Documenting Experience: West Virginians Affected by Natural Gas Pipeline

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Erin Brock Carlson 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.

Airdate: May 12, 2021

Season 1 Episode 22 | 43 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:12.790] – Liz Fraley

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers, our interviewer, and welcome to Erin Brock Carlson, today’s guest in Room 42.

[00:00:25.210] – Liz Fraley

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 PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue and MA in English from Miami University and a BA in English Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication from Transylvania University.

[00:00:47.650] – Liz Fraley

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.

[00:01:11.980] – Liz Fraley

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. So exciting and such an interesting topic.

[00:01:38.310] – Erin Brock Carlson

Thank you.

[00:01:40.740] – Janice Summers

Because 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 off, the origin of how you got involved in this? I think that would be interesting for people.

[00:02:02.800] – Erin Brock Carlson

Absolutely. Okay, so I can step back a little and talk about how I got interested in rural Appalachia and doing this work with community organizers because that’s where this started. So my family is from Southeastern 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 centres, a lot of them in the Midwest. So Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago.

[00:02:33.520] – Erin Brock Carlson

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 was at Purdue and in 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 in conversation, in connection to other areas in the United States, especially rural areas, which there are rural areas and essentially almost every single state, right? All over.

[00:03:15.280] – Erin Brock Carlson

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 lots of different firms. So there are folks working on socioeconomic inequalities linked to racial disparities and doing 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. Then folks working around just basically economic and environmental degradation in different areas.

[00:03:59.830] – Erin Brock Carlson

So that’s really rooted me and got me linked into these conversations about environmental risk because I live in Northern West Virginia, but Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky are very historically tied to coal mining, and I feel 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?

[00:04:30.010] – Erin Brock Carlson

Thinking about water contamination, 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 her speciality. And so she was tapped into and linked in with this group called the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and they are a non-profit dedicated to basically watching pipelines and advocating for water quality and water safety.

[00:05:07.720] – Erin Brock Carlson

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, they crisscross all over the place. I was so ignorant I had no idea but essentially, we ended up working together and doing this project.

[00:05:32.980] – Erin Brock Carlson

And it’s like with West Virginia, I think a stereotypical image is like coal miners, coal. 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. In the 2010s is really when fracking took off in Southeastern and Southwestern Pennsylvania and here in North Central West Virginia.

[00:05:59.860] – Erin Brock Carlson

And now this third wave, I think, of energy industry here is natural gas pipelines. And so over the last maybe 5-10 years, there’s been 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 at the front lines of energy development in rural West Virginia. And so it’s interesting because it’s, I think, like many things in our lives we stumble into stuff, but then it all connects, right? There’s a reason.

[00:06:37.900] – Janice Summers

You have your ear to the ground base. Your little spidey senses are out there and you gravitate towards things. And that was one of the points that’s why I want you to share the origins, because what you walked through, you can walk through this 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.

[00:07:08.630] – Janice Summers

But like you pointed out, there’s these coalitions that work with all non-profits in any one region. So pick the region you live in 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 you can Google and find groups. But that’s not like… Those are the really highly formalised groups, right? But there are more ad hoc community action groups that spring up and you can find them on Facebook a lot. I found a lot of folks organized on Facebook, which is really interesting, I think, given the complexities of data politics and things like that.

[00:08:04.910] – Erin Brock Carlson

But it’s accessible, it’s there and folks use it, right? And so you can find in your community other groups and collaboratives that crop up over time. And 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

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

[00:08:44.030] – Erin Brock Carlson

Oh, absolutely. So I mean, the figure of two million natural gas and this… Sorry, climbing back up. While my work is currently focused on energy development and natural gas pipelines and development associated with that. That’s not the only technically complex development that’s happening in any area. 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 intervene, but respond to, right?

[00:09:23.430] – Erin Brock Carlson

So I’m really focused on natural gas. That’s what I’m talking about. But I think it can be translated to different developments or situations in a community, but also across spaces like that staggering two million miles of natural gas pipelines across the United States, is just staggering to me. And in West Virginia alone, sorry, I looked at these stats so I have to 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.

[00:10:03.240] – Erin Brock Carlson

So it is just like somebody that we were talking to, that Martina and I spoke with at OVEC, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. They do a lot of aerial tours and take photos of what the mountains look like from the air. But you can see there are photos, you can Google them and see, 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 just the way that they’re so interlaced. But again, West Virginia is not the only place where pipelines exist, right? And there’s 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, they’re everywhere.

[00:11:07.590] – Erin Brock Carlson

And one of the biggest things to come out of this is 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. He’s like going to town. I don’t know. I don’t think everyone wants to see that.

