Start-of-Semester Activity: Introduction Letters

Well, we’re back in it folks–another academic year is upon us! Of course, as we’re all tired of hearing by now, this semester is going to be anything but typical (at least, if you’re in the U.S. where COVID-19 is still running rampant). But after taking some time off from teaching (and blogging) this summer, I’m ready to jump back in. This semester I am teaching ENGL 398: Professional Communication for Engineers (a professional and technical writing course). This is my first time teaching this course, and it will be quite a change after teaching creative writing most recently, but I am looking forward to trying something new!

In honor of the new semester, I’m using today’s post to share an assignment I regularly use during the first week of classes. If you’re already a couple of weeks into the semester, don’t worry–you could implement it a bit later as a way to touch base with students. Since I am teaching completely remotely this semester, I have adapted the assignment slightly (which I’ll touch on later in this post). I will also share my own letter for ENGL 398 (I adapt the letter slightly each semester) with you as I do with my students.

One last note: I make no claim to have originated this assignment. I found a version of it online once upon a time and have adapted it to my courses and personality.

Assignment Nuts-and-Bolts

Depending on how much I am using a LMS in a given semester, I either ask students to post this assignment to Canvas or submit it to me as an email. Below are the instructions I use for this Intro Letter assignment:

“Hello wonderful students,

In order to help me get to know you, I would like you to compose a 1-2 page “letter” introducing yourself to me as your instructor. You can type up this letter and/or make a video recording–whatever you prefer! This letter will include a description of your past experience with and relationship to writing that responds to the following questions:

  • What types of writing do you engage in? This includes writing both inside and outside of school, such as essay assignments, lab reports, emails, social media, creative writing, etc.
  • What do you like or love about writing?
  • What do you hate or fear about writing?
  • What (if anything) do you expect from this class?
  • Anything else you would like┬áme to know about you.

I am also participating in this assignment: you can find my letter [here].”

Assignment Benefits

As you can see, the assignment is pretty straightforward. Despite that, though, I find I learn a lot about students from these letters. I get insight into their anxieties about writing right off the bat, which allows me to look for patterns of worry that I can address throughout the semester. I am also often surprised by how frequently students write something along the lines of “I used to love writing when I was little, but somewhere around [late elementary/middle/high school] it became an activity I dread.” I don’t promise to get every student in my classes to love writing again, but I find it useful for both myself and students to reflect a bit on what they like and don’t like about writing. We usually get at least one productive class discussion out of it!

I also think it’s useful to remind students that they do a lot of writing that is not school-related. I believe broadening students’ conceptualization of writing can get them out of a “I love/hate ALL writing” mindset to “Okay, I guess I like writing some things but not others–why is that?” self-reflection and metacognition can help students break down binary thinking, and this assignment is an easy way for students to practice these skills.

I mentioned earlier that I adapted this assignment slightly to remote teaching. The major change I made was that I recorded myself reading my letter as well as including the written version (students can opt to either watch or read). I also gave students the option of posting a written version of their letter or submitting a recording of their own. My campus gives us access to Echo360 recording software (which is now integrated with Canvas, our LMS), which made recording, editing, and posting the video pretty painless for me. (I actually wanted to share my video letter here as well, but posting video is not included in the free version of WordPress.)

Occasionally, I also ask students to post a modified version of their letter to our online discussion board as a way of introducing themselves to their classmates. I make sure to tell them that they are free to include as much or as little of the original letter as possible (for example, sometimes students disclose personal information to me as their instructor that they wouldn’t necessarily share with their peers). I am definitely doing this again this semester, as I hope it will help us all feel more a part of a community.

So that’s it. If you give this assignment a try (or if you’ve done something similar in the past), I would love to hear about it!

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