If you’ve ever struggled to understand government forms, spreadsheets, or other complex documentation, you’re not alone. One person who studies complicated professional language is Dr. Dana Comi, an assistant professor in the Auburn University at Montgomery Department of English and Philosophy since 2021.
“I research writing that often goes unnoticed,” explained Comi, whose area of specialty is technical and professional communication. “I’m really interested in how writing can increase people’s access to resources or be a barrier to them. So I publish academic articles and also create public-facing documents, such as reports and memos, that translate my research into localized recommendations. I study writing that may be overlooked or rendered invisible by its complexity.”
While such specialized writing may be functional, Comi says issues can arise that may impact the very people programs are designed to help as they try to navigate complex systems such as government aid programs.
One of her projects involves The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a federally funded program that provides supplemental food, health care referrals, and nutrition education to help women, infants, and young children who are at nutritional risk. Comi became aware of the program while pregnant in grad school and although not eligible to participate herself, she realized there were issues that needed to be addressed.
“One of the technical documents for the program is called the Approved Product List (APL), an unassuming Excel spreadsheet that documents all approved food items that can be purchased using WIC,” said Comi. “I’ve been able to shape the experiences of the program’s participants by identifying underlying problems that can make their shopping difficult – like getting to the cash register with a box of cereal they had been buying all year and being told they can’t purchase it.”
By interviewing WIC participants from across the country during the pandemic, Comi was able to demonstrate that the program not only created issues for the program participants, but also for those attempting to implement the program such as grocery store cashiers and managers.
“Because the APLs are downloaded directly to cash registers, it’s the machine that mediates the entire interaction during purchases and approves or denies specific food items for purchase,” she said. “So, we can’t ignore documents like the APL or we miss out on understanding where a problem may lie. Looking ahead, I plan to continue my work at the intersections of infrastructure, writing, and access, hopefully through an expanded study of WIC here in Alabama.”
Studying how documentation and terminology can affect people’s lives was also influenced by Comi’s undergraduate years at Spokane’s Whitworth University, where she took a sophomore course in Rhetorical Methods – learning the art of persuasive writing and speech.
“Until that point, I didn’t know there were qualitative methods in English studies beyond text analysis,” she says. “Once I realized I could study how writing works and affects people in their everyday lives, I was hooked. I’ve been in love with the research and teaching of writing since. My overall purpose as a researcher is to locate communicative sites where injustice and inequity persist, and make meaningful interventions.”