Love Letters and Pen Pals: Community through Correspondence

There are myriad ways that teaching online can preserve the most cherished or favorite parts of classroom pedagogy. What is required is thinking past the screen, past the platform, and beyond the distance that separates teachers and students.

Love Letters and Pen Pals: Community through Correspondence

In her Hybrid Pedagogy article, "The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy," Danielle Paradis opens by writing,

[Intimate conversations] are often the best ways of learning, about someone else or about yourself. These conversations have the capability to transform ideas. They are moments for teaching, and for learning.

Closeness, intimacy, is something we get in a co-located classroom. A whisper can be heard. A voice raised. Words can cross each other on the air, even as others are written on the whiteboard (or, swoon, the chalkboard). An argument, an agreement, a tacit silence waiting to break. To be intimate in a classroom is all but the default for that space—all bodies closed in by walls and doors and windows, all minds, attentions, imaginations, turned toward the same project. Even laptops and phones and tablets in a classroom can't deter the sometimes close, sometimes cacophonous, sometimes cringe-worthy, always immediate and high definition humanness of classroom learning.

It is exactly this intimacy that many teachers who suddenly turn to, or are turned to, teaching online miss the most. Out of that intimacy comes spontaneity, courage, fumbling, reticence—narrated on faces, worried hands, note-taking fingers, gleaming eyes, smiles, frowns, the sitting back or sitting forward, the intake of breath before speaking. But faces, hands, fingers, eyes, smiles and frowns, postures, and breathing are all invisible online. And even the synchronous video substitute for on-the-ground class time (à la Zoom, Google Meet, Skype) does little to fill in the gaps. Our eyes and ears alone are not enough to teach by.

But if this seems difficult for the instructor, then it is equally or more difficult for the student. Because learning online is a lonely business. In How Humans Learn, Josh Eyler notes that:

“our sociality is fundamental to everything we do, including learning. Our nature as social creatures gave rise to our unique modes of communication as human beings, and thus became the bedrock for the ways we share knowledge. In turn, these interactions eventually led to more sophisticated kinds of learning.”

And yet most of online learning occurs alone, with only a tenuous connection to the community of the classroom, and often an even more tenuous connection to the instructor. Most poignant is that college is a formational experience, a time when personalities grow and change, when some thread of actualization is grasped at with the hope of weaving a better life, a better career, a more humanized or rational or mathematical understanding of the world—all of which is best done in community. Small, large, diverse, cloistered, challenging, reassuring community.

While "research-based" methods of teaching online, and the instructional design that unwinds from them, offer a lot of guarantees on the matter of student success, quality assurance, standardization, and replicable results, none go so far as to provide not just a sense of community, but community real and palpable, the "bedrock for the ways we share knowledge." If, for example, the rules of community are 'post once, reply twice,' and the instructor is mostly present to dole out grades, how can online education produce the sophisticated kinds of learning Josh Eyler points toward?

We Can Thrive at a Distance

Over the past two decades working with instructors at every level of education, the plainest objection to online learning has been that it is impossible to preserve classroom pedagogy—much less intimacy and community—when separated from students by distance, with only a screen to connect teachers with their classes. And yet we have abundant examples of ways that community can be established and maintained at a distance. Most importantly, the letter.

“Life is bearable when you have someone to write, and someone who writes you back. Even if it's just one person," writes Eun-Jin Jang (장은진) in No One Writes Back, a sentiment that gets at the heart of Josh Eyler's observation. A human connection through words written on paper, sent through the mail, and the sender waiting upon a response is, perhaps, our first most important example of community formed at a distance. From love letters to pen pals, families, relationships, friendships, professional and creative collaborations, and the brilliant sudden intimacy between new acquaintances, correspondence over distance has sustained us for ages uncounted.

Cards, letters, notes mailed on thin thin paper overseas, have given way to emails; and emails have given way to text messages; and text messages have given way to Twitter DMs and other brief media. But no matter the medium, the impulse to communicate across the span persists. Shorthand or long form, we reach out hoping for a response, for someone who will write back (even if just as a "Like" a thumbs-up, a heart emoji). We can thrive at a distance today because we always have.

This is a profound misunderstanding of current online teaching methodology: that the online course is a broadcast. We've heard this referred to as "one-to-many" communication or instruction. A single instructor broadcasting content to students who signal that the message was received by posting to discussions or passing a quiz. In fact, the online course, as much as an on-the-ground class, can be a community. And should be.

In the "Building a Teaching Community" chapter of Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes that engaged teachers must be "individuals who actually occupy different locations within structures, sharing ideas with one another, mapping out terrains of commonality, connection, and shared concern" (130). This is the work of being scholarly, but it's also the work that helps establish Josh Eyler's "bedrock". In an online course, there can be broadcasts and signals coming from multiple sources, repeating against each other like sonar or whale song, crossing boundaries, illuminating by amplifying, collaborating through conversation. Interpretation, translation, even miscommunication are all possible within the context of a fully online space—just as they are in on-the-ground space—and all can contribute necessary components to the formation of a learning community where teachers abound in the midst.

