Mass of Missives

November 30, 2004

Over the summer, ninth and tenth graders enrolled in Duke's Talent Identification Program for academically gifted students found out just how talented they really are. Fifteen of the teenagers had their letters to the editor accepted for publication in The New York Times over a period of just five weeks.

Statistically speaking, even the most gifted high-school student has a better chance of getting admitted to Duke than of having her letter to the editor published in the Times. Letter submissions come in "at a rate of roughly a thousand a day," Thomas Feyer, the Times' letters editor, wrote in an article earlier this year. "We can publish only about fifteen letters a day."

Submitting letters to the Times is a staple of a class on international relations that Mark Duckenfield has taught in summer programs at Duke over the last two years. "I thought that having the students send letters to the editor would engage them in debates over issues of interest to them and make their involvement with reading The New York Times (which they did every day) more active and less passive," he wrote in an e-mail message.

Duckenfield, who is on the faculty of the London School of Economics, wrote that he was "quite surprised" at the number of letters accepted for publication. "I have had my students write letters for TIP and CTY (a similar program run by Johns Hopkins) and in five years (ten classes) I had not had any accepted before this summer."

He attributes this summer's success to a different plan of attack: Having students submit their letters via e-mail, rather than by post, as in previous sessions. It seemed, he says, "a ready way to get letters to the Times in a timely fashion."

Although Duckenfield's international-relations class is an introductory course, it's designed for advanced students, he says, and includes "the range of materials that a freshman-level college course would cover." He aims to bring his students "up to date on current events and introduce them to theories of international relations," and so he pushes them to be aware of the world beyond the borders of their own country.

Many students, such as Isabelle Blankmeyer, a ninth-grader from Deer, Arkansas, had never opened the Times before taking Duckenfield's course. The class used the newspaper as a springboard for discussion about journalistic bias, different types of publications, and disparities between media in the U.S. and Europe. Blankmeyer says she found these in-class deliberations "most influential" because she was forced to argue her opinion convincingly to her peers.

Learning to make persuasive, informed arguments to each other came in handy later in the course when she and her classmates began writing their letters to the Times. The letters responded to a variety of issues, ranging from politics to pornography. Blankmeyer wrote to express her opposition to government-mandated filters on adult websites, the subject of a June 30 front-page article.

In response to an article stating the voting records of both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, Texan Claire Constantino boldly asserted her political opinions. "Vice President Dick Cheney surpasses all other candidates in extremism, and his voting records show it," she wrote. "Perhaps now the candidates can discuss what really matters--the issues."

Katie Noe, a tenth-grader from Lexington, Kentucky, discussed the role that artists play in society. "Great art, in addition to providing enjoyment, should express the opinion of the free-thinking artist and challenge the perspective of an audience," she wrote. Noe went on to criticize those who have "indirectly admitted that an artist should be nothing but a slave who caters to the whims of a narrow-minded audience."

The students say they were surprised and honored to be published in the Times. "It made me think that I now have a real voice in politics," reflected ninth-grader Tyler Brinkman of Hendersonville, Tennessee. Maria Mitaeva, a tenth-grader from Stuttgart, Germany, says she had been doubtful of her chances of getting published. However, she found an article about the differences between American and European lifestyles "perfect to write about, as I only needed to communicate my impressions and observations." After being notified on the last day of TIP that her letter was to be published, she "felt proud and happy," she recalls. "I caught myself thinking that I would leave a little part of myself in America."

While Duckenfield acknowledges that having his students write to the Times using e-mail probably contributed to much of the summer's success, his use of a new incentive may have been the deciding factor. "I told my second-session class that if they had more letters than first session, I would buy them a Vermonster (a twenty-scoop, ice-cream sundae) at Ben and Jerry's. Gluttony is a good motivator for high-school students."