Correspondence Course

During the depths of the lockdown in March, I imagined a course for our times that would be completely free of digital technology. I was frustrated with administrative rhetoric that seemed to put means ahead of ends in stressing how best to “go online” over how best to “deliver a quality distance education” regardless of the tools. Like the workman with a hammer for whom all the world’s a nail, the administration had its WebEx and Blackboard licenses and, by Jove, we would use them! Everyone was just trying to do their best, of course, and many administrators and especially experienced educational technologists (who understand better than anyone that delivering quality education over the Internet isn’t just a simple matter of “putting it online”) were just as uneasy with the whole conversation as I was. 

In my frustration and reactionary pose, I thought about what it would look like to “go offline” and deliver a distance learning experience without any digital tools at all. Remembering that the humanities have a centuries-long history of scholarly correspondence — of teaching and mentorship using the tools of pen and paper and the networking technology of the post office or courier — I imagined my first-year graduate readings seminar as a correspondence course conducted completely via the United States Postal Service. It would be a return to the early-20th century correspondence course or even to the culture of Greek and Roman philosophical letters that animated Cicero and St. Paul

In the end, I decided this plan would be untenable. For one thing, it wouldn’t have been fair to my new graduate students. The first semester of grad school is disorienting enough, even more so this year, and my students didn’t deserve being subjects to some kind of retrotech experiment by their professor. It also didn’t help that in August it seemed like the President was trying to sink the USPS to aid his re-election.  

But I kept the basics of the idea, and I have been teaching my DMD 5010: Digital Culture readings seminar as a correspondence course of sorts. Each week, the students are assigned a pen pal and spend the week corresponding by email about the assigned reading. Each pair copies me, along with another student who has been picked as the discussion leader, on their emails. In class the next week, the discussion leader summarizes the correspondence and kicks off the class, which takes place by video conference. 

Maybe it’s the choice of books. Maybe it’s just these particular students. But I have never had such engaged, informed, and provocative seminar discussions in my many years of teaching. Here I have a group of students whom I’ve never met in person, and who, to my knowledge, have never met each other in person, and each week our video sessions run over time with informed, enthusiastic, creative discussion and debate. I barely have to say a word to keep the conversation running. 

I suspect this unprecedented (for me) level of engagement is due to what we call our “letter writing.” Each student is responsible not to me, but to their pen pal, to do the reading, to think hard about its meaning, and to draw new meanings from their partner’s work. They ask authentic questions. And in addition to being deeply in conversation with the readings, the students’ letters are funny, full of personality, and full of care for their fellow students in these difficult times. The fact that each student has, at some point in the semester, engaged in authentic correspondence with every other student, has created a group dynamic which honors the intellectual strengths and weaknesses of each member of the group and the ups and downs of their work and home life. It’s great, and I think it justifies my initial impulse to meet the challenges of distance learning not with more tech, but with less. I may even teach it the same way (hopefully with a few scheduled in-person meet ups along the way) even after COVID-19 is blessedly behind us.

Briefly Noted for November 24, 2020

I just finished Alan Mikhail’s God’s Shadow, an excellent history of the Ottoman Empire told through the lens of one of its greatest leaders, the Sultan Selim, who ruled the most powerful empire in the world (outside of China) in the 16th century. It provides a much appreciated rebalancing of early modern European history away from its usual focus on the rise of the West. My only quibble is that it sometimes veers into confusing more important with more good, i.e. of painting the Latin West as racist and imperialist while breezily sidestepping the vigorous, military expansionism of the Ottomans as enlightened, magnanimous, and without ethnic prejudice. Surely there was plenty of cruelty and violence and debasement of “the other” on both sides of the Mediterrean 500 years ago.


We have an amazing, talented group of graduate student assistants at Greenhouse Studios this year. Check out their self-authored introductions on the Greenhouse Studios blog.


The Sourcery project, in partnership with colleagues at Northeastern University Library, just wrapped up a series of workshops on “Remote Access to Archives and Special Collections.” These brought together archivists and researchers over five weeks to talk about the challenges and opportunities for remote and electronic access to archival collections presented by the current COVID-19 crisis (and, indeed, before and after it). It was a lively, sometimes contentious set of conversations, which really drove home how little researchers and archivists have done to really understand where each other are coming from. We’ll be posting a white paper with findings from the meetings in the coming months. Stay tuned.