Ars DictaminisThen and Now: Toward a Multimodal Approach Chanon Adsanatham March 25, 2011
117 billion letters were processed in 2009. 2.8 million emails are sent every second.
“There is scarcely any Species of Composition deserves more to be cultivated, than the Art of Writing Letters, since none is of more various or frequent Use, through the whole Course of human Life.” Charles Johnson, The Complete Art of Letter-writing, 1770
Focus How has letter writing been theorized in the past? How do contemporary business textbooks teach letter writing? How might we recast the canons of rhetoric as a multimodal heuristic for letter writing in the 21st century?
History: Antiquity Demetrius’s On Style (1st century BC) “virtual image of the writer’s soul” not too long nor too grand in style Language = plain, simple Julius Victor (4th century CE) 2 kinds of letters Familial: use plain style Official: use ornamented style
History: The Middle Ages Birth of ars dictaminis (1087) Alberic: Letter = 5 standard parts Salutation Exordium (goodwill) Narration (background) Petition (request) Closing Style: cursus or rhythmic prose
History: The Renaissance Erasmus (1469-1536) Argues against rigid formula Advice: adjust style and arrangement to fit the purpose and audience Places the rhetorical situation at the heart of letter writing
History: 17th to 19th Century George Snell’s (1649) 5 parts of a letter: Proper greeting Respectful phrases Smooth closure Appropriate length Concision Style = plain style Importance of grammar, politeness, grace Letter as a reflection of one’s class and character 19th century: taught as a subject in school
In sum Emphasize style + conventions Theory of style + arrangement
Contemporary ars dictaminis How do contemporary textbooks teach letter-writing? 8textbooks published between 2005-2011
Common Textbook Features: In Order Linear writing process/analysis of the rhetorical situation invention = brainstorming and clustering revision = proofreading and checking accuracy Genres: letters, report, instructions, proposal, presentations, resumes Grammar manual in the appendix What do you notice about this ordering? Any implications?
Letter Writing Coverage Writing that Works (Oliu, Brusaw, Alfred, 2010) Writing Email & Instant Messages Confidentiality Netiquette Design consideration Writing & managing instant messages Designing Letters Heading Inside address Salutation Body Closing Signature block Routine and Positive Message Inquiries Responding to inquiries Sales & promotions Negative Message Collections Complaints
Design Considerations in the Email Section How to use Bullets Numbering Fonts Block signatures
In Sum Rhetorical: focus on audience, purpose and context Focus on language, format and conventions (required elements) Current-traditional, “objective rhetoric” (Berlin, 1987) Logocentric: graphics and design not a part of letter-writing chapter
What’s Missing: Why oh why? Emails are now like web interfaces. Why aren’t textbooks (and we) teaching students to pay more attention to design? What can we draw from rhetorical theory to help us address this gap?
Ars DictaminisNow: Recasting the Canons of Rhetoric as a Heuristic for Letter Writing
Invention Drawing from common topics Content often merge from various communications before writing (e.g. meetings, phone calls) Analyzing the rhetorical situation Using the heuristic as a thinking tool/aid
Arrangement Following conventions with rhetorical flexibility Creating a professional ethos Using arrangement for emphasis Employing design and layout strategically
What can we do with this theory? Does NOT replace the importance of alphabetic writing Use the heuristic to generate possibilities for how to compose a correspondence Conceptualize style as both a matter of language and visual design See the relationship between arrangement (the 3rd canon) and design and think about arrangement in a non-linear manner
Pedagogical Application Breakdown and reframe the canons into exploratory questions and havestudents blog to them beforeconstructing a business correspondence. Style Materiality What type of media/medium can one use to compose and deliver the correspondence; what kind of “feel” and “look” are you going for; and how might this impact the quality of the message?
In conclusion… A greater awareness of ars dictaminiscan help instructors and students become a more rhetorically and historically informed composers and readers of letters in the 21st century. By now over 300 billion emails would have been sent.