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An Epistolary Education

Jimena Berzal de Dios
Western Washington University
“You are right to encourage me in all your letters to keep my spirits up.”
Bartolomeo Fonzio to Pietro Cennini1

This quarter, my seminar students wrote letters—handwritten and mailed—in addition to the habitual research project and reading responses. The course focused on art and culture at the end of early modernity, centering on the early and mid-eighteenth century, but, in writing and reading letters, connections to earlier centuries were palpable. My pedagogical reasons in assigning letters were multiple: a goal was to stress the importance of personal histories and to contrast communicative experiences across the ages, but at an ethical level I wanted to stimulate social contact and personal expression at a time of shelter in place. Letter writing is an intimate form of discourse, a dialogue rooted in presence through absence. In a classroom context, it establishes connections between past and present, ethics and aesthetics, school and life. In this sense, the sincere and personal encounter that emerges from reading and exchanging letters is not only advantageous to understanding early modernity, but also an activity with unmistakable historical resonances that effectively responds to the needs of our contemporary circumstances.

My students wrote at least eight letters, basically one every week of this shortened quarter. My instructions were:

You will pick one person in the world that is not your professor. Each letter will be handwritten by you and sent by mail. The letters you send and receive will be private correspondence: I will not read them or even request to see the envelopes. At the end of the quarter, you will write a three-page reflection on the letters. Consider, for example, the following questions: How many letters were sent and received? Were the first ones and last ones different? Did you discover unexpected things in the process? Was it different from writing emails? What did you like best?

This is a time for the honor system. As companies impose surveillance devices in workers’ home computers to monitor their productivity and engagement, it is pedagogically sound to disrupt such compulsions with a rhetoric of trust. Letters can help shift the relationship between student and teacher, moving away from a structure of suspicion, judgment, and scrutiny.2 My goal was to give students space to explore the experience. Space ultimately denotes autonomy, which is hard to come by in a lockdown. Giving students space is important when many of them were confined to their own or their parent’s home, and some were homeless, couch surfing, or in other difficult situations. I believe that now, more than ever, we must treat them like adults.

While in the sixteenth century someone like Michelangelo found in letter writing the means to unburden his feelings of captivity,3 nowadays the intimate and sincere aspects of letter writing have been co-opted by the instrumentality of application processes, to the point that almost instinctually we assume “letter” to imply “of recommendation.” Part of this class project involved a discovering of what letter writing can be. While some students had sporadically corresponded with friends or family in the past, others had never mailed anything. I told my students, you do not write a letter to a loved one—an existentially meaningful letter—for utilitarian reasons. A letter just takes more effort than an email. And a letter doesn’t have a delete button, which requests mindfulness. Or to put it in Alois Riegl or Leo Steinberg’s terms, it requests (and cultivates) attentiveness. To write a letter is to dedicate time to another in honest and intimate ways. It is a type of intimacy pervasive in early modernity that the contemporary world has not really forgotten or lost, but rather consciously ignored because of convenience. But now, more than ever, a resistance to convenience in education is imperative.

Online teaching has a pernicious tendency to reduction and simplification. In facing this, reading period letters was helpful. Students quickly noted how historical letters showed them a new side of history in which early modernity was not a simple and distant world but a complex reality where lofty endeavors coexisted with mundane realities and acts of self-fashioning. We read, for example, Voltaire’s description of his busy Parisian life, Julie de Lespinasse’s romantic correspondence, and Denis Diderot and Germaine de Staël’s philosophical thoughts. In pedagogical terms, something interesting about exploring historical letters is their diversity in tone and purpose. As a teacher, I found myself making strategic decisions, at times using letters to explore theoretical debates and others to look at social history through peepholes. But regardless of their content, the letters invoked a sense of humanity—flawed, personal, emotive, amusing—that disrupted the notion of engaging with history as a mere academic exercise. Given their personal and direct tone, letters helped balance academic articles and chapters by intersecting period experiences that resonated more directly with the students.

