Monday, December 9, 2013

Prose, Activity Systems, and Context: Instructions for Changing a Flat Tire

No matter how new or old your vehicle is or whether you have roadside assistance, it is important to try to be prepared for unexpected situations.  Many of the newer cars that exist come with systems that alert you when your tire pressure is low and you are in need of putting air in your tires, yet, many people do not own a newer vehicle.  No matter what your situation is, knowing how to change a flat tire on your own is an important and essential skill.

Many venues on the Internet offer a step-by-step procedure on how to change a flat tire., a well-known site that according to the site itself and the Better Business Bureau began in the 1960s as a newsstand publication, provides an extensive amount of vehicle data, reviews, and advice.  Among the content on the site is instructions on how to change a flat tire.  The popular site provides background data, in addition to, expert and customer reviews manifested over time exclusive to individual vehicle makes and models. 

When analyzing the activity systems that surround this text, it was initially thought that the text was written foremost for one who had experienced their first flat tire and wanted to learn how to replace it.  This initial assumption was based on the idea that the audience likely does not know a great deal about cars if they are looking for information on how to do this very basic car repair.  I, myself, am not completely ignorant to common car issues because I have had my fair share of minor car troubles, yet, I did not know how to change a flat tire.  With that said, after thinking closely about the different aspects that make up an activity system, I really started to focus on the aspect of the terminology used in the text.  There were parts that were easy to understand because the text used the rhetorical device distinctio, that is, it defined what the tools mentioned in the text needed to change a flat tire were based on what they looked like and what their uses were to expand the size of the audience.  But, it was not until later on in the text that the use of terminology lost me even as one who is novice on the topic of “car part” jargon. 

          The following example illustrates where I became lost: when first tightening the wheel lugs back on the spare tire once the flat tire is removed, the text instructs the reader to be sure to not “cross-thread” the lugs and they should then screw on easily.  To better understand this, I decided to look up what cross-threading is, and defined it as: “the characteristic of a bolt inserted at an angle so that the original threads aren’t damaged.”  After reading the Dictionary definition, I was still a little confused due to the jargon of the definition itself.  Now this might not be commonplace for most people, but I am going to assume it might be unless the individual has been subject to instances where they have worked with having to put things together using nuts, bolts, and the like.  With that said, I argue that the text is predominantly terminology males would know over females, however, in order to not generalize, I want to point out the important cultural aspect of activity systems and the activity systems that make up this text. 

Men generally do more manual labor than women do in the United States.  This may have begun based on their biological build in comparison to the anatomical build of a woman.  Men generally have more muscle mass than women do and are able to lift larger objects with greater ease.  However, as women have become a large part of the workforce in the United States, there is actually an aspect of organizational communication theory dedicated to the gender-based division of labor found in occupations in the U.S.  These concepts are known as “gender-work” and “gendered-work.”  Gendered-work is work delegated to women and gender-work is work confirming women’s natural tendencies and abilities (Buzznell 1994).  Based on these concepts and taking an even closer look into the activity systems that make up this text, it became apparent to me that the terminology is likely directed toward men or occupations that are statistically more likely to have more males working in them than females.  Those occupations within the activity systems surrounding this text being roadside assistance personnel, that is, those that are responsible for providing paid customers with help when they are experiencing an issue with their vehicle (that show up driving a tow truck), mechanics, and even police officers in some cases.  After considering those whom are most likely to get a call to aid one when they have a flat tire, individuals in these occupations would be most likely to make up the divisions of labor within the activity systems that make up this text.  There is a reason many American’s carry roadside assistance, it is likely that they have become accustomed to reserving any needed repairs on their vehicles to those whom specialize in vehicle-based activity systems.  These activity systems being divisions of work that are predominantly “male jobs.”

