Letters to a President: American Studies Writing Competition
Written by Dr. Andrew Fearnley
In spring 2021, the American Studies programme organised a nation-wide schools’ letter writing competition, entitled ‘Letters to a President’. The competition was launched to coincide with the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, and it ran until April 30th—the eve of the administration’s one hundredth day. We asked young people to write to either or both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris about the issues they wanted the new administration to prioritize during its first few months in office. We suggested entrants might want to think about global issues—of racial justice, environmental policy, migration, trade, representation, health inequalities and the pandemic—and we positioned the competition as about using a letter to imagine the shape of the future world. We wanted to show that the political realm is always about more than elections, and to encourage students to see how even, or especially, international politics is also about determining what issues get debated, how they are framed, and what language we use to think about the world.
The competition was done to channel some of the political energy of the moment, and to underscore the shift in US, and global politics that the presidential inauguration symbolised; and, amid ongoing disruptions to schooling due to the pandemic, to offer content and a programme of activities that teachers and students could easily access, and make use of. That programme was grounded in our understanding of current school curricula, especially the study of letter writing, and analysis of form/ genre across subjects such as English Language, and English Literature (at both GCSE and A-Level), as well as students’ wider interest in the United States through subjects such as History and Government and Politics A-Levels.
To develop the profile and reach of our competition, colleagues in American Studies produced short videos around notable American public letters, and we shared one each week to generate sustained interest in the programme. These segments included discussions of Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’; writer James Baldwin’s uses of the public letter; the letter sent by Manchester cotton-workers to President Lincoln; and a letter sent by a former slave to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Such content allowed us to showcase some of the expertise across American Studies, to build partnerships with some heritage and cultural channels, and to directly engage school students in ways we knew was relevant to topics being studied in the classroom.
A centrepiece of our programme was two creative writing workshops, which the poet and current PhD student, Charlotte Wetton, designed and ran. These hour-long sessions were intended to inspire the creativity of letter writing, and to offer any interested students or teachers access to some general creative exercises they could use to improve their writing. Both sessions were recorded, edited and made available on the main competition site.
When the competition closed, we launched a composite video of academics from across the University of Manchester explaining what they would have discussed had they sent a letter to the Biden Administration (available to watch here). Competition entries were judged by Gary Younge (sociology), Angie Wilson (politics), and Andrew Fearnley (American Studies), and the winners were invited to a special online event organized in conjunction with the US Embassy in London.
Project duration: January 20 – June 30, 2021
Project leads: Dr. Andrew Fearnley (Dept. of English, American Studies and Creative Writing, UoM), Sonja Bernhard (SALC Schools Outreach Officer, UoM)
Internal Partner: Centre for New Writing
Audiences involved: Schools, young people aged 14-18, general UK public interested in global/ US politics
“I received emails from pupils thanking me for the opportunity, so that was wonderful to hear. Especially for pupils like ours, from largely disadvantaged backgrounds, it’s really important that they are able to engage in opportunities like this.”
teacher, following a workshop
“I have never sat down by myself and done any creative writing, so having this opportunity to do so was great.”
“I enjoyed the short creative tasks given to us as it allowed me to write and think further about things I perhaps wouldn’t have.”
“I really liked being presented with the opportunity to just go for it and write what I wanted.”
“I think that the entire workshop was great.”
“I enjoyed the example of the poem at the beginning to introduce what is meant by ‘zingy’ language.”
participants from two creative writing workshops, run by poet and PhD student Charlotte Wetton
Funding sources: SALC Social Responsibility Award, SALC WP and Outreach