While facing the challenges of teaching high school English early in her career, Susan Jarratt had an epiphany that changed her life.
“I realized that I wasn’t teaching literature. I was teaching people who had lives and thoughts and capacities and desires,” recalls Jarratt, who is UCI’s campus writing coordinator.
Jarratt decided she wanted to promote a mastery of language among young people that would enable them not only to appreciate and understand literature, but also to become active participants in society – citizens for whom writing is part of a process of lifelong learning and civic involvement.
She embarked on a new educational path focusing on the history and theories of rhetoric, a field that took her back to the “word-rich cultures” of ancient Greece and Rome and gave her insights on how “language makes people act and shapes their self-identity in ways that are crucial to the whole functioning of human societies.”
Today – as campus writing coordinator, chair of the Lower-Division Writing Committee and a member of the Writing Board that oversees upper-division writing requirements – she is leading an effort to incorporate writing instruction throughout the curriculum. Her goal is to make writing an integral part of the learning process in all disciplines – in effect, creating a “culture of writing” at UCI that “permeates the whole system.”
Jarratt is a strong advocate of an idea rooted in ancient Greek and Roman traditions: that “we are all rhetorical beings for whom effective writing and speaking not only shape our ways of learning in the university and determine our success in the world of work, but also enable us to participate responsibly in public life.”
Jarratt explored this idea through a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin where she studied rhetoric and composition pedagogy. In 1973-74, she held the Lillian Radford Chair of Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She spent about 16 years as a professor of English at Miami University in Ohio, serving as director of women’s studies and college composition, before coming to UCI in fall 2001.
The role models she keeps in mind in her work at UCI are orators from ancient times – such sophists as Protagoras and Gorgias, who in the 5th Century B.C. helped prepare young men in Greece for success in public life by teaching them the art of rhetoric.
Protagoras and Gorgias are key figures in Jarratt’s well-received 1991 book, Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. A review in Ancient Philosophy noted that “Jarratt’s most important contributions and her most valuable pages have to do with the history of the evaluation of the sophists and her attempts to delineate just how they may serve as exemplary figures today.”
Jarratt explains: “The sophists gave elite young men who would be movers and shakers in society lots of practice working with phrases and arguments and styles of rhetoric so they could call them up when they needed them.”
She points out that the emergence of rhetoric at the time of the creation of the Athenian democracy illustrates the underlying purpose of the “writing across the curriculum” movement in American universities: “We need to have an informed citizenry that knows how to read and write, so we can sustain this democratic experiment.”
Part of being an informed citizen is developing the ability to think critically. The Web site that Jarratt has established as a resource for faculty members (www.writing.uci.edu) features this quote from French philosopher Michel Foucault: “I write precisely because I don’t know yet what to think about a subject that attracts my interest…When I write, I do it above all to change myself and not to think the same thing as before.”
Foucault’s comment captures the close connection between writing, thinking and learning that Jarratt emphasizes in her consultations with faculty. “Writing shouldn’t be just a skill students use to complete assignments; it’s a way to learn content,” she says.
Jarratt and her two graduate assistants meet with faculty members in one-on-one consultations and even observe classes – sometimes for an entire quarter – so they can recommend effective ways of incorporating writing assignments into courses. They share examples of successful teaching methods already being used across campus and offer workshops on such topics as how to use writing to achieve learning goals, how to design effective writing assignments and how to develop criteria for excellence in writing in various disciplines.
Jarratt is also leading a study focusing on how bilingual students approach writing and how the teaching of writing might need to be reshaped to bridge language and cultural differences.
Underlying all her efforts is a desire to broaden the choices in young people’s lives. “Choice is a big term in the teaching of writing and rhetoric,” she says. “We don’t want students to be locked into a limited vocabulary, or to rely on clichés and stereotypes that narrow their options for thinking and acting.
“The more language you know, the more choices you have. Language expands your capacity for understanding the world around you and taking an active role in how it operates.”