In my experience, creative students especially desire access to the more personal aspects of artists from the past, and in letters I have found a way to approach the artist or author as a person without falling into the legendary and stereotypical heroization embodied by biographies.4 In significant ways, letter writing links art historical and studio practices. There is an aesthetics of writing, of course, but there are also aesthetic ways a letter can be ornamented. A couple students, for example, commented on how elated they were in seeing their correspondence partner reply with a colorful letter that incorporated drawings and other decoration, in turn requesting similarly creative replies. As an art historian, I often think that the discipline could benefit from exploring connections to artistic endeavors, and in letter writing there is a way to link historical research and creative practices—a task quite germane to early modernity. I’m thinking here of something like Veronica Franco’s letter to Jacopo Tintoretto in which she discusses her portrait in learned and sophisticated ways.5 Or of Laura Cereta, who writes in a 1486 letter describing her needlework landscape, “This grand volume of epistles, for which the final draft is now being copied out, bears witness, letter by letter, to whatever muses I have managed to muster in the dead of night.”6

These days, I am also thinking about epistolary exchanges between intellectuals—discussions and debates that took place as written dialogues. We often think about academic writing in instrumental terms (writing for “high impact” and such). But even in something like Petrarch’s fourteenth-century Epistolae familiares, consciously written for public readership, the genre invokes a sense of closeness that our discipline would benefit from. Reading early modern letters reminds us that the idiosyncratic and personal can coexist with the rigorous and meaningful.

There is something to say for the indexicality of letter writing as well that trumps convenience. Martin Heidegger writes about this: “a hand-written letter is an antiquated and undesired thing; it disturbs speed reading.”7 Letter writing indeed establishes a different temporality in face of the univocality of online delivery systems and the flattening of students’ voices. Letter writing is then, in pedagogical terms, a way to generate more authentic intersubjectivities. Letters have always offered a refuge from the restless performativity of public life. Social media has brought back and intensified the type of public performance we see in Il cortegiano (1528), though seemingly without its positive qualities of self-reflection and sensitivity. And here, I explained to the class, comes the complexity. A letter can be philosophical, existential, or gossipy; it can be deep or shallow. To write a letter is to make a choice of revealing or masking; to make decisions of levels of access to one’s interior thoughts. There is something fragile about handwriting one’s inner world: the display of words as unescapably ours. It is a question of sincerity, which, as Mieke Bal proposes, is a necessary riposte to the detached irony of postmodern thought. This is also true for our postmodern times.8

In terms of the students’ reactions to the project, the response was thoroughly positive, and there is a clear sense most of them found letter writing a rewarding activity that helped them feel more connected to others. In their written reflections, many students noted how their early letters focused on day to day information—I’ve been doing this or that lately—but the more they continued writing back and forth with someone, the more the letters gained depth and became longer conversational meditations, in turn offering a little remedy against social isolation. They also noted how letters allowed them to communicate with more depth than email or phone calls. Many students decided to reach out to a grandparent, which accentuates the inherently inter-generational qualities of letter writing and shows that classroom goals need not be narrowly constrained to student learning outcomes in terms of content delivery and absorption.

As it has been pointed out, “emotional competence and development is often not a focus in higher education classrooms,”9 and while letter writing approaches the emotive indirectly, I do think having the option of an outlet is important, especially since the seminar research paper itself had to be written from an objective, professional position. Fomenting ethical and emotional encounters is well under the purview of the humanities. As an art historian, I know all too well that emotions are a slippery slope into subjective imaginaries, but as a humanities teacher I see the need these days to generate spaces where students can express their personal realities. Nonetheless, in creating an outlet to develop community and emotional literacy in response to a crisis, as Megan Bolder notes, the educator faces the problem of being “simultaneously positioned as globally impotent and as locally holding authoritative power.”10 Not supervising the letters and allowing students’ autonomy is not a perfect solution, but it seeks to resist the academic tendency to construct isolation.11 In any case, letter writing is advantageous even if the letters are shared with the class, as instructors can “highlight the social nature of writing and help to build the kind of community needed to sustain collaborative models of learning.”12 And in terms of inclusivity, letter writing remains a sound activity, benefiting for example ESL students.13

