Blog Post

Letters to the Future

Letters to the Future

I recently tweeted about an exercise I did with my students this semester and I got some good responses, so I thought I’d go into detail a little bit more here.

In my Composing Digital Media course, I asked students to end our first class meeting by doing two things:

1) Using FutureMe.org, students wrote e-mails to their future selves. 

FutureMe.org allows you to write an e-mail to yourself and send it at a later date. Once that e-mail has been submitted, it can’t be un-submitted and you can’t see your e-mail until it arrives in your inbox at the designated time. I asked students to set the delivery date to one year from our first class meeting. So, they will receive the e-mails at 6 pm on January 12, 2017.

FutureMe is kind of like the Boomerang plug-in for Gmail but without all the bells and whistles (reviewing messages, multiple send dates, etc.). FutureMe.org is free. It also works with any e-mail accounts, doesn’t require any installs, and doesn’t sell users’ information. You also have the option to set a future e-mail as “private” or “public.” Public e-mails are shown on the site—minus any identifying information—the day they’re delivered to the writer. I asked students to make their e-mails private, although when I was showing them the site, we read some of the public e-mails for that day.

2) I brought in a bunch of craft supplies (construction paper, scissors, glue, stickers, tape, random torn-up magazines, and envelopes) and students wrote handwritten, hand-designed letters to their future selves. I promised to—and did—return the sealed envelopes to students on the final class of the semester.

The directions for both parts of this exercise were the same: Write to yourself a year from now (FutureMe) and fourteen weeks from now (handwritten) and “tell yourself what you think you’ll need to hear.” What do you hope you’re doing? What goals do you hope you’ve accomplished? Who do you hope you’ll be? What do you hope has changed or stayed the same? What is useful for future you to know?

Students didn’t have to write about our course, but they were welcome to. I was very explicit: I would not see anything they wrote to themselves. (For the handwritten letters, I explained, "Just make it. Put it in an envelope. Seal the envelope. Write your name on the envelope. Then, it will be whisked away to be locked in a filing cabinet until fourteen weeks from now when I will return it to you.")

I was less interested in using these letters as a kind of pre-course evaluation and much more interested in them as jumping-off points for talking about technology, audience, and process. 

In-class, I described the letters as “reverse reflections." Instead of reflecting on work they’d already done, they’d be projecting, setting goals for and putting creative energy into a largely undetermined future. Of course, they would also be communicating with someone they know pretty well (themselves) who was in a situation/mood/etc. that they could not entirely predict or account for. 

Context

Composing Digital Media is an upper-level writing course at Pitt. It is a “W-credit” class, meaning that students do extensive writing and revision. It’s also a class where we do many different types of composing. This semester, we worked with Omeka to develop a collaborative archive and made audio cut-ups, retrofuturist ads, and “trailers of the future,” among other small composing exercises. I’m lucky enough that this course was in a lab, so we had flexibility in what we did and used every class. We met once a week for two and a half hours.

If you can’t tell, the theme of the course this semester was basically "technology and time" and we used "the future” as a way into discussing the complexities of audience and things like obsolescence and the relationship between changing social contexts and composing practices.

Purpose

Students had thirty minutes for part one and thirty minutes for part two of this exercise and, for homework, I asked them to do some freewriting (in their digital notebooks) about the differences between these kinds of composing. Did they write faster or slower when they typed vs. handwrote? Which letter did they revise-as-they-wrote more? Why? Which seemed easier? Which seemed more enjoyable? Which seemed more amenable to focusing? To fun?

This meant that we could begin the next class by talking about some of these differences and the relationship between the kind of cut-and-paste practices they used to make their letters and the practices we would be developing in the course using digital tools and platforms. I tried to pitch composing of all kinds as a continuum, rather than being a loose collection of unrelated sites and workflows.

Outcome

For the most part, students said they revised less when they handwrote the letters. Handwriting was also much more social, they said, because they had to share supplies. Handwriting felt like it took longer (although from my perspective, a lot of the “took longer” was drawing and cutting things out) but it also didn’t feel very “professional” or “scholarly” to them. In short, it was more fun.

I returned the handmade letters this past Tuesday night and it seemed that students had more or less forgotten about writing the letters originally, so it was a surprise. I handed them out five minutes before class ended, assuming they would all immediately open the letters and start laughing at jokes they’d made in them or asking about each other’s letters. But most didn’t. Instead, they held them until they got out to the hallway and, when I was leaving the room, there was a weird little bottleneck of people silently reading their letters to themselves.

Again, it wasn’t what I expected. But it was nice. I was glad to see them in a mode that, as a teacher, I rarely get to access: They were quietly and privately taking in something they’d made for and to themselves, something that I never read. 

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