Students Writing Letters, Students Reading Letters

Today I want to make an argument for doing something without knowing and without being able to ever know its full pedagogical value. Let me explain.

In the last content-focused seminar of the semester, before we begin exam prep, I ask my students to write letters to future students taking that class. I tell them to offer advice; to write about what they wish they had known at the start of the year. They write—often for a long time—then they fold up their letters, and I place them into a sealed envelope, unread. At the start of each new academic year, in the first or second content-focused seminar of the semester, after we do introductions and icebreakers, I crack open the seal holding the envelope of the letters I haven’t read, and I distribute them to new students.

I will never know what these letters say; I promise students I will not read them. The letters might tell students to drop my class. They might explain that the first student-led seminar can be awkward because I really do keep my promise that I won’t talk during part of it. They might be honest about the frankly high reading load I set. I like to think that these missives create a bond between last year’s cohort and the new one. I also like to think that the exercise lets students know that at the end of the course, they’ll be expected to think and act like experts on the subject of taking my class and trying to thrive while doing so.

But I can’t really know, because I’ll never read those letters.

I think about this exercise a lot alongside the subject of teaching evaluations. We know by now that teaching evaluations are biased against women and people of color, and that the American Historical Association has recently issued a statement critiquing their use in tenure and promotion applications. At my institution, we’re supposed to use an online system to respond to student evaluations to explain how we’ll address students’ complaints; students can view our responses. I’ve stopped responding because education is not customer service. I’m also aware that some people choose not to read their student evaluations, or to delay reading them, because of how mentally damaging they can be. I want to be honest here about the fact that I don’t think my letter-writing exercise is any sort of solution to the whole problem.

But. Here’s why I think it might be a piece of that solution: the time that students spend writing those letters. These are long pieces of writing. Students might write short or cruel comments on teaching evaluations, but they seem to have a lot to say to their peers. They’re not saying it to me, and it might be critical of me—but very few students drop my class at the start of the semester, after hear from last year’s students. I’m aware that I’m not offering a clear list of why you should definitely copy this exercise. But I also remain unpersuaded that we need to have beautifully articulated reasons for implementing all of the teaching and learning exercises that we do. I guess I think of this exercise as a parallel to free-writing. Sometimes you just do it without knowing what will result from it.

I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes it’s nice to start the semester with a leap of faith.

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