Information Sheet #10
March 15, 1988
LETTERS THAT DON'T NEED STAMPS
By David Hay, Professor of Religion
A couple of years past Terry Heller taught me while we were team-teaching a seminar in religion and American literature. Besides opening my eyes to new things in The Scarlet Letter and Death Comes to the Archbishop, Terry persuaded me that we should require out students to write us one-to-two-page letters periodically through the semester (about five times in all). The letters were to be informal communications, not necessarily polished or long pondered. The idea was to give us a sense of where students were in relation to the course readings, what their questions were or where they had insights that might blossom into good ideas for class discussion or term papers. The letters would not be graded, but we would both write answers to each letter.
The letters started coming in. Most were addressed to "Dear Dr. Hay and Dr. Heller" or to "Dear Terry and David." And for the most part they were marvelously free of that somber "you-made-me-write-this-paper-so-I'm-doing-it-but-I-don't-like-it" tone. They bubbled with opinions and confessions of bewilderment. They told us that the writers liked something or were troubled by something else or were frankly bored silly. Students used them to say how they felt the class was going and to offer suggestions for improvement. By the end of the semester it was clear that letter-writing had been an enjoyable and profitable part of the course for all concerned.
Since then I have been requesting letters from students in one or two courses a term. Last fall, for example, I did so with my Medieval Thought course as well as my Introduction to Modern Culture section. This semester I'm doing it with my Introduction to New Testament Class.
Now of course this is not a paper-writing assignment that suits all kinds of classes, nor does it always produce great results. It's no substitute for requiring formal papers that are graded on mechanics and content. It does require a special allocation of time on your part, both to read the letters and respond to them fairly promptly. (Sometimes I write a letter in reply, sometimes I just jot down a note at the bottom of the student's paper―but I always give some individual feedback.) Since the letters are not graded, I tell the students they don't need to worry about spelling and other mechanics―as long as I can make out what they have to say. Knowing that they won't be graded, some students turn in letters that are sloppy and short on words or thought. But most have taken the assignment seriously and expressed good perceptions and honest-sounding reactions.
Computer folk these days speak of sometimes offering "quick and dirty" results. Are these letters "quick and dirty" in a bad sense, say by encouraging students to be careless in self-expression? That's not been my experience. The greatest advantage of this assignment mode, in my judgment, is that the writing of the letters seems often to be done without a lot of superego-like anxieties about "What will he think of this or that?" (I don't mean to suggest that students usually write about deep or very intimate matters.) The assignment encourages many to jot down their thoughts rapidly and with a sense that the educational process is mostly a process―like a good conversation in which people don't worry too much before opening their mouths. And responding to the letters in an informal format permits me to speak to individuals not with the voice of an authoritative judge so much as with one of a friend and guide.
There is a time for may things under the sun. There is certainly a time to require formal prose that wears the gloss of revision and polishing. And there may also be a time for letters.
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