December 12, 2003
Students in two University of Maine at Fort Kent English classes are penning open letters to offer support to Maine service persons currently serving in Iraq and those preparing for deployment, and at the same time expressing their own political views on America's involvement in the war.
The timely writing assignment is being tackled by 26 students in Dr. Carol Hawkins' two sections of English composition. Hawkins, the director of the writing program at UMFK and an assistant professor of English, designed this final semester project to be both a collaborative writing experience for the students, who are working in small groups, and a practical exercise involving a very polarizing current issue.
"We've been discussing whether it is even appropriate to express our political views when so many men and women are being placed in harm's way. However, after listening to some government officials who have traveled to Iraq, we have learned that many service people want to know where the American public stands on the issue. These service people are well aware of the conflicts that occurred over America's involvement in Viet Nam and the poor treatment of soldiers upon their return from this war. We, as a class, want to insure to those on active duty in Iraq and those preparing for active duty that regardless of our political positions, we support them," said Hawkins.
To prepare the students for their small group writing project, Hawkins first gave each individual a model of the assignment, a controversial letter written by a retired military officer who served in Viet Nam and who has a son on active duty in Iraq. The piece expresses, in very strong language, a particular point of view on the war.
Students were asked to analyze the letter according to the criteria for effective writing they have been discussing in class all semester. Once the students completed their analysis, they each composed their own letter.
"It's a good, practical assignment. To write a letter to a specific audience as well as a general audience of people on this topic was challenging," said Andrew McNally, a freshman from Sherman, Maine.
As thought-provoking as authoring their own letter was, the next step in the process proved to be even more difficult for the students who had to integrate each individual letter into one group letter.
"We each have different views on Iraq. It is challenging to collaborate and work together on one letter when you don't agree on specific issues," said Kate Roy, a first year student from St. Agatha. "Regardless, our common goal is to support the troops."
Roy's reaction to the challenges presented by the collaborative nature of the assignment is exactly what Hawkins had set as one semester goal for the students.
"I assure my students that there is no absolute 'truth' in my classroom, only what one can persuade based on sound reasoning and logical persuasion. We talk a lot about coming forward with our own prejudices, biases, and assumptions. I tell them I'm skeptical about objectivity. We all bring our own autobiographies to every issue we discuss. We all have our own cultural baggage; however, we do have an ethical obligation to come clean with our hidden agendas. Then we have an equally important ethical obligation to step back from these prejudices, biases, and assumptions in order to present sound analysis. I assure them that whether I agree with their perspective or not, I will evaluate their work on the quality of their arguments--period."
For at least one of the students working on the writing assignment, that perspective was based, in part, on a very personal circumstance.
"I have two friends currently serving in Iraq and one deployed in Afghanistan, another friend has just returned from active service," said Matthew Doucette, a freshman from Madawaska. "This is pretty personal for me to write. Hopefully, one of my friends will see it and know that I care."
"I believe students have come to understand the 'real world' contexts for writing. It's not just something they do in school, but has practical applications outside of school. I also believe that students embrace the assignment as a way to do something to help in a time of great conflict--none greater than a war. I also believe that this assignment has given them a chance to come to voice on a very important issue. We've talked a lot about maintaining our humanity in a time of war, which is not easy when many are divided on their political views. Students have also learned what their peers think and why they think the way they do. We've learned to listen to one another; we've learned to agree to disagree; we've learned how to achieve civility in the midst of controversy," said Hawkins.
According to Hawkins, despite the controversial nature of the issue, students "enthusiastically jumped into the project".
"No one has protested or complained. They asked good questions and showed concern about not offending the service people with their political views, but no one is holding back and all are very sensitive to the situation. I believe they know the rationale for the assignment and support it, even if they find the assignment challenging. I've tried to teach them to accept challenges and to place the bar high for themselves and their education," said Hawkins.
The final step in the writing process will be the publication of the open letters. Hawkins is working with the university relations office to deliver them to local and statewide newspapers.