The student threw herself into the chair of the adjunct hoteling office, gasping, unable to catch her breath. She had run across campus to tell me the news, to tell me that she had just been on the phone with Peter J. Gravett, the California Secretary of Veterans Affairs. They talked for, like, over an hour.
Earlier that day she had sent him an email, a Letter of Civic Engagement I assigned in English 1A. She used it to write about the way she felt unprepared for the college classroom after returning home from Iraq. Sure, the military provided her an entire spread of re-acculturation courses – How to Write a Resume, How to Find a Job, How to Interview, even How to PICK a College – but she realized only two weeks into her first semester that she had absolutely no clue how to be a student, how to study, how to read difficult texts, how to write essays, how to put up with lazy fellow students. This was all bewildering in her veteran experience. So she wrote an email.
After reading what she had to say, Secretary Gravett called her that afternoon. He expressed his surprise at never hearing any of these issues before, and he wanted to know everything she could tell him about her experience as a veteran in college. He even invited her to a working lunch with him and his secretary so they could draw up ideas for a new course.
She had changed the world, and had done so with nothing more than her words.
When I first assigned this essay (I got the idea from some 4Cs article), I wasn’t even thinking about the obvious possibility that recipients of letters might actually respond to those letters. I was only trying to teach the commonplace lesson of every first-year composition course: Audience Awareness – “Who is your reader? How do you persuade them? Ethos. Pathos. Logos. Blah. Blah. Blah.” It didn’t take long to figure out this assignment was doing something more than that.
Though I hate to admit it, much of what I assign to students seems to vanish into a void. I read their assignments, privately grade the prose, and serve as a kind of casket, an insulating conclusion to their work. It ends with me. The teacher’s grade book is where student projects go to die. Many of us tell our students (tell ourselves) they will need what we are teaching them, they will use it in other classes, use it in their lives, they are becoming critical thinkers, well-rounded individuals, more marketable employees, but we don’t often create an immediate contact between their work and the world around them.
This is why the “Letter of Civic Engagement” fascinates me. I think it might be the only essay I assign that actually does this. So if anyone else is interested in doing these kinds of assignments, whether in English or (especially) in other departments, then we should talk. I’d love to collaborate.