Thoughts on thank you notes and the Western Canon
The thank you note is part of the Western canon of writing. It plays into the hierarchy of respect we pay, right or wrong, to all canonical writing. If you are part of the canon, then you have paid your dues and are worthy of respect. But thank you notes have many other forms, we just valorize the written note.
The haptic, hand-to-hand version of this form has largely died. Why? Is it because it has been supplanted by a digital version? I don’t really know, but I don’t see digital thank you letters very much. And by that I mean texts, like email thank you’s, that very much ape what the old thank you notes did . I don’t see these in my own professional life except from my peers who valorize these same canonical texts.
My students rarely write them even though I am a stout advocate in my classes as part of any network building exercise. But what if they do exist. What if I just don’t see them.
Students come to class without my canonical, Pavlovian triggers. Perhaps students recommend your class as a thank you and not as a sign that you are an “easy” teacher. Or they signal their pleasure via sites like ProfEval. Maybe students fill out voluntary evaluations for university classes of their own accord as a thank you. Or they leave you notes on your door that they have dropped by. Could that be a thank you? Students risk telling a counter-narrative in class. Is that a thank you to the teacher for providing a safe place to take that risk? Does any time they give you attention whether it is in class or out or online, is that a thank you? My point is that the non-canonical ‘thank you’ is likely quite invisible to those of us who have bought into the canon.
As an aside, I just have to ask at this point, “What has the canon brought us to and where?” If you are the least observant human on the planet, you can’t help notice that what “our Canon” has brought us is our philosophy of planetary dominion, capitalism, climate change, war, racism and all the other ism’s. We are where we are because of the Western Canon. How can this domination and responsibility be denied? Who in their right minds would argue for more of the same when there is an indigenous canon, local and distributed in a decentralized way that we have de-valorized, de-valued, and denied that might have proven way more sustainable?
Changing that is the challenge of the ‘end times’ of my career. This strikes me as a burden of blind spots and at the same time a joy of discovery in the face of that. And by joy I also mean the pain of discovery.
All my thinking on this has been inspired by a second reading of Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundaries. I am meeting with faculty this week to discuss how to re-imagine a classroom filled with ‘underprepared’ students. I have got to turn this around to a discussion of how to re-imagine a classroom filled with learners who come to university for the first time with an existing set of unacknowledged literacies as well as a need to learn some new ones. We have got to be able to pivot from the standard focus on literacy deficits to ones of literacy surpluses and back again. We need to figure out how to learn new literacies via the old ones and vice versa. If we don’t, then all of the problems we have now will only grow. This growth will be reduced to matters of relevance in a very costly learning ecosystem. Universities are already losing the battle for relevance. Just check out enrollment at universities like mine where enrollment is hemorrhaging.
I had a recent blog post here where I tried to thank my anonymous online class reader by using a poetry and video remix. I have gotten no response from my ‘thank you’. I think that attending to and honoring other’s work by remixing is a powerful thank you message. To others that might still be a blind spot that just feels weird at first and for perhaps for the first few times it happens, but I think this thank you comes from a larger place: attention must be paid. That is the coin of the realm now. It could just become the newest addition to a much expanded canon. I hope so.