News

Rutgers takes English studies off the shelf

Writers House, a high-tech laboratory of ideas, taps the internet generation to create new forms of writing.

By Anna M. Alaya, StarLedger

Like many of his peers, Rutgers University freshman Shawn Kennedy has an aversion to books. The last one he read for pleasure was a Stephen King novel, about four years ago.

But the 19-year-old from Phillipsburg feels at home at the university's new Writers House, a high-tech laboratory of sorts where most of the literature is online, blogging is required and teachers are as likely to reference a YouTube video as a Shakespeare quote.

Located in the renovated basement of Murray Hall on the New Brunswick campus, Writers House was opened in the fall to foster a creative community of writers and thinkers while tapping a tech-savvy generation pioneering new forms of writing, organizers said.

"Kids today are reading more and writing more than they ever have," said Richard Miller, chairman of the university's English department. "It simply doesn't take the form of reading books or writing papers. And it's not that they're just texting and chatting. They're spending time online composing alternate versions of the Harry Potter story."

In the Writers House classrooms, students from any major can take courses in filmmaking, documentaries, web design and digital storytelling, or chill out with a good book, or their laptop, in the lounge. In a special computer lab, they can learn how to make visual presentations using the latest software. Or they can take a master class and eat dinner with celebrated authors, including Alison Bechdel, Li-Young Lee or Joyce Carol Oates.

The university's effort is timely and part of a growing trend on campuses to embrace new media forms. Journalism and communication departments at many campuses are scrambling to incorporate multimedia in their instruction.

The College of New Jersey broke ground just last week on a new Art and Interactive Multimedia Building that will feature studios and classrooms, computer laboratories, a recording studio, and faculty offices.

Writers House, Miller said, seeks to foster the kind of "complex thought" that he believes is missing in modern communications on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, or on YouTube.

"What we're really trying to do is to cultivate a place where the university can contribute to the creation and production of a thinking person's YouTube," Miller said. Writers House, then, fits neatly with his effort to make an English degree relevant in the current market.

For example, a "collaboratory" at Writers House is outfitted with four-person pods featuring one computer each, that encourages students to work together on projects.

There are also plans to expand Writers House for 2008-09 with six 24-hour multimedia editing suites and a broadcast and recording studio that would welcome visiting artists. Eventually, the whole operation may be housed in a planned Center for the Humanities on campus, said Paul Hammond, Director of Digital Initiatives.

During a recent screenwriting class, Kennedy, a communications major, and his classmate, Chris D'Esposito, 20, a criminal justice major from Ocean Township, chatted about a screenplay Kennedy is working on. iPods, laptops and a bag of Cheez Doodles were spread across the shiny new desks in the sleek classroom, which is outfitted with a pull-down screen for video-conferencing and other multimedia.

Like many of his peers, Kennedy prefers to watch movies rather than read books. "With the growing popularity of websites like YouTube," he said, "people are writing to fulfill a visual for the audience."

One of the visionaries of Writers House is Rutgers alumnus Thomas J. Russell, the director of the semiconductor company EMCORE, who donated $500,000 toward the $800,000 startup costs to renovate part of Murray Hall for Writers House.

Russell was originally considering making a gift to the sciences at Rutgers, but was inspired to support Writers House by his 18-year-old daughter, an aspiring poet who uses music and visual imagery in her work.

Russell said he drew further encouragement from Carolyn Williams, director of Writers House, who also embraced "the concept of writing in the age of multimedia."

"I've never had so much fun with a gift as I have with the writers project," said Russell, who recently visited Writers House. "I saw first-hand the vibrant community that has flourished there."