The Art of Writing Letters: A Q&A with Joanna Murdoch

“Working with the Library” is an occasional series of stories highlighting collaborations between librarians and the people around campus whose teaching and research we support.

Joanna Murdoch is a Ph.D. Candidate in the English Department. She taught a Thompson Writing Program first-year writing seminar called “The Art of Writing Letters” in the spring of 2018. Arianne Hartsell-Gundy, Head of the Humanities Section and Librarian for Literature and Theater Studies, served as the course librarian for this class. She had the pleasure of asking Joanna a couple of questions about how the library has supported her teaching and research.


What were your primary goals for your students in working with letter writing in this course?

Teaching for the Thompson Writing Program’s first-year writing seminar, I wanted to foreground the tangible longevity of academic writing. The claims we make and the words we use in essays, exhibits, or online forums can last a long time. Against the odds, a lot of written material survives! The assignments in my course ask students to think about their writing and research as taking part in conversations with long histories and long futures, too.

Letter writing, it turns out, is a good tool for cultivating the blend of voice, personhood, and responsibility that is crucial for compelling academic work but isn’t always explicitly handled in writing instruction. In almost any century, letters open with an address to a named person and close with the writer’s signoff. Between those extremities, letters and their composers do everything they can to try to reach their readers. For their part, the letter’s recipients face literal response-ability: they have to decide whether and how they are able to respond. Writing and reading in this view are intimate, implicating activities: words can’t convey ideas unless two human beings have already agreed to connect.

It’s easy to forget this interpersonal grounding when composing a college essay. But even the strictest cautions surrounding intellectual property and the respect and defense of human rights require us to acknowledge the voices of others. That’s why my students have been practicing discerning and responding to the historically situated human voice in other people’s writing over three major assignments—a close-reading analysis of a single letter, a research project on a letter exchange held at the Rubenstein or in Perkins’ collections or databases, and a letter to a public figure, exhibited on the Campus Club Wall for three weeks in April of 2018. 

How has the library supported your teaching?

In so many ways! Duke’s subscription to databases like North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories provided rich exploratory ground for my students in all stages of their writing projects. The library’s collections of World War I letters available in book form in the stacks gave students who stumbled across them the foundation they needed for their research on soldiers’ letters in the Rubenstein’s holdings. Then, in April, the Campus Club Wall in Perkins became a live part of our writing and learning space when students received permission to exhibit some visually enhanced selections from their letters to public figures.

But it was the library’s gifted specialists who really brought Perkins and Rubenstein to life for my class. Our designated Perkins librarian Arianne Hartsell-Gundy very graciously showed us how to use the library guide she had designed especially for our course, and she supported students with exercises for crafting a focused research question and building an annotated bibliography with reputable sources. I’ll always remember Perkins 118 as the place where Arianne showed us the lines from Alexander Hamilton’s letter-esque The Farmer Refuted (1775) that live on in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015).

A major highlight of the semester was when Rubenstein’s Elizabeth Dunn and Mandy Cooper introduced us to the historical letters and letter-writing guides they had hand-picked to match the students’ research interests. The hours these librarians spent selecting, transcribing, arranging, and expertly talking us through the materials were a huge gift to the class. Thank you, Perkins and Rubenstein!

How about your research?

For my research on medieval religious lyric poems, I lean heavily on Duke Libraries and their Borrow Direct and Interlibrary Loan relationships. My carrel is overflowing with Perkins, Divinity, and Lilly titles, plus others shipped in from Yale, the University of Chicago, or even our basketball competitor down the road. Thanks to the bases covered by Duke and these other library collections, this spring I was free to buy only the works I knew I would return to, rather than every single title on my comprehensive exams’ reading lists. The best part was when Perkins bought a collection of essays on Chaucer’s poetics at my request! I’d better go check it out, now that it’s on the shelves . . .

Another enormously helpful tool has been the library’s subscription to Oxford Bibliographies Online. Since I’m still in an early stage of dissertation research, I need all the overviews I can get of major contours in scholarly publishing. OBO is a great place to start.

What are three things you think that undergraduates should know about using information and the library?

I) You’re responsible for sniffing out the stories and scholarly drama behind the materials you see. If you do a lot of reading around for a project, you’ll start to see the same names and references to the same group of 10–30 major academic works. Then it’s like you’re pulling a necklace up out of the sand, revealing the links of a single, if complicated, structure. It’s one of the best feelings early on in graduate school, being not-at-the-mercy of the infinite-seeming database search results.

II) I said above that written material lasts longer than we think it will. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to actually use it once you’ve consigned it to your files. You may have terabytes of notes and essays on your computer or in the cloud, but you’ll never find any of it again unless you’ve tagged it all thoroughly or you like to spend your free time randomly clicking through old files. Some people love reference management software like RefWorks or Zotero. I can’t stand the way those services look, so I build massive searchable folders in an awesome writing program called Scrivener. Whatever you decide, leave yourself a lot of breadcrumbs. Don’t be like me and spend years searching for a half-remembered, haunting line that turned out to be from Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem“: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”—I spent so long searching for the note I had made about it back before I learned to cite cite cite even passing references in journal-type notes. The best breadcrumb of all is a full bibliographic citation, including the date you found and read/listened to the material, plus a quick personal note on what you thought about it. The “find” function on your computer will do the rest.

III) If you need part-time work during a heavy course-load year, reshelving books for the library is a fantastic way to find a meditative groove while filling your muscle memory with clues about the way information is structured and accessed in a major university library—which boils down to the shape of academic discourse itself. That’s how it went for me, at least, in the basement stacks of the Yale music library. Maybe Duke will even let you listen to Hamilton or Leonard Cohen while you set some Perkins shelves to rights!

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