This fall term I am teaching an advanced literature seminar at Bennington College on the poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke. When we were given the option of teaching our courses in person or remotely, I decided to teach remotely, but rather than teach via Zoom as I had done this spring, I opted for a different technology: the US Postal Service.
This is not such a strange idea, of course. I direct the college’s low residency graduate writing program, and for twenty-five years now, that program has relied on the slow, steady exchange of work between the students and their teachers. Each month, a student prepares a packet of creative and critical work which they mail (or email) to their teacher. The teacher then has ten days to respond to the work and send it back. It’s a simple, elegant and straightforward system that allows for a deep exchange between two people, and for these mature writers, it works. I wanted to see if something similar would work for undergraduates. I had often despaired this past spring, teaching via video, and slowly watching my students disappear into a technology that felt stop-gap and exhausting, rather than stimulating.
During the pandemic, if you are at all like me, you have had trouble concentrating. The political situation is dire, the news mind-numbingly awful. I am isolated from my friends and family, and the things that once sustained me–getting on the train to New York City for the day, extended trips home to Wisconsin to see family, twice annual trips to Europe to stay connected with friends–that has all ended, and to be quite candid, my relative isolation has sometimes resulted in episodes of real despair. I live alone–which I have always loved–but this too has contributed to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
I wanted to find ways of bridging the distance between people that was not so dependent on technology, and so I have returned to writing letters. I realized too that my undergraduate students at Bennington College may have never sent and received mail. I wanted them to have that experience, but I also wanted them to have the chance to correspond deeply with someone about a subject–in this case the poetry of Rilke–and to write about that work in ways outside of the requirements of more formal academic essays.
How the class works
The structure of the class is quite simple. Each week for seven weeks, the students have a reading assignment, and they receive from me a long but conversational essay about their reading (the first installment ran around 2,500 words). My letter to the students concluded with a series of questions I wanted them to consider. I mail this essay as a letter to every student in the class. Once they receive the letter, they have five days to write a response and mail it back to me. I will read their letters, and send them each a short response, and then send the next week’s letter. In addition to my letter to the group and their individual responses to me, I have introduced a single topic to which one student will write a short response in the form of a single paragraph. They mail this to the next student on a list, and they add to this chain discussion. Once the letter circulates through the class (they have 24 hours to respond) I will share the whole thing with the group. That’s it. Lots of writing. No email (except for quick clarifications or emergencies), no Zooming. Just letters shared among a group around a body of work I love.