Rewriting the Book on Letter Writing

While visiting New Haven, Connecticut, English professor Marty Townsend read a column in The New York Times titled “The Death of Letter Writing.” It got her thinking about how she could bring that conversation to students.

“By the time I was flying home, I was making notes like crazy, with the course in mind,” Townsend says.

She submitted a proposal for a faculty development award through the MU Campus Writing Program for the course, “The Letter as Genre,” and received the grant to teach the class this semester.

The course

The funds from the grant have been used to take students on a field trip to The National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, bring in several notable guest speakers and provide fountain pens for every student.

In Fulton, the museum educator planned a session for the group to see the actual copy of Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech.

“The document is a speech, not a letter, but seeing the document with Churchill’s own annotations was extraordinary,” Townsend says. “We also looked at letters from world leaders who corresponded with the Prime Minister.”

While visiting the museum, the group also viewed the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition, “Mail Call,” which depicts the history of letters in the military.

“The exhibit takes up how important mail is to soldiers and how important it is to them to be able to write to their families at home,” Townsend says. “I think everybody really appreciated it. “

The students discuss letters in many different settings— wartime, sports and civil rights—and the roles technology plays in the topic. Professor Anne Stanton from the Department of Art History and Archeology taught a lesson on handwriting from the medieval ages until current time, after which students wrote letters with their fountain pens.

Li Gao and Liping Wang, visiting scholars from China, are sitting in and participating with the class to learn more about American style classroom instruction. They will also teach a lesson in Chinese letter writing to the class.

“There is so much to talk about,” Townsend says. “Every class period is full of ideas popping around.”

Teaching Assistant Joe Simpson, a master’s student in Rhetoric and Composition, lead a discussion about Lou Gehrig’s letters as well as one of the lessons from wartime letters. Simpson served in the Army from 2003-11 and was deployed to Iraq from 2006-08.

“I brought in my letters from Iraq when I was deployed and my grandfather’s letters from World War II,” he says. “I made comparisons between the two to show the class how different letters function for the soldiers in wartime, for the families back home and how they affect American culture in general.”

He worked with Townsend to develop the course and brought new material to the table that he thought would strengthen the class. Simpson was shocked at the level of enthusiasm the students have shown since the class began.

“To be honest, before starting the course I thought a topic like letter writing would be kind of dry for them—there are not a lot of obvious connections to practical work,” he says. “They really dove in headfirst and we strive to make all the connections they raise.”

Students’ reaction

Senior journalism major Shannon Robb says a reason she took the course was because of her past experiences with letters. She and her friends had made a pact to write letters to each other to keep in touch, but it fell through.

“There’s something very romantic and quaint to me about reading a letter written by someone you know but that shows them at a very different point in their life, in a way that you’ve never known them,” she says.

Her favorite part has been the research project, in which students talk to various people about their opinions on letters and their letter-writing habits. The research will be compiled into an article that the entire class will have a hand in writing. Robb finds it fascinating to hear people’s answers.

“I’m still in the process of interviewing, but what I’ve found, in general, is that a lot of people don’t believe that letter writing is dead,” she says. “They agree it happens less frequently, but they are hesitant to even say that it is dying, because “dying” suggests that, at some point, it will be dead, extinct, non-existent, and they don’t think that will happen.”

Freshman biology major Caroline Dunn says her favorite part of the course has been examining the psychology of various letter writers, recipients and others involved. The class has looked at letters from a wide variety of people and considered the context, audience and different ways to interpret pieces.

“We look at the situation each writer was in as they wrote the letter and how that may have affected them,” Dunn says. “I personally find that extremely interesting.”