There seems to be a consensus that students have a problem with writing—that writing is in some ways a pedagogic battlefront. Over the last decades numerous publications have responded to a reality summarized by the refrain “students can’t write.” But in truth students do not have many opportunities to write about what matters to them and without pressure. Letters develop student writing not only in technical terms but also because they can “help students recognize that they each have a distinct voice and some truths worth communicating.”14 Because of COVID-19, I decided to give the students as much space as possible to write about what mattered to them, but narrower rules are easily implemented. For example, students could be asked to write about a theme or go to a museum exhibition and write a letter about it. Or they could exchange letters about a book instead of writing a traditional report, thereby allowing them to relate to the text in dialogical terms. And epistolary communication can be used to brainstorm research topics or test arguments and ideas.15

If we want students to bridge the space between phone texting and academic writing, letters present a compelling middle ground, and indeed one with an unmistakable historical pedigree. Letter writing offers ways to reconsider the physical distancing from the classroom as a means to write more and better. Moving online is not merely a spatial transformation, but a temporal shift. It is a slowing down. Many students have found in this a substantial obstacle, and assigning letter writing is a conscious way of pushing through, rather than against, this hurdle. While the distancing disrupts direct communication, it also gives us time to reflect—to speak and communicate when we have something meaningful to say.

The current circumstances remind us of why the humanities matter in society and the university classroom can foster sincere and inclusive engagements that connect students with their communities, even if at a small scale. In other words, these days mark a good time to reflect on a core meaning of education that can be traced back to the studia humanitatis: to create informed citizens, with moral agency, and capable of articulating their thoughts.16 Or as John Adams summarizes in a letter to his son John Quincy, then at the University of Leyden, “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”17

Jimena Berzal de Dios is a professor of Early Modern Art History and Aesthetics at Western Washington University. Her recent work investigates experimental approaches to art history and theory, with a focus on alternative temporalities, discursive sincerity, and mental health inclusivity.

1 Bartolomeo Fonzio, Letters to Friends, trans. Martin Davies (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 2011), 11.

2 “Letter writing creates a ‘safe forum’ where students can express their confusion, frustration, or lack of understanding, thus building trust and forging connections between me and them—without fear of repercussion.” Theresa Casey, “Letter Writing in the College Classroom Gives Everyone a Voice,” National Teaching & Learning Forum 26, no. 1 (2016): 10.

3 Deborah Parker, Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 87–115.

4 For example, see Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979).

5 Veronica Franco, Poems and Selected Letters, ed. and trans. Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret Rosenthal (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 35–37.

6 Laura Cereta, Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist, trans. Diana Robin (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 34.

7 Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 81.

8 Mieke Bal, Traveling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 286–323; see also Earnst van Alphen and Mieke Bal, “Introduction,” in The Rhetoric of Sincerity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 1–16.

9 Joseph Pierce and Holly Widen, “Visceral Pedagogy: Teaching Challenging Topics Emotionally as Well as Cognitively,” Journal of Geography 116 (2017): 47–56.

10 Megan Boler, Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), 139.

11 Boler, Feeling Power, 140.

12 R. Michael Medley, “Channel Effects: Two Methods of Letter Writing in the Classroom,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 42, no. 8 (1999): 674.

13 Elaine Fredericksen, “Letter Writing in the College Classroom,” Teaching English in the Two Year College 27, no. 3 (2000): 280.

14 Fredericksen, “Letter Writing,” 283.

15 Medley, “Channel Effects,” 674.

16 On the history of the term studia humanitatis, which the Italian humanists recovered from Cicero, see Benjamin Kohl, “The changing concept of the ‘studia humanitatis’ in the early Renaissance,” Renaissance Studies 6, no. 2 (1992):185–209.

17 Carl J. Richard, “Cicero and the American Founders,” in Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Cicero, ed. William Altman (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015), 126. The letter is accessible in “John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 18 May 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives. Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 4, October 1780 – September 1782, ed. L. H. Butterfield and Marc Friedlaender (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 117–18.

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