As examples, consider below three approaches which I've found effective in online (and on-ground) classrooms. These are meant to be asynchronous exercises, designed to allow participation from multiple voices in the room, and built to support the "more sophisticated kinds of learning" that arise when we needn't learn alone.

Pen Pals

The one good thing about not seeing you is that I can write you letters.  ~Svetlana Alliluyeva

On April 10, 2020, The New York Times published a story about K12 schools, student councils, and libraries starting programs to connect seniors in assisted living residences and students who found themselves stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Established to connect the young and old in a time when both felt isolated, these programs connected communities and people who would otherwise rarely interact, much less support one another through a crisis of this scale.

Pen pal programs have been around for decades, and they not only help to keep people in touch with one another, they also:

  • Bridge differences of age, race, gender, religious background, ability, and more;
  • Foster personal voice and reflection;
  • Place an emphasis on written communication, which supports literacy;
  • Connect people who otherwise may feel isolated and alone (like online learners).

As a learning modality, writing letters between "pen pals" in class can help students feel more connected to their peer community. In these letters, they may process through readings, assignments, or the upcoming quiz with one another; or they may collaborate on a project (or, the letters themselves can be a project). Pen pal letters have a personal immediacy to them that can foster trust and collegiality, or give insights into significant differences in background and perspective.

For pen pal letters to work in the context of a class, a few guidelines:

  • With students, establish norms and boundaries for the letters. Think of these the way you think of rubrics for any assignment—they are the standards to which students will hold one another.
  • Allow students to choose their own pen pal. If one or another student finds themselves without a pen pal, suggest one, or be a pen pal for them yourself.
  • Encourage writing and reflection beyond the material of the class.
  • Don't just allow for, but encourage creativity of expression. Pen pal letters can be poetry, photography, collage, etc.
  • Trust students to write each other often enough to be effective communicators. In other words, don't monitor students to see if they are writing to one another; pen pal letters are a kind of shared diary, a correspondence that should not be made public unless the students wish to (or in the case of harassment or boundary-crossing).
  • Especially in online environments, pen pal letters should be exchanged through a medium which allows both recipients to retain the letters.

Chain Letters

It takes two to write a letter as much as it takes two to make a quarrel.  ~Elizabeth Drew

In 2012, Jesse Stommel and I created a month-long MOOC-like event called Digital Writing Month (modeled after National Novel Writing Month). The event was meant to encourage creativity in storytelling across all digital media. DigiWriMo, as we called it, was equal parts disaster and success, chaos and utter joy.

One special project we undertook with all participants was the writing of a novel (50,000 words) in a shared Google Doc in a single weekend. Writers around the world took part, trading off writing paragraphs and sentences, scenes and chapters, always trying to pick up where the previous writers had left off. The result was a jagged story that started and went nowhere, had questionable plot points, characters, and settings, and that clearly depicted an exuberance for writing.

While you may not want to encourage students to write a novel in a weekend (or even over the course of a semester), this sort of "chain letter" writing can be a productive way to create a sense of community in an online course. Consider some possibilities:

  • Ask students to read part of a novel, and then collaboratively write the end of that novel.
  • Let students jump into a multi-person, multi-part dialogue (read: actual dialogue with parts and quotation marks &c) about a contentious or confusing subject in your curriculum.
  • Encourage group work by asking groups to write a single paper, produce an argument, invent and execute an experiment using this "chain letter" style.

Look at your syllabus and find assignments which lend themselves to, or require, group work, and imagine turning the assignment into this kind of collaborative exercise.

Writers Letters

A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.  ~Emily Dickinson

A long time ago when I used to teach creative writing courses, I approached the pedagogy of writing from the perspective that, in order to learn to write, one must live, breath, behave, and reflect as a writer might. Gone from my classroom were the standard lectures and exercises in character, plot, dialogue, setting; instead, I asked students to look at their worlds carefully, to detect narrative where they might not expect it to live. I asked them to undertake adventures, to surprise themselves by doing some small thing outside their particular "box", to read what they might not be inclined to read, and more.

As their teacher, I asked only that, as they undertook a semester of living as writers, they might write letters to me to let me know how things were going. And so, twice a month, for a page or two or more, each student handed in a bit of a journal entry to me. I read them and responded with letters of my own (usually much briefer, for want of time). By the end of the term, I had a clear understanding of each of their journeys through the semester, a sincere understanding to their reflective and creative processes, and a real sense of connection to each of them.

In an online class, writers letters (or sociologists letters, or mathematicians letters, or physicians letters—but never students letters) can:

  • Provide a space for students to reflect on their own learning;
  • Create a sense of connection between instructor and student;
  • Give the teacher a meaningful perspective on each student's progress, the obstacles they may face, areas where they excel, and more;
  • Encourage in every student a sense of their own place in the profession, how and where they fit not only in the class but in the field as a whole;
  • And, perhaps most importantly, combat that sense of isolation that can be the boggart of online learning.

There are myriad ways that teaching online can preserve the most cherished or favorite parts of classroom pedagogy. What is required is thinking past the screen, past the platform, and beyond the distance that separates teachers and students. From there, creativity can take over and, as long as we trust students to participate as fully as they are able, we can foster a community that will support learning and strengthen a sense of belonging for everyone in it.