My course, Introduction to Latinx Studies, during the Summer of 2021 at PNAP was a correspondence course. This was my first course using this method of teaching. Though relatively new to me, the “history of correspondence courses” dates back to Caleb Phillips, who, in 1728, taught shorthand to students. And just as COVID-19 ushered in new technologies for teachers and students to teach and learn remotely, I was being asked to return to a much earlier form of distant and remote learning; “not using technology” created an equally and oddly strange level of disequilibrium. As teachers, we were being asked to reimagine correspondence courses and rethink our teaching and learning pedagogies. I was going old-school ––just me, the text, and correspondence. Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, I ordered the books, which offered free texts to our students; I thought they should receive complimentary books for reading and sharing. How would the course material come alive for my students and me at Stateville? 

COVID has forced many of us to change how we teach. We were no longer in person, and at Stateville, not even online, since our students do not have access to computers. To be honest, I was nervous about teaching in this new format. How do I lecture? Or run a discussion? I use many traditional “bells and whistles” when I teach––videos, images, podcasts –“stuff.” A multimedia format enables teachers to make visible the course syllabus. I want my students to “see and hear” the context and texture of what we are reading and discussing. This is never easy, but it is hard when you teach at Stateville, and even more complicated when teaching a correspondence course.

In this course, none of my traditional ways of teaching were possible. Everything had to be written well in advance, scripted, and perhaps more formal than I might otherwise deliver in person. Lost would be the slight glances students give you when they might be confused, the raised eyebrow when they disagree with your last statement, or the fidgeting in a chair when they are bored. I could not see their eyes of excitement at new ideas or sitting up straight when a comment was about to launch. Moreover, they could not see me. My energy. My pacing in front of the class. My reading from the text highlighting a passage.

My first assignment consisted of what I thought were clear directions for what to read with a brief lecture of notes that were not very clear. I am not the kind of teacher who has lectures written out. I have never had dusty old lecture notes tucked away in a desk that I pull out every year. I have ideas, outlines, and then I improvise. Discussions often guide my class. I make sure I focus on the topics that I think are essential, but leave lots of space for what might emerge. This system has worked quite well for me over the years. It allows me to change, include new material, and get a feel for what the students are concerned about. I realize that so much of my teaching is about “the feel.” I have often explained it as a dance. You know the basic steps, but everyone has their own style with movement, gestures, and speeds. It is risky because you do not always know where you are heading, but it is exciting. I am always surprised, thinking the discussion is going one way, and then suddenly! ––something is said that you never expected, and you move in an entirely different direction. This is teaching – and learning — for me, and it is exhilarating.

I seriously thought this correspondence course would be a disaster for me and, consequently, a massive disappointment for the students. Then my first assignments came in. Wow! – was my first response. The essays were thick, filled with ideas and questions. They wove in and out of the readings. I was a bit paralyzed at first and slow to respond. It took me a long time to respond. The assignments became letters we wrote to each other; some of the students followed a thread, referencing prior assignments and expanding on previous themes from the course. I looked forward to opening up my files and seeing what they wrote each week. I got annoyed when assignments were missed or if books were not delivered for that week. I was mainly so impressed with how this teaching format actually worked. We were all writers, sharing our thoughts, having debates, considering new ways of thinking. Some weeks, I fell short; I did not always have enough time to write thorough responses or develop a lecture. I also read frustration coming from them – they wanted to have more extended discussions and probably the company of their classmates. I wished there was some way we could all share the assignments, so we could read what we were all thinking.

The 2021 PNAP Summer — and the challenges and demands of COVID-19 — forced us to revisit correspondence courses for our time.  In doing so, I learned and rediscovered that access to “education must be regarded as a fundamental human right with the capacity to transform people, systems, and futures.” And it matters.

Christina Gómez’s research has concentrated on racial identity construction in the United States, discrimination, and immigration. She is the chair of the Liberal Arts Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of numerous articles that focus on such topics as skin color discrimination, construction of Latino identity, politics of bilingual education and experiences of undocumented students in higher education. She has received many prizes and fellowships, including a Henry Luce Foundation Scholars Fellowship, National Science Foundation Fellowship, and Faculty of the Year Award, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2019).