English class doubles as therapy, student says

When Katie Evans enrolled in “The Art of the Love Letter” for Spring 2016, she never expected that she’d write emails to her cat, or that he’d write back.

“Did you notice that you left my food dish only half full this morning? …If I starve to death, I may not reply to your next email,” Evans wrote in the voice of her then four-year-old Tabby cat, Sir Walter Mittens.

Though the English 461 course at the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka is geared for fourth-year English students, Instructor Dr. Math Trafton aims to challenge their everyday assumptions as well as their creative limits.

The class examines the intersection of love and language, and the inevitable distance both create, Trafton explained. “Our cultural understanding of love tries to ignore that gap, but love letters acknowledge that this gap exists,” he said.

That’s why he requires students to buy 14 stamps. They’ll mail 14 handwritten letters.

“It’s a little more meaningful to get something handwritten from someone,” said Trafton. “It’s harder. It takes longer. There’s no cut and paste. There’s a lot more cognitive awareness. It does command more attention.”

The class isn’t solely love letters though. It’s also comprised of discussion boards, peer critique, and literature reviews. The weekly handwritten love letters inspire the four polished letters required, as well as the two epistolary assignments (one examines text messaging).

“The text epistolary is a lot of fun because I think students never really think of their everyday texting practices as creative or academic,” said Trafton. “It’s fun to see them put it into a new context.”

While Trafton said some students have created conversations between goblins and elves, Evans took a different approach. She wrote letters to her deceased grandmother. She wrote letters to an abusive ex. She wrote letters to herself as a child. She exhausted her list of people who would never receive her letters before finally writing to someone alive and well.

“This is going to sound crazy, but it was more than a writing class. It was therapy,” admitted Evans. “[My great grandmother] was totally my best friend for most of my life. Being able to write to her in this letter and tell her how my life turned out… It was a lot of emotion. They were all a lot of emotion. It was so freeing.”

Trafton recognized the class as not only a way to engage with different genres (poetry, memoir, fiction, theory, and even obituaries, to name a few), but it also allows for character development in both literature and in person.

Students learn that love is an interpersonal connection, and they see how that translates to their texts and emails, Trafton explained. “They can think about other humans in their own life, and what love means… not to harm people,” he said. “I hope that they can take that into their lives beyond [this course].”

Evans said she still handwrites letters, and has even borrowed some of the class prompts to inspire her own students. She currently teaches English to middle and high school students in Kenai, and is pursuing a master’s degree in communications through Tiffin University in Ohio.

Trafton is teaching “The Art of the Love Letter” for the third time this spring. He began teaching English and writing at UAS Sitka in 2013.