Summer Session 2017: our Jan Term-designated course

Jan Term is offering the following course during Summer Session. If you need Jan Term credit, consider enrolling! Details below. 

Course Title:

The Art of Correspondence

Course ID:

JAN 100 (June Term)


Patrick Newson

Contact Email:

Course Description:

In this age of digital communication, letters and letter writing have begun to slip toward antiquity, but in this class we will explore the historical and literary significance of correspondence as well as the contemporary importance of crafting a well-written letter. Beginning with critical work from Pliny the Younger, Paul the Apostle, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, Ranier Maria Rilke, Vladimir Nabokov, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we will explore the impact of letters in documenting not only political or environmental events, but also in capturing the thought, belief, and aesthetics of the times. This will be mirrored by the modern work of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Omar Saif Ghobash whose letters to their sons highlight many of the difficulties present in contemporary African-American and Muslim cultures. In addition we will read and discuss fictional epistolary work by Toni Morrison and Alice Munro, the poetry of Solmaz Sharif, modern popular music which utilizes the epistolary form, and the widespread use of postal art around the globe specifically by On Kawara, Ray Johnson, Edward Gorey, and those artists involved with the Fluxus movement of the 1970’s. Finally we will discuss the internet, email, and anonymity, elements which now define our correspondent culture.

Although the focus of this class is critical and the assigned essays must reflect the understanding of epistolary form, function, and style, there will also be several opportunities for students to think and write creatively and pragmatically. We will write letters to newspaper editors, politicians, fictional characters, future employers, family members, historical figures, and create original pieces of mail art.

This class will be both a survey of epistolary literature, a platform for in-depth discussion and analysis of the formal and historical importance of correspondence, and an opportunity for creative engagement within the practice of writing letters.


Upper Division


English 4 (Composition), Seminar 1 & 2

Reading List:


Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me, 2015. (National Book Award Winner!)

Dickinson, Emily, Selected Letters (ed. Thomas Johnson), 1986.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet, 1929.

Walker, Alice, The Color Purple, 1982. (Pulitzer Prize Winner!)

Wilde, Oscar, De Profundis and Other Prison Writings, 1962.  

Course Reader:

    Bolano, Roberto, “Sensini,” from Last Evenings on Earth, 2006.

    Pliny the Younger, “Letters to Tacitus”, “Letters to Trajan.”

    Paul the Apostle, “Letter to the Romans,” Romans 1.

    King, Martin Luther, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” The Atlantic, July 1963.

Nabokov, Vladimir, “1923, “1926” (selections) , from Letters to Vera, 2015.

Ghobash, Omar Saif, “The Grey Area,” “Who on Earth Told You That?”, “What is True Islam?”, “Free Speech and the Silence Within Ourselves,” from Letters to a Young Muslim, 2016.

Chesler, Phyllis, “Your Legacy,” from Letters to a Young Feminist, 1997.

Munro, Alice, “A Wilderness Station” from Open Secrets, 1994.

Hemly, Robin, “Reply All,” from New Sudden Fiction: Short Stories from America and Beyond (ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas) 2007.

Murakami, Haruki, “Chapter 6,” from Sputnik Sweetheart, 2001.

Sharif, Solmaz, “Reaching Guantanamo” from Look, 2016.

Thompson, Hunter, and Wenner, Jann, from Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone, 2009.

Gorey, Peter, and Neumeyer, Peter, selected letters, from Floating Worlds: The Letters of Peter Neumeyer and Edward Gorey, 2011.

Springer, Anna Joy, “Dear Winky,” from The Vicious Red Relic, Love, 2008.

Wallace, David Foster and Eggers, Dave, “An Interview,” from The Believer, November 2003.

Davis, Lydia, short selections from Can’t and Won’t, 2014

Selected lyrics from contemporary popular music

Selected images of pop art, mail art, etc.



East Bay Express November 18, 2015, “Letters to the Future.”

Savage, Dan, “Savage Love.”

Strayed, Cheryl, “Dear Sugar.”

Post Secret

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond.”

Letters of Note

Basis for Final Grade:

25% of the final grade will rely on the quality of in-class participation. Although I will lecture most days, the goal is to initiate conversation. Please come to class each day with comments and questions about the texts. If I haven’t heard your opinion in a while I will ask for it and hope you have something to contribute to our collective learning. In addition, I encourage all of you to share your letters with the class. I recognize that some of the content may be personal and I will never demand that you share your writing publicly. However, our classroom is a safe and respectful place and the depth and vigor of your engagement will determine your grade. Each student will also be required to lead one class discussion (approximately a ten-minute presentation) by preparing a brief overview of the texts for the day and at least three conversation-stimulating questions.

25% of the final grade is based on a few short writing assignments each week. Some will be critical, some will be analytical, some personal, some creative, but all must be in the form described in last paragraph of this letter proper. This is your opportunity to craft responses to the texts and class discussions. Although each should only be 1-2 pages, I expect that something will intrigue you enough to extend or develop into your final project.

15% of the final grade is based on a final creative project, due the last day of class. This should reflect an understanding and exploration of one particularly interesting aspect of the class for each of you. Some previous projects have included short stories, poems, series of original postcards, letter campaigns to politicians and organizations, mail-art, and open letters to dead celebrities. I will take time in the third week to meet with each of you to make sure that your work and ideas are relevant, viable, and achievable. Each of you will be expected to make a short presentation of your project and process.

15% of the final  grade is based on a 4-6 page midterm paper. This should be a discussion of the language of letter writing: poetics, prose, and the stylization of correspondence. We will have several texts to respond to, but any three should be enough to form an argument.

20% of the final grade is based on a 5-7 page final paper. This should be a discussion of the letter form and structure as it relates to historical, fictional, or personal representation.

Course Fee Per Student:


Description of What the Course Fee Covers:

Course Reader, Guest Speaker, Envelopes, Postcards, Postage

Class Schedule:

MTuThF, 12:00 - 2:35 PM