Mentoring, Teaching

On Meaningful Dialogue and “Being-With”

Today I participated in my first dissertation group meeting of the semester. As always, the experience of being in it reminds me of the pleasures of intellectual collaboration, especially coming out of a long winter break punctuated by slow, torturous attempts to get myself to “really” write. Although today’s conversation centered around two specific (and super exciting) prospectuses, what I found most exhilarating about the discussion was the affective energy it generated, which felt something like José Muñoz’s sense of “being-with.”

This feeling of togetherness, I believe, comes from a shared stake in meaningful dialogue, making the conversation matter to the people’s whose work we engage, but also to ourselves- the questions that pique our curiosities and drive our research. The best discussions for me are the ones where I not only contribute something useful to push someone else’s thinking, but also where I am pushed and pulled in return. This post is an attempt to capture the ineffable quality of these kinds of dialogues, which happen all too infrequently. Here are a few of the things today’s conversation invited me to reflect on more deeply:

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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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