Letter Writing as Social Action

In my "Rhetoric of Social Engagement" seminar this semester, we're scanning rhetorical methods used for, in a general sense, changing the world. Sinced that's a kinda large frame, heh, so far we've focused on rhetorical criticism on social movements, street protests, direct action, and environmental intervention.

We haven't gotten to letter writing and position statements yet, in part because I tend to think of these tools as among the weakest means of bringing about change. They almost tend to coopt dissent. Letters are soooo easy to ignore, and when I think of "writing a letter" in response to being pissed off about something, I often think of those letters being directed to power holders and public forums like the old letters-to-the-editor page.

A group of UIUC professors has been writing letters in an effort to change things on campus, but they haven't been writing to the Trustees. Instead, letters have gone out to potential athletic recruits in an attempt to dissuade them from attending the U of I. This is all about UIUC's human mascot. You can read portions of the letter and reactions against here, here, and here.

The twice quoted snatch of the letter reads:
"In spite of what you may have recently read or heard in the media, after 16 years of debating this issue the UI Board of Trustees still refuses to take the necessary action and no end appears in sight.

"Thus, you may want to think twice about whether the University of Illinois is a good environment for you to further your education and athletic career. Do you want to play at a school that refuses to commit to equality for all races and that places more value on an outdated and divisive mascot than on a winning athletic program?"

Thanks to M for bringing these letters to my attention, as what I find interesting is how these profs take the simple "write a letter" approach to rhetorical engagement and use it not to alter widespread opinion in the public sphere, but to persuade a few people to act differently. The actions of those few people really matter, though, as sports programs depend on recruiting hot players.

(If you want to read more about this, check IHE in a couple of days. ;) )


  1. A sort of particle swarm approach to letter writing as social engagement. Smart.

  2. Anonymous9:11 PM

    I am reminded of the long tradition of social-change-through letters between you and me, and of my own street-related activism. Once again, I wish I could take your class. --tt