument to support one side & condemn the other. Rather than a solution, we are interested in better understanding the views, values, & concerns of various groups interested in the issue. Often that interest is not well defined by the ostensible or literal problem or terms of the case.
  3. Analyze the case from at least 2 explictly defined ethical perspectives:
    1. Explain why each ethical system is an appropriate tool or outlook to use. For example, if the business deals with
      the Japanese, Koreans, or Chinese, Confucian ethics would be an obvious & relevant outlook.
    2. Differentiate levels: fact, theory, & application.
    3. Explain the significance of the dilemma.
    4. Anticipate & answer likely objections or counter-arguments.
    5. If possible, suggest a ladder of solutions or responses from minimal response to solving the dilemma.
    6. Look for parallels or precedents.
    7. Address an identified audience; you may even explain rhetorical strategies in an afterward, if you think it necessary.
    8. The emphasis is on ethics, analysis, & writing; not on bibliography or factual reporting. If you use Web sources, consider the "publisher" or sponsoring agent & give us a link to see the source.
    9. The presumed authority for methods & solutions is the profession. That means that personal ethics & religion do not have prima facie authority. You cannot solve professional ethical cases by appealing directly to these sources or authorities.
  4. Scale: 8 pages (2,000) words.
  5. Organization: use tech writing methods of logical division instead of narrative development; use headings.
  6. Save your document as an .rtf or MS Word file.
  7. Submit the paper as an attachment to a post in unit 08.
  8. Read & critically respond to 2 other papers in the discussion section for unit 08.

Paper: 50 points
Discussion critiques of other papers: 10 points each (
10 total)



     90%: A
     80%: B
     65%: C

Submission deadlines:

The course is not self-paced. We follow the academic calendar for the term. Deadlines are fixed but can be bent. A day or two late is okay. I will not accept material from lessons two units prior to the one we are studying. The grade for work submitted late (for example, work for unit 3 when the class is scheduled to be involved in unit 4) is reduced by 10%; two units late by 20%. Work submitted more than two units late is not accepted. Please follow the calendar. Discussions are only meaningful when we are involved in the activity being discussed. Events beyond your control (floods, fires, auto accidents) are another matter. 

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