Posted in Discussion Questions

“Our Unstable Artistry”: Discussion of Cushman’s Problem Setting

In Jeremy Cushman’s contribution to the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, “Our Unstable Artistry: Donald Schön’s Counterprofessional Practice of Problem Setting,” Cushman challenges perceptions of theoretical and disciplinary knowledge being greater than practice and application, asserting that professional practice rarely moves linearly. Instead, this practice likens to “indeterminate situations made determinate,” involving the general implementation of problem setting (Cushman). Problem setting  is the process of “interactively naming, framing, and constructing temporarily stable ends from unstable situations” (Cushman). This, Cushman declares, is the artistry of all professionals, thus transferrable to technical communication as a whole. The piece explores the notion and application of problem setting by first reflecting upon Donald Schön’s conception of problem setting, then by examining a vignette concerning the real implementation of problem setting within the professional sphere.

Donald Schön’s assertions arguably continue Flower and Hayes’ “lasting and influential project of approaching writing as a thinking problem rather than one of arrangement and style” (Cushman). Schön equates problem setting to artful integration, a sort of articulatory work naming the processes required to consolidate “scattered professional practices into working configurations” (Cushman). Thus, professional work as a whole proves to be more of an actively reflective practice, as opposed to a set of distinct processes. It is interesting at this point in the piece, as a reader, to question the value and prevalence of intrapersonal reflection within one’s own work. Furthermore, many have postulated that problem setting may be the terminology representing the invisible “knack” so many within the professional sphere are attributed with.

So what precisely is problem setting, and how is it implemented in reality?

Through the vignette of Marcie and Charles, Jeremy Cushman works to discuss these queries. Marcie, a user-experience expert, and Charles, a creative director, work in response to a request for proposal (RFP). However, there is no clearly identified problem. They do not have a starting space, thus Marcie and Charles must “attune” themselves to the situation at hand, first inquiring as to available ends–“Okay, so what are the possible outcomes for us here, right now, anyway?” (Cushman). Interestingly enough, Charles works to discover and shape the situation as he works, instead of before working. Marcie and Charles begin by raising questions and building temporary stability (setting problems) into the situation at hand.

Cushman elaborates that this process of problem setting, as embraced by technical communicators, requires vulnerability and the setting aside of presumed expertise. He concludes with a general reflection upon the application of problem setting, declaring “creative problems and solutions still emerge” and “work does get done,” despite the counterprofessional push against bias towards the methodological and standard process.


Discussion Questions:

Concerning Flower and Hayes’ approach to writing (as articulated in the second paragraph of this post), how do you feel about this notion? Do you agree with Flower and Hayes, that writing is a “thinking problem?” Why or why not?

Cushman articulates that, “the problem solver, the problem, and the problem-setting process cannot be separated out and treated individually.” How is this statement reflective of Jenny EdBauer’s notion of rhetorical ecologies?

As articulated above, Charles (within the vignette) works to discover and mold the situation as he works. In my opinion, I feel this correlates to notions established within Steal Like an Artist, particularly concerning the importance of working, not to create the masterpiece, but working to work and produce in general, reaching a solution or ideal product along the way. Do you agree with this postulation? Why or why not? Do you see any other connections between Cushman’s discussion of problem setting and our reading of Steal Like an Artist?

How do you relate vulnerability to the work of technical communicators?

Cushman establishes that, as writers and communicators in general, articulating our processes as “problem setting” is incredibly useful. Do agree that the mere identification and articulation of problem setting is valuable? How do you see this articulation impacting your work?


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