[00:11:45.530] – Erin Brock Carlson

Okay, sorry. So one of the things that– I know it’s like, come on. One of the things that I kept hearing from them was, there are no clear models of how to organize in rural areas, right? But there is great organizing happening in rural areas. There’s a really rich history of that across the south in Appalachia. But most of the models that come from community action organizations come from urban areas and really highly populated areas.

[00:12:24.480] – Erin Brock Carlson

So you can go to an apartment complex and knock on all your neighbors’ doors or you can set up outside of an eatery or a bar or whatever 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 population density. And so you have to go about organizing in a different way right? So the models, the way that it looks here is different oftentimes.

[00:12:53.760] – Erin Brock Carlson

of course, there are some similarities, but there are differences as well, we need to note that. And so I say this to say there’s no one-size-fits-all for this work if you are a technical communicator and 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 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 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 guided my interpretation of this work is expertise, right? So you don’t really know what you’re going to find. 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 in that a minute. Go on.

[00:13:58.240] – Erin Brock Carlson

Okay, so when I started this, like I said, I didn’t know much about pipelines. And you know, last summer, we did around 30 interviews that socially distanced outside walk-along interviews that were masked with folks. And they walked us along their property to show us, okay, here’s where the pipeline was going to come through, here’s where it is, here’s where it came through, there’s all this erosion, all of these things that happen.

[00:14:22.660] – Erin Brock Carlson

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 how the pipeline came through or how construction happened or what they saw.

[00:14:51.520] – Erin Brock Carlson

And so it’s like and every single person had a little bit different experience, but also knowledge about both their land and also the process. So again, for instance, there was somebody we talked to who 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. 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.

[00:15:25.480] – Erin Brock Carlson

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 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– and sometimes the crews are not from here sometimes they are from out west and they’re used to working in flat land and so it’s a completely different way of construction and it requires that expertise.

[00:15:57.220] – Erin Brock Carlson

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 it’s going to be more difficult to do. And ultimately what happens is if you force some construction there, there ends up being erosion or slips, which is when a pipeline leaks from the erosion and then it’s a whole thing.

[00:16:23.330] – Erin Brock Carlson

But the other thing is there are certain features of land that don’t show up on a geographical survey. For instance, ephemeral streams that only show up in April and August or, no August is hot, April and September. 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 these things that 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.

[00:17:05.840] – Erin Brock Carlson

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. It’s an interesting thing. So 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. We’re talking about expertise, expertise of the people who are in the place, who are there.

[00:17:40.190] – Liz Fraley

And that is something that as communicators we can ease 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 not might not imagine what it really is when the feet are on the ground. I went 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. And I know when we’ve talked, you, Janice and I. Of course, those conversations are so important 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 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 and 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.

[00:18:59.160] – Janice Summers

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 numerous things. 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.

[00:19:43.220] – Erin Brock Carlson

Right. Yeah, exactly.

[00:19:44.510] – Janice Summers

That is one of those key things that technical and professional communicators are so talented at, understanding persona of the users on both sides, right?

[00:19:56.180] – Erin Brock Carlson

And a lot of that’s missing. Something I’ve observed in this specific context is that’s missing. There’s not only a market, but just like I think a need in a space for that collaboration and conversation to happen. And I think part of it is the corporate model of many of these companies that aren’t thinking it’s very like top-level. Okay, this is what worked in “X” place we’re just going to apply it here, willy nilly, and that does not work.

[00:20:30.710] – Erin Brock Carlson

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 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 lot of legal teams that write a lot of legal documents and there’s a lot of rhetoric that’s wrapped in all of that that’s at a certain type,  a certain language and is and of itself. And they’ve invested a lot of money. It’s like having a style. When you’re in writing and you have a corporate style and adhere to it. Because they invest a lot of time and money.

[00:21:11.640] – Janice Summers

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 it clearly it’s not our fault. You’re not understanding it. That make sense?

[00:21:24.230] – Erin Brock Carlson

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

[00:21:32.090] – Janice Summers

I’m not saying there isn’t. I am absolutely not saying there isn’t. But I’m saying from a corporation’s perspective. This is their understanding. 

[00:21:41.090] – Erin Brock Carlson

Right. They have the code. They have the legal team. Yeah.

[00:21:44.240] – Janice Summers

And then the technical and professional writer. You can see right through that rhetoric. But as a person who’s working in the land, 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 the land 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.

[00:22:17.000] – Janice Summers

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.

[00:22:42.920] – Erin Brock Carlson

Yes, 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 it’s just the facts, ma’am, right? The facts are the facts. So I think I want everybody to catch that from you.

[00:23:05.520] – Erin Brock Carlson

Yeah, well, and I think, too, especially pipeline development and it’s a very… I think the biggest thing and then I think would be important for technical communicators is energy development is often discussed in economic terms, it’s discussed in political terms, it’s discussed in 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 that is often not the story.

