Writing a welcome letter to students is a tried and true Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) pedagogical activity. I first learned about them as a CUNY Writing Fellow at Lehman College. The welcome letter can have different functions. It can humanize you as an instructor, it can establish some initial context about the course’s themes and workload, and it can elicit responses from students if you actually have time to read them.
Usually, I distribute the letter during the first class and students take 5-10 minutes to write back. I collect their letters, write brief responses, and return them the next class. This semester, I sent the letter via an email before the first class and asked students to compose their response letter in a Google Doc and share it with me. I’m in the midst of reading them right now and am loving the ease of commenting. I will probably switch to this format for the future (although I do love seeing actual handwriting on actual paper).
This semester, I wondered what exactly I should say. How should I acknowledge the current public health crisis and political upheaval without freaking students out? Below, I’ve pasted the letter I wound up composing.
Dear Captivating Animals student,
Welcome to Princeton and your Writing Sem. I admire your fortitude. As we live through a profoundly tumultuous time in our nation, you have decided to “give it a go” and begin your first year of college by jumping into the unknown. Even though it can be challenging to focus when working from home and being on the screen all day, remote teaching and learning can actually be fun. We’ll be doing a lot of small group work and will take the time to build a sense of community. I’m truly looking forward to getting to know you and working with you. We’ll be doing a lot in 12 weeks, including close reading, analysis, research, and, of course, writing, revising, and reflecting.
I am a theatre historian by training and have been teaching writing intensive courses for several years. I came to the “Captivating Animals” theme because my research investigates the cultural practice of training mammals to perform in the circus and in variety entertainments at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a fascinating but difficult topic. The fascination comes from discerning what the animals’ lives were like and why theatre managers would risk the inconvenience of putting animals on stage. The difficulty comes from the challenges of finding evidence, and the painful nature of some of that evidence.
As a first step toward us building a relationship and classroom community, I’d love to hear a bit about you. Please share something that interests or puzzles you about human-animal relationships. I’d also like to hear about a writing success that you’ve experienced, as well as a writing struggle. I’m glad to share mine. My biggest recent writing success is a 10,000-word essay that I developed and revised (on and off) for over two years. It is about a 2016 Broadway show and will be published in two weeks. I recently finished a huge writing challenge, painfully trying to complete a 5,000-word essay on indoor circus performances in London, Paris, and New York. Completing it was much more difficult than I could have imagined.
Please also share two things that you hope to get out of the Writing Seminar, as well as anything about your study habits and learning conditions that you think will help me understand you better. –This information might include your network reliability and what time zone you are in. I know that there will be special stresses this semester and, while I can’t make those stresses disappear, we can work together to problem solve and mitigate challenges.
Here’s to a semester of close reading and deep thinking!