Clerical Work: Historical Roots and in Modern Life

by kris bishop on January 27, 2010

Transcribing Class and Gender During the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, critics of the Bush administration repeatedly complained that the press had become “stenographers,” copying the their talking points, rather than investigating or questioning.  Despite my agreement with the critics, I cringed every time I heard “shorthand” and “stenographer” used as an epitaph.

 Nineteenth-century proponents of shorthand would have been horrified as well.  They saw shorthand as a chance to learn and explore the ideas of the great thinkers.  For them, even the rote work of copying, rereading and revising the words of the masters taught them about the structure of communication.  Court reporters, the elites of the stenography world, would have been particularly insulted since they believed that their shorthand reflected their own judgment to choose what to copy and what to leave out.  However, in a precursor to today’s journalistic critics, they were not above lambasting business stenographers as mere copyists who lacked such judgment.  Not surprisingly, business stenographers deployed the same criticisms on typewriter operators.  While the criteria remained the same, they all rejected the assumption that their work lacked mental labor, as do today’s journalists.

Next time, people want to critique the press, try coming up with another metaphor.

-Carole Srole

California State University at Los Angeles

Transcribing Class and Gender: Masculinity and Femininity in Courts and Offices in the Nineteenth Century

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