Mentoring, Teaching

On Letter Writing

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.

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An Experiment with Student Facilitation

This spring I experimented with student facilitation for the first time in my English 255 course, “Re-figuring the Global.” Although I have always asked my students to present on their blog responses, this semester I decided to go one step further by making them actively responsible for stimulating and shaping class discussion. Naturally, I had some anxieties about executing this in class and how students might respond to the added pressure, but I am glad I took the risk. My students went above and beyond any expectations I had for this experiment- the different approaches they took to facilitating class conversation were incredibly generative and energizing, especially for a class that met at 7:45am.

I also found that more students participated this semester than in previous years. Although this could have just been because I had an amazing group, I also think it’s because they were more comfortable dialoguing with each other than with me constantly leading the discussion. I have learned so much from listening to their conversations, which allowed me to see texts I have read three or four times over in radically different and inspiring ways. I have also learned a lot about myself as a teacher from this semester– about when to stand back and let students grapple with uncomfortable classroom silences and when to intervene to provide necessary information about historical and political contexts that can enrich our engagements with the text.

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