Writing letters is something I do a lot in my teaching and for the dissertation working groups I am involved in. I find that composing a letter allows me to really be in conversation with someone, whether it is explaining to a student how to craft a stronger argument and read more deeply into the text, or offering suggestions for a colleague’s chapter or article revision. I like giving others something concrete to hold on to when they return to their own writing to begin the difficult process of re-thinking and re-crafting. After all, so much gets lost, forgotten, or misremembered in verbal communication before we find the energy to reflect and revise. The form of a letter also helps me organize my thoughts; it forces me to think hard about what someone is trying to accomplish through their work. Writing out what I understand their paper or project to be doing gives me a chance to make sense of what is there, but also what needs to be added, elaborated on, or cut out and saved for another occasion.
Only recently have I begun to apply letter writing to the seminars and public lectures I attend. On one hand, I’m surprised that I did not think of this sooner, but on the other, I guess I’ve always thought that my letters should be for people to whom I’m qualified to give advice, mentorship and support. I have come to realize, however, that letter writing is about creating a common ground, a space for dialogue. Because I spent so much time this semester composing letters for the peers in my dissertation workshops and writing groups, I decided to experiment with this practice in seminar discussions where the people whose work I was reading and to whom I’d be writing would not necessarily be there to receive my letters.
The space of a seminar or lecture hall can be daunting; I often find it difficult to insert myself into the conversation and even more challenging to shift its focus to topics and questions I’m interested in. Letter writing has been helpful, at least to me, for finding a way in, for clarifying my own stakes in the conversations that readings and texts open up. I have also found that composing a letter allows me to place myself beside scholars and theorists who I deeply admire, to engage in a dialogue with people whose work usually leaves me so awestruck that I feel there is nothing useful I can add. Letter writing helps me situate my own research and interests alongside theirs, to respond more actively and to ask better questions. There is a freedom too in knowing that my letters will not be read because it enables me to react freely and share openly in writing my feelings of confusion, irritation, excitement, and pleasure.
This personal experiment has made me think that letter writing could be a useful exercise in the classroom. I wonder how my students would react if instead of writing regular responses, I asked them to compose letters to the authors of the texts we read. I can see how this might result in the kind of writing we as teachers (especially of literature) dread- the kind that is superficially about liking or hating a specific book or character. But I wonder too about the conversations these letters can open up after we get past this initial stumbling block, to the thoughts and questions that might be raised when students can see themselves in actual dialogue with the texts they are reading. My hope for this kind of engagement makes this experiment in letter writing something I want to try in my classrooms.
I am also curious to hear if you’ve used letter writing in your own research or teaching, and whether it has been generative, so feel free to comment below!