Dear Professor: Letters from Writers
by Heidi Bollinger
One of my formative experiences as a first-year undergraduate was visiting my American Literature professor’s office hours to ask a question about the style of my essay draft. My professor said that I should think of myself as a writer, and not just as a student writing a paper. He had not just given me permission to be a writer. Rather, he had suggested that he already recognized me to be a writer and thought I should see myself as one. His simple advice had a tremendous impact. I wrote more and more and I took a lot of chances.
Many of our students are true beginners when it comes to composition. They are not necessarily ready to embrace the label of “writer” because of their fears and doubts about their writing abilities. Nevertheless, I hold that there is something very powerful about thinking of oneself as a writer rather than just a person tasked with producing a piece of writing. Doing so enables students to recognize themselves as makers of purposeful and thoughtful choices. As student-writers become more self-aware, they develop a stronger sense of audience-awareness, making their prose more reader-friendly. To help my students become more aware of their choices as writers, I incorporate opportunities for reflection on the process throughout my courses.
The first reflection is a letter that students email to me during the first week of the semester, introducing themselves to me as writers. This letter accomplishes several goals. My ulterior motive is that it compels students to activate and use the Hostos email address. In addition, I want students to correspond in a clear and professional way appropriate for a college setting. (When I assign this introduction letter, I get far fewer emails that begin “Hey Bollinger,” which is a valuable end in and of itself!) The deeper pedagogical purpose is for students to take ownership of their identities as writers and to reflect on their prior experiences.
The letters I receive are often surprisingly lengthy. They reveal students’ prior educational experiences, their anxieties and hopes about their writing, and their intentions at Hostos. Although the letters often describe doubts about writing, they are remarkably eloquent. The letters begin to create a compact of trust between the student as writer and myself as reader, and give students the sense that when they write, they are communicating to a reader. For me as a professor, these letters are illuminating. They reveal the vulnerability and the resilience of our students, and they individualize a class of twenty-eight writers, all of whom have gone through some struggle to get in that door. When I have a sense of where student are coming from, I am better prepared to help them. As an instructor, the challenge of this assignment is that I make sure to respond to each letter with a brief reply. That takes a good deal of time at the beginning of the semester, but it is worthwhile in terms of establishing a rapport with students.
This semester, one student closed her letter, “I look forward to learning every day.” In the context of the many obstacles to education that this student had overcome, this simple sentence reminded me of exactly why I am here and what my responsibility is: for students to carry away new ideas and useful skills every day that they can continue to practice and refine as writers.
Here is the assignment, in case you would like to adapt it for your own students:
Write a short letter introducing yourself as a writer. Please be as honest as you feel comfortable. You may want to address the following questions:
• What languages do you speak, read, and write?
• Tell me about the last English class that you took.
• How do you feel about writing?
• What is most challenging for you as a writer?
• What are your strengths as a writer?
• What are your goals at Hostos?
• Do you have any questions or concerns about this class?
• Is there anything else you want me to know about you?
• You must email your letter to me from your HOSTOS email account, not your personal email.
• You must put a clear subject heading on your message
• You must use a formal greeting (Dear Prof.,)
• If you do not have your Hostos email account set up, you must go to the computer lab in C-595 or to Information Technology on the 4th floor of the B Building to get your username and password.