Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” The Eloquent Letter is an authentic, adaptable assignment for acquiring critical skills: identifying and researching social problems, examining value systems and diverse perspectives, communicating effectively, and proposing solutions based on common ground. Moving beyond traditional argumentation essays and debates, this project situates activism and writing “in its native habitat.”
Students identify and research a social problem or issue and write and send a persuasive letter, asking for specific action toward addressing the issue. This assignment is meant to assess DQP proficiencies in Broad and Integrative Knowledge, Intellectual skills, and Civic and Global Learning. Students develop questions to explore a controversial topic, research and compare information from multiple perspectives, understand the system within which the topic operates, and examine, compare, and integrate the positions, values, knowledge, and assumptions of various stakeholders. They also examine the learning process and engage in peer review of draft letters.
Background and Context
This is the culminating assignment for American Identities, an online Sophomore Inquiry (SINQ) course. This is an interdisciplinary, theme-based, general education course at Portland State University. All courses in University Studies, the general education program at Portland State, share the foundational learning goals of Communication; Critical Inquiry; Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice; and Ethics, Agency, and Community. Those broader learning goals form the basis for more specific learning outcomes related to the theme, such as understanding of the tensions and contradictions of the American experience and its ethical, social, and political implications; and comparing diverse American identities and how these identities have shaped cultural traditions and values and the distribution of power. SINQs have 36 students per section and serve as gateway courses to prepare students for work in discipline-specific, junior-level courses related to each theme.
When designing this assignment, I considered the theme of American Identities, my goals and expertise as a writing instructor, and the larger goals of DQP and AAC&U. I started broadly, considering the purpose and value of general education in the current political and social context, then looked to the DQP proficiencies and AAC&U VALUE rubrics to consider how these proficiencies might manifest in a written document or its process.
In an increasingly rancorous rhetorical climate and polarized political environment, I saw myself and students withdrawing from discourse and wilting from a sense of powerlessness. It seemed more important than ever to give students opportunities to practice and learn from what John C. Bean calls “authentic” assignments, projects that have a life and purpose outside the classroom and in service to the community. I thought about what types of writing students might do in order to engage in civic life and also to give them a sense of their own agency, and came upon the letter as a practical and authentic form, one I used often as both a professional and an activist and advocate.
I wanted to move beyond the concepts of argumentation and debate, to engage necessary 21st century rhetorical and communication skills such as empathy, listening, and collaborative problem-solving. Unlike traditional research essay assignments, The Eloquent Letter project explicitly engages awareness and understanding of audience, therefore encouraging writers to “listen” to that person or group, to understand what values underlie their perspective, and to develop solutions based on shared values. Students focus on building common ground and move beyond the model of debate and persuasion to actual problem-solving. It promotes listening as an important concept in research, communication, persuasion, and problem-solving. It provides an antidote to the apathy and despair caused by current perceptions of gridlock in government and unbridgeable arguments in public rhetoric, preparing students to communicate and solve problems as educated citizens and leaders.
The descriptor of “Eloquent” refers to both the model, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the expectation that students be aware of style, to write as their most eloquent self, to use metaphor and simile or other rhetorical figures of sound to bring grace to their written voice and to enhance and amplify particular points.
Alignment and Scaffolding
This assignment is a culminating assignment, scaffolded over an entire 10-week term. After three weeks of examining tensions in American values and the “American arguments” that arise from these tensions, as well as studying Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, students propose an issue, claim, and recipient for their individual project (week 4). After receiving feedback on their proposals, they write a first draft of their letter (week 5), an Annotated Bibliography (week 7) for which they must analyze sources that treat their issue from multiple contexts and perspectives (time, position, discipline, etc.). They write a second draft of the letter (week 8), this time with the explicit instruction that they must use common ground and an understanding of their recipient’s values, motivations, position, and background to shape their appeals and proposed solutions. After a peer review of the second draft (week 9) students submit to the instructor (and mail to the recipient) the final version of their letter along with a reflective “Articulation Essay” in which they consider what they’ve learned in the course, from the process of writing their letter, and how this knowledge will apply in their future.
Because the Eloquent Letter is not just a persuasive piece, but is meant to move beyond argument and debate to problem-solving and common ground, the “pivot” between the first and second draft is critical to this assignment. Students inevitably write the first draft as a persuasive essay: “writer-based” prose, largely ignoring the audience and focused on the claims, evidence, and appeals they themselves find most convincing. Their goal is to “win the argument.” I let them get that off their chests, and then work on redirecting them to the goals and requirements of the final draft: understanding their audience’s position, values, and opposing viewpoints, and using common ground to problem-solve.
After completing the research for the Annotated Bibliography, which requires them to consider source information from a variety of perspectives, contexts, and disciplines, including in-depth research about their recipient’s background, position, values, and motivations, students are reminded that their final draft must establish common ground with their recipient, and that their arguments, evidence, and appeals must be shaped to match their audience’s needs and motivations. I tell them “Now that you’ve established why this matters to you, why it makes sense, and why what you’re asking your recipient to do is in your best interest, convince them that what you’re asking them to do matters and makes sense to them, and why what you’re asking them to do is in their best interest.”
This assignment is well-tested and yields great results, both in terms of the end product as well as in growth between drafts. The difference between their first and final drafts is often remarkable, as students shift and expand their perspective beyond their original, usually unexamined, stance. Their articulation essays show students feel empowered and inspired after completing this assignment and more aware of their own role and responsibility in their communities and democratic system.
Their topics and letters have influenced me as an educator as well. I have a better sense for what my students want to learn. For instance, after reading a student’s letter to the director of University Studies about feeling unprepared as a student to navigate web-based information overload and fake news, I redesigned my Popular Culture SINQ to focus more on developing web and information literacy skills.
Choosing the right recipient, and a lack of basic civics education, are the two greatest challenges for students in this assignment. Though they may be able to recognize a problem, they may not understand the complicated relationships within systems, institutions, and policies that contribute to or perpetuate the problem. Honing in on a specific action that could address that bigger problem, and then finding who has the authority, ability, and will to take that action can be difficult for students to figure out. To help students in this process, I encourage them to start their research by looking at local news stories to see who is involved in the current discussion of their issue at a local level.
The most difficult aspects of this assignment for the instructor are that it requires a great deal of individualized feedback, especially early in the term, as students try to figure out their claim and recipient. Because every student has a different topic, rarely one in which I have expertise, my role is to help them figure out what questions to ask and where to find the answers. As I work to better support students in this assignment, I am on the lookout for content that lays a basic foundation of American civics, as well as ways to help students map the stakeholders, agencies, and policy makers at different levels related to their topics.
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