[00:23:41.650] – Erin Brock Carlson

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 some people we talked to, 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, and their land being condemned and things like that.

[00:24:07.570] – Erin Brock Carlson

But we did talk to people to who, and even some of those people, there is a nuance to this issue because there are conversations about economics and job growth and things like that. But at the end of the day, Janice, to your point, you have to think about the people involved. There are definitely things that can be done to improve that communication between company, between 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, the lack of real communication if there was communication at all, and that is a niche. And I keep thinking about that because one of the big debates here and 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, you know. Anyway, go look at them, they’re fun.

[00:25:13.830] – Erin Brock Carlson

Anyway, economically, one of the big arguments for energy development is like, oh, it’s going to bring jobs. And it remains to be seen. Anecdotally what a lot of folks told me is the crews working are typically out-of-state. There’s a lot of traveling. It’s not necessarily creating local job growth, there’s a lot of trickle-down stuff but there’s not really much of an immediate impact.

[00:25:45.840] – Erin Brock Carlson

But something that I kept thinking about is– but there are spaces. I’m thinking of the pipeline, once it’s in, and part of what a lot of these folks have to live with is–this was a really dramatic time of their life when they were trying to not have the pipeline go 800 feet from their home, but now it’s there. So how do we reckon with this? How do we live with this?

[00:26:13.130] – Erin Brock Carlson

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 there are spaces in which you can make the best out of a situation and actually instead of putting out this rhetoric of like job growth, job growth, job growth without really with very limited evidence. From what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, there are opportunities that would privilege technical communicators and 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 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 an ethical approach to 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 I whatever, right? 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 missing space.

[00:28:05.550] – Erin Brock Carlson

Well, thanks, but I think it’s there and it’s something that I think it’s another opportunity for technical communicators to be able to articulate their value and what the skill set of a technical communicator is. And again, this is transferable to other moments of environmental and economic, any development, which is constant, right? Wherever you live, if you’re in a rural area or a suburban area or an urban area. This is something that is there, it’s ubiquitous in our daily lives. So I think that that’s really, really key.

[00:28:50.040] – Erin Brock Carlson

But, Liz, if I can, I just thought of something else, thinking about just the complexity that surrounds these issues and how people do learn about them because that was something I was really interested in. Of course, Martina, as a geographer was very interested in the relationship to the land, sense of home, livelihoods, things like that and, of course, erosion, water quality.

[00:29:17.010] – Erin Brock Carlson

And I’m interested in that, but I was really interested in how did you learn about this? Where did you go for information? What were the information literacies you needed? And so it’s interesting, a lot of people heard about it through oftentimes there’s a notice in a newspaper, or an article to 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’ve already made the plans most of the time. And then sometimes too would be like community-led groups.

[00:29:50.850] – Erin Brock Carlson

And Liz, to your point, the community organization might not have a web presence because oftentimes this is a labour of love and what happens is you might get a lot of momentum and then people get really burned out after a while and it’s very amorphous, things will spring up and then people will 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 like a David-Goliath situation.

[00:30:23.960] – Erin Brock Carlson

But one example I’m thinking of and I think this comes back to a lot of what we’ve been talking about, about expertise and language is out in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia which is really close to DC, there were some folks out there. There was a particular community where they were building a plastics fiberglass processing plant and they needed to build feeder pipelines, gas pipelines to the plant. It was very controversial because it was close to a school, all these things.

[00:30:55.790] – Erin Brock Carlson

And so this pipeline, this feeder pipeline, was going to go through an old cemetery which was an abandoned cemetery but it was an African-American cemetery that went back to the early 1800s, there was a plantation nearby. Basically what ended up happening was this abandoned cemetery, this community was like, first of all, we don’t want a pipeline going through this really important sacred place.

[00:31:27.650] – Erin Brock Carlson

So these folks, one person is a schoolteacher, one person owns an apiary that was her family’s. It’s these people that are just like we have to figure out what to do. And so it’s a lot of learning on your feet and so one of them I was talking to and she was talking about just the amount of going through city council, going through a 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, just learning all of these different ways in and talking even about dealing with legal language and writing letters.

[00:32:13.490] – Erin Brock Carlson

And the whole time she’s talking about the needs and they had an ad hoc thing that cropped up but there was never a web presence, there was never a Facebook group. It was very 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. That’s what you need. You need somebody that can act as a site of translation and collect and organize these things and be able to articulate the connections.

