How Not to Write a Letter of Introduction to Your Students
I like to write my students personal letters at the beginning of the semester. I have been doing this for about 7 years. I decided this morning to share one of those letters for anybody who might be interested. I decided this with the sincere belief that, by doing so, readers would be inspired by my grace and understanding, and that they would be moved to a deeper and more personal relationship with their students. In other words, I hoped that you might become less like you and more like me. I am thoughtful like that.
But what I found, to my embarrassment, was a document (hardly a letter) that had been drafted by an uptight, irritated, and judgmental person (who I could also tell, however irrelevant to the letter, was probably young and handsome). Inspiring the letter is not. Educative, possibly.
Below is the typed letter that I distributed to approximately 200 students during Fall 2019. This was the semester before the shit was poured into the HVAC system, so to speak. I wrote the letter with the intention of leveling with my students. I genuinely believed that the letter would be received as a great kindness, and that my students would respond by unlocking their hearts and minds for communion with me in our classroom.
Reading it almost three years later I am struck by how clueless I was. The letter is neither disarming nor personal. It is 1500 words long, and has been formatted to conform with APA style guidelines. I provide my 2022 observations in red. Here is the (first third of the) letter:
Welcome to PSYC 1101: Introduction to Psychology, I am off to a terrible start with a bold heading. Have you ever received a personal letter that had headings?
In an ‘Introduction to [insert academic discipline here]’ class, it is the duty of the professor to fill the empty receptacles (the students) that fill their classroom each day with un-erring [insert adjective form of academic discipline here] facts. It probably isn't clear to the reader, who is a brand new college student, that I am being facetious. After forty-two days of receptacle filling, the students, now overflowing with inerrant knowledge, get to regurgitate the memorized gems onto a scantron-sheet, provided they are competent enough to do so. "Inerrant." "Regurgitate." I have also insulted their intelligence and study habits. The student-completed scantrons are compared with the correct one, and the students are judged on their understanding, which is usually in percentile form. Students who pass are free to build upon their now-verified [insert adjective form of academic discipline here] base; students who fail must survive another forty-two class-periods of receptacle-filling because it apparently didn’t take the first time. Maybe this would be funny to an audience of nondirective teachers.
This is not how this class will be. More APA headings. The sample “introduction to…” course described above is intended to be a caricature of a college class, and not to represent any actual course. What is a student to make of this? Their first "here's what to expect" was dripping with sarcasm. If what I described above in any way resembles experiences of learning that you have had in the past, I am deeply sorry for this. With the exception of ease, I fail to find any merit in this style of learning. If a student has been following along, which would require the patience of twenty Zen monks, then they have just learned that I think the past 16 years of their schooling has been a waste of time. That they have been doing it wrong all along. My convictions about learning may be expressed by an exemplary educator from nearly a century ago: a one-hundred-year-old quote. Very cool.
It represents a process by which the [student] learns to become aware of and to evaluate his experience. To do this he cannot begin by studying “subjects” in the hope that some day this information will be useful. On the contrary, he begins by giving attention to situations in which he finds himself, to problems which include obstacles to his self-fulfillment…. In this process the teacher finds a new function. She is no longer the oracle who speaks from the platform of authority, but rather the guide, the pointer-outer who also participates in learning in proportion to the vitality and relevancy of her facts and experiences. In short, my conception of student education is this: a cooperative venture in nonauthoritarian, informal learning, the chief purpose of which is to discover the meaning of experience; a quest of the mind which digs down to the roots of the preconceptions which formulate our conduct; a technique of learning for [students] which makes education coterminous with life and hence elevates living itself to the level of adventurous experiment. (Lindeman, 1926, p 160; in Knowles 1989, pp 73-74; bold font added) Excellent quote, but I could probably have shortened it. I actually just skipped over it myself right now. By the way, I'm already bored with this so-called thoughtful and personal and inspiring letter.
Some of you are here for some other reason than your own choice. Maybe an advisor signed you up for it or the course is required as a pre-requisite. In these cases, an introduction to psychology is a mere hurdle or roadblock that is preventing you from being where you want to be. Let us acknowledge and accept that this may very well be the case. This is essentially plagiarized from a letter written by a Reed College psychology professor to his class in the 1960s. His name is Volney Faw. This is OK. Keep in mind that, while psychology-land might not be your choice-destination, you can use to go where you want to go.
Psychology is an exceedingly broad and intricately nuanced discipline which cannot be sufficiently introduced. A few shining examples of why I should delete all adverbs in my writing. You will not leave this class with a firm footing in the world of psychology. However, if you engage this course, then you might leave this class with a firm footing in your world of psychology. This should be the goal. Should. Indeed, forget about emerging from this class as a psychology expert; focus instead on taking advantage of this class in order to facilitate your own goals, motivations, and self-understanding. This may seem a bit unnatural, if not unbelievable, but with a little bit of effort on your part the transition should be manageable. I am trying to read this as if I am an 18-year-old. I'm thinking, "This is going to be a long semester."
At this point, I want you to suspend the notion of taking this class. I am forgetting the headache it would require (multiple signatures and phone calls, since we as an institution do not trust students to make scheduling changes by themselves) to drop one class and add another. In fact, despite your enrollment status, imagine that you are on the fence about taking this class, and that what you read below along with your experiences in the first few days of class will be the deciding factors on whether or not you stay. (Incidentally, this is how I have always treated the classes that I have taken). "You should be more like me."
And so on, for another 1000 words. I actually signed it this way:
With sincerity, the letter is as sincere as a stop-sign.
Patrick M Whitehead, PhD
Don't forget that I have a PhD.