Outside of analyzing the activity systems surrounding the text, analyzing the writing style the text is written in outlines the reason for its use of prose.  While elements of the official style can be found in the text, as mentioned, the author uses distinctio when defining what a tire iron is by describing how to locate the “jacking points” on one’s vehicle: “the tire iron is the L-shaped bar that fits over the wheel lugs.  If you don’t know where your jacking points are, look them up in your owner’s manual.”  By defining these terms the text reaches a much larger audience.  The text also uses exemplum, or examples of what was stated in the preceding paragraph in the text using example, but its use of exemplum is outdated.  The text references the 1970s sitcom Happy Days for entertainment purposes, which is hardly a television show of today’s generation, which points to an older anticipated audience and also limits readership.  The following is an example of how exemplum, that is, a “real-life” example of running into the situation of getting a flat tire in the following example used in the text:

Changing a flat tire is not a very pleasant experience. It seems like your car purposely tries to get a flat tire at the least opportune moments. Like when you are rushing home from work to catch your favorite episode of "Happy Days," for instance. You know, the one where Fonzie rides the killer bull while on vacation in Colorado.

The other examples used clearly for entertainment purposes reference a stream of commercials that were popular in the early 2000s narrated by a loud, large-muscled, tall, African American man known as “Mr. T.”   Mr. T yells utterances in these commercials that are hardly understandable, yet the commercials are meant to represent a comical approach to remaining tough in difficult situations.  The examples used in the text use men as their subjects, and Mr. T. is undoubtedly meant to pertain to a male audience.  The message behind Mr. T. as the main character in the commercials he is represented in have an underlying message of “toughness.”  Toughness is a male characteristic, yet, of course, that is not meant to suggest that only males embody toughness.  However, there are feminine and masculine personality traits that exist and toughness is a masculine trait.  

The author also uses parallelism, that is, putting ideas of the same importance into like structures grammatically by breaking up the two major, broad steps of changing a flat tire into two bolded headings. The first of the steps being “jack up the car” and the second being “remove the flat and install the spare.”  This rhetorical device provides additional clarity and removes the potential for abstraction by using distinctio in the paragraphs following each of the major steps.  

            The examples of the rhetorical devices are clear indicators that the text is written, in part, using plain style prose.  The text does not oversimplify the process of changing a flat tire, because even the last paragraph’s closing instructions tell the reader to look for the maximum speed the driver can operate the vehicle with based on the anatomical structure of the spare tire.

While plain style prose is supposed to generate the widest audience based on its very plain use of language, in this text, a large audience is left out.  With that said, while this text is step-by-step instructions for how to change a flat tire and effective instructions for how to do a task is best written in plain prose in order to elicit higher levels of reading ease, this particular text is not solely representative of plain style prose.  Elements of the official style are represented in the text with its use of technical jargon, such as, the use of the technical term “cross-threading.”  Official style prose largely limits audience size because only those with specialized knowledge of the topics within are able to understand it.  For that reason, official style prose is largely marked by low reading-ease and a higher grade-level of writing.  Based on this idea, discussing the context this particular text is found in sets up the foundation for better understanding how the activity systems within the text connect to the context, and most importantly, the text itself. 

Going back to discussing gendered-work or occupational divisions based on gender, the context itself reinforces the concepts the activity systems and prose style reveals about the text and a narrowed audience.  After exploring the site’s surroundings of the actual text or its context, the text appears to be largely directed toward a male audience. This is based on the examples used, that is, Happy Days and Mr. T.  In addition to its use of the official style prose and technical jargon found in the activity systems that make up the text, and other elements such as the pictures located on the instructions for changing a flat tire’s page.  The pictures include only males, and the caption below the pictures reads: “make sure to jack up the car using the proper jack points.”  This is located at the top of the page prior to the beginning of the actual text, which suggests that outside of the title it is one of the first things the viewer sees.  This use of official style prose right away in the texts automatically minimizes the audience to a smaller size because it is written before the actual text itself.  Jargon that loaded suggests an assumed knowledge base of the subject matter.  These concepts suggest connections between activity systems, context, rhetorical devices, and prose used that make up a web.  That web being the text itself, which embodies all of these elements and suggests larger themes.  

-C. Joslin

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