[00:32:47.150] – Erin Brock Carlson

But the thing is when you talk to people, typically many people don’t know what a technical communicator is and can do. Because I think she said something to me like they’ve been working with a lot of lawyers with pro bono work, and that’s great. But that was the first thing she thought of, right? Was lawyer. And it’s not necessarily… That’s not exactly what in my opinion, based on what the needs that she was articulating, I think a technical communicator would have been the perfect…

[00:33:20.760] – Janice Summers

Well, exactly. So and I’ve been thinking about every time you talk about it. You found something really important here. You found a really new place for communicators to have serious impact. And one of the big conversations in, I’m sorry, practitioner circles is always, well, I’ve got to have a portfolio. How do I get a portfolio? I’ve 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. I think the variety of documents and discourses in groups that common to communication and intervene or crossover in these spaces and in these conversations is so immense that a technical communicator would be able to really… And there are so many needs and in situations like this that range from public-facing communication, no, I don’t want to say public relations that’s not really it. But just public-facing communication, clarity, translating complex documents. Our bread and butter, right? Like what to do. What do you do in this situation?

[00:34:54.090] – Erin Brock Carlson

And I’ll say this and I think you can guess my political leanings with this. But thinking about it, 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 negotiations, right? So the whole thing is also shrouded in secrecy in ways. And so it’s a very complex, confusing situation and it doesn’t always have to be. So I think that there are a lot of niches, different spaces, depending on what your expertise or what your skillset is to get involved in these conversations.

[00:35:39.370] – Janice Summers

Well, I think one of the most important things because whenever there’s a corporation going up against urban areas, 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, loosely 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.

[00:36:24.910] – Janice Summers

And that’s on both sides.

[00:36:26.920] – Erin Brock Carlson

Yes, absolutely.

[00:36:28.310] – Janice Summers

They want to 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 unfamiliar, 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. When I think to– Janice, oh, I’m sorry, go ahead.

[00:36:51.780] – Janice Summers

No, no. That’s okay, go ahead.

[00:36:53.620] – Erin Brock Carlson

I was just going to say, again, those conversations… 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 clear or it was, you know. But a lot of folks we talked to and this again goes back to the conversations about the economics necessity and the fact that in many of these communities, gas and oil is the industry and everyone’s brother or sister or mom or dad or whoever, family member or friend works for gas and oil, right?

[00:37:29.950] – Erin Brock Carlson

So it is intertwined in the lives of many of these communities. But even many people we talked to had worked in gas and oil and you knew this stuff and it was still more confusing than it should have been, right? And so there is a gap there. So I want to go up to some gas exec and be like, listen! One, there’s a whole market here for you to improve your PR significantly.

[00:38:00.070] – Erin Brock Carlson

And three would just be… But also, again, whichever side, community action groups, community organizations too need it. 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 how to make that happen.

[00:38:25.520] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, we are two minutes shy of time and what a way to end it. There’s nothing to follow up out of that.

[00:38:35.890] – Janice Summers

Well, I think there is, they really want to get that call to action for people is, find community outreach organizations in your local area, right? That’s 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, it’s really funny and maybe it’s because I’ve always until now been in transitional places in terms of 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 bizarre are things that perhaps I don’t, like who left this refrigerator out on like Grand and North or something for free, but like sometimes you really do learn.

[00:39:30.620] – Erin Brock Carlson

People organize. People organize using the tools that are available to them, right? So being present on these platforms, and listening and looking at city council minutes, everything is on Zoom now. I go to city council meetings and listen to them as I’m cooking and stuff now at this point. But that’s how you find these opportunities. Sometimes it is in Google and you can find it but other times it’s about what you’re saying, Janice, being embedded and listening and finding these niches and being open and invited into these conversations and into these spaces. I think it’s a really important and meaningful opportunity for technical communicators.

[00:40:15.290] – Janice Summers

Yeah, and another thing I want to stress to those that are technical 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.

[00:40:43.640] – Janice Summers

So I think that’s one of the things. Don’t be scared away like somebody who doesn’t know what it is you do or understand what you do. They just don’t, 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 because they listen. They 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 like, okay, a geographer. And then they would look at me and be like.  Why is there an English… You’re an English? What are you doing? So then I got to give my spiel. So there are a bunch of people living out in rural areas in West Virginia that know what technical communication is now.

[00:41:39.580] – Janice Summers

We have a deep appreciation and understanding of technical writers.

[00:41:47.590] – Erin Brock Carlson

It was cool, though. Because, I mean, it speaks to that. I feel like even in the academy and I know or even in industry, not everyone knows what we do. So it’s refreshing to talk to somebody that is 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, that’s really important and interesting and you’re like, yes, it is.

[00:42:14.520] – Janice Summers

Well, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for taking your time to be 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 the Room 42.

[00:42:26.910] – Janice Summers

Hopefully, we’ve gone through some of the questions. We may have missed them, but 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 questions, 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.

[00:42:56.850] – Janice Summers

Don’t be a troll. Don’t be a troll. That’s good advice for everybody out there, don’t be a troll.

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.


Faculty Page:


Twitter: @brinerock

Her Project Website:

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