In the first chapter of the book Solving Problems in Technical Communication entitled “What Are the Boundaries, Artifacts, and Identities of Technical Communication?” Cynthia and Richard Selfe explore the definition of the  field. They choose to write this article on behalf of a girl called Amanda who observes that no two individuals within the field of Technical Communication have an identical definition of their practice. The authors claim that Technical Communication is a somewhat new field that has such a broad reach and pool of perspectives that one simple, clear-cut definition is insufficient. The Selfes begin their explanation by mapping Technical Communication through words, by history, research, and existing skills. They finally experiment with the use of a new technology, the text cloud, to allow their readers to distantly examine Technical Communication and its landscape at a different angle. The Selfes define the text cloud as a mapping tool that directs one’s attention to the main points of the passage being “clouded” for a faster understanding of the piece. I would like to test their theory by using an online text cloud generator called Tagxedo to create a text cloud of a crucial chapter from my favorite novel, The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. I want to know how my understanding from my initial reading of the chapter compares to the understanding I get from the text cloud.

This chapter I am clouding gives Maugham’s fictional account of a moment with the snobby Isabel at teatime in Paris. Isabel is in a rage at her childhood friend, Larry, who has decided to marry another childhood friend, Sophie. Isabel is insanely jealous, because although she is married to an elite of the early 20th century stock market, Gray, with whom she has two children, she has always been madly in love with Larry. Not to mention, Sophie is a whore. I specifically chose to use this chapter because it takes place just before the climax of the story; it is the moment when Isabel begins to plot the ruin of Larry and Sophie’s relationship. She does not realize her selfish obsession is also paving the way to Sophie’s tragic death in the process. This chapter displays Isabel’s petty envy of Sophie and her unwillingness to let her feelings for Larry go, despite having given up her past opportunities to marry him.

According to Cynthia and Richard Selfe, the following text cloud should, by displaying words used multiple times within the text with the most frequent ones magnified against the rest, portray a sense of my previously stated understanding of the passage.

Frequented terms in Somerset and Isabel's teatime chat.

Frequented terms in Somerset and Isabel’s teatime chat.

How does this image compare to my earlier summary of the chapter? I have the bias of familiarity with the story, so I understand why all these terms are visually represented in the above model. But to address the Selfes’ concern, this may not be objective enough for someone who has not read Maugham’s chapter to understand the full meaning of the story. Text clouds don’t necessarily direct one’s attention toward the main points of the passage they are applied to, but toward certain words used frequently within the passage. The broad spectrum of language present in this text cloud is not necessarily going to convey the right message to the public. The small sample of dicition displayed may have a foreign connection to the central moral of the story to an outsider who has not had the pleasure of reading Maugham’s masterpiece. The main descriptions of the feelings portrayed in this section aren’t present: jealousy, envy, coveting. Isabel doesn’t even give Sophie the honor of calling her by name enough times to read into the Tagxedo program!

Are the Selfes correct in their theories of the text cloud? Perhaps if I had used a larger section of The Razor’s Edge, or even the entire novel’s text, the text cloud would give a clearer picture of the main ideas. The question remains: what would an outsider gather from such a model? Can such a visual representation convey a message well enough for an unfamiliar audience to grasp the meaning of the text? I think the tool of the text cloud could very well give a further understanding of a text for someone who is trying to better comprehend a piece, but it should not substitute for an original.

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