Wednesday Word of the Week, October 26: Epistle

26 Oct

Where is the SEND button?

This week’s word is EPISTLE

a piece of writing in the form of a letter

Over the past week, I have had two separate experiences which have caused me to ponder the value and relevance of written communication in the modern age. Both of these events are related to my work as a tutor for college students in the Boston area.

Although, at 29, I am barely a half-generation (at most) removed from most of the students with whom I work, the gap in communication strategies is wide. I willingly own a piece of this given my willful resistance to most social media, but as someone who participates in this online community and keeps in touch with many friends by email, I was surprised by how starkly the moments struck me.

The first event involved a conversation with a student about the novel Dracula. It was her first experience with an epistolary novel and she found the experience jarring. She understood the principle of writing letters and obviously knew that the Victorians had no email, but the art and value of letters as communication and persuasion was lost on her. Her entire context for communication was texting and occasionally exchanging emails. The results were immediate and the need for lengthy description and explanation was utterly absent.

Surely, she opined, the author was taking liberties with the form and no-one would ever have written letters like this in real life. This led to a fascinating discussion (and a good thesis for her paper, fortunately) about the very different requirements for communication in a pre-electronic age. Not only could weeks or even months pass between messages, but one party to the communication might well be in a place that the other would never see at all. This required a sense of description and a sensitivity to the information conveyed. It also meant that the writer of a letter had to reflect on his or her content in a way not required by modern communication tools. The result of the communication was INTIMACY

a close personal relationship; something personal or private that you say or do

not immediacy. Such reflection certainly prevented many of the consequences of thoughtless typing that we’ve seen in recent months.

The second event was a conversation with a student regarding his settling into life on campus. I asked, perhaps naively, how the transition from old friends and family to new acquaintances was going. He indicated that he hadn’t met many people outside of his roommate and casual classroom acquaintances because he was still so well connected with his friends from high school. This ought not to have shocked me, but it did. The prevalence of electronic communication (through a device always on one’s person) has evaporated the sense of DISTANCE

the fact or feeling that two people or things are far apart from each other

This student was accustomed to communicating frequently and consistently with friends by text and tweet. The physical distance matters to some extent, but the nature of the communication is not particularly jarring. Looking again at my own experience, things were quite different. I was certainly able to communicate with people via email, faster than the postal service and cheaper than the phone, but I had to be at a computer and had no expectation of an immediate response. That made electronic communication a poor second choice. As a result, I had to turn to the people around me for ENGAGEMENT

the feeling of being involved in a particular activity or group

I had left one home and was building an new community. That experience helped me mature as a person and develop new ways of thinking. The friends who remained from my life before college did so in new ways, reflecting their maturation and growth as well. Based on the conversation with the one student, I later discussed this with others whom I tutor. A significant percentage (not quite a majority) are at least as engaged with their pre-college friends as with any aspects of their new communities. This certainly provides a level of comfort and security, but it also stifles the valuable need to make the most of a new experience. One value of a college education is the development of coping and growth skills. How will people who have never truly needed to fully engage with a new environment succeed when thrust into a work situation that demands participation with new people? It will be interesting to see what employers are saying about this trend in three to five years.

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that most modern advancement is a good thing. The abilities to maintain connections and receive rapid feedback can be worthwhile. I fear, however, that we are losing our sense of the art of communication. If all one’s friends are old friends and every message is a fixed length, where do we have room to grow as humans?

All definitions courtesy of Macmillan Dictionary Online.

One Response to “Wednesday Word of the Week, October 26: Epistle”

  1. James Queale October 27, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    I love the Bram Stoker’s Dracula! I really enjoyed the letter style, because it was different from what I am used to.

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