The art of letter writing may be a relic of the Georgian-era characters in Jane Austen novels, but written communication today may be more robust than at any other time in history.
Harnessing technologies utterly foreign to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, we email, blog, text and tweet obsessively, altering the English language to fit digital formats that redefine the rules of rhetoric.
This transformation in modern literacy is what drives Jonathan Alexander and his staff at UC Irvine’s Center for Excellence in Writing & Communication. They’re exploring new ways to teach and master the craft of writing far beyond the basics of high school composition.
“How people write is changing drastically,” says Alexander, a Chancellor’s Fellow and professor of English. “Our center wants to help students access these increasing abilities to communicate broadly and effectively. Our thinking is not just about the essay anymore.”
His position as campus writing coordinator was created to support and link writing efforts across UCI. Alexander’s office seeks to improve both writing and the teaching of writing by mentoring students; consulting with instructors; offering workshops; inviting speakers; and assessing programs.
More than 1,700 students — about 6 percent of those enrolled — benefited from the center’s services during the 2011-12 academic year. And Alexander and his staff also plan to identify the best methods of teaching writing. “Our objective is to be a resource for national-level research in writing studies and instruction,” he says.
Given the many current forms of written communication, teaching writing has never been more challenging. Alexander believes that one of the most useful approaches is to demonstrate the diversity and power of writing visually.
He does this by sharing with his students films of some of the powerful speeches that have shaped American discourse — Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” oration and Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” address being prime examples.
“Our students learn that a good speech is carefully written and delivered and that it has impact,” Alexander says. “It’s a strong way to teach writing.”
Students who seek the center’s help have myriad needs, he adds. Many are only skilled in the short bursts of quick writing required for high school standardized tests.
“They’re impoverished by this type of writing,” Alexander says. “They’re being denied the opportunity to think deeply about a subject and take their time and write in depth about it.”
Some students benefit from learning how to create effective poster or multimedia presentations. Others need assistance in writing scientific abstracts and research study texts.
“People are communicating in very rich ways — especially at universities,” Alexander says. “And each one of those platforms has unique requirements.”
Twitter, PowerPoint and Facebook, for instance, each have their own rules. But at their core, they’re just new modes of storytelling, which is the most enduring and compelling form of human communication.
And there’s no better place to study the changes in storytelling than California, Alexander notes, home to both Hollywood and the Silicon Valley.
“We’re at the heart of innovation in how we use communication tools to perceive the world,” he says. “We hope to capture that spirit in the Center for Excellence in Writing & Communication.”
On Monday, Oct. 15, at 4 p.m., there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony to formalize the center’s new location at the Francisco J. Ayala Science Library.