The postcard has long been associated with travel, a way to share one's experiences, reflections, and adventures in foreign lands. Perhaps because of its popularity and playful associations, the postcard has been overlooked as the focus of serious study. However, Denise Comer, a senior lecturer and director of the First-Year Writing program, argues that postcards deserve "more than a cursory glance."
"Grounded in a particular moment and place, combining images, pre-printed words, and (often clichéd) handwritten thoughts, [the postcard] offers a rich opportunity for thinking through issues of representation and image, as well as notions of what motivates and constitutes travel and sightseeing," she says. By studying and eventually creating their own postcards, students in her Writing 20 course, "'Wish You Were Here!: Travel and Postcards," are pushed to delve into these issues and, in the process, cultivate academic writing skills necessary for the rest of their college careers.
Writing 20 courses are intended to teach Duke freshmen "to engage in the work of others, to express an argument," and to position their writing within a particular context, says Comer. (Several sections focusing on different themes are offered each semester.) Students learn the formal writing process, beginning with academic research and ending with the kind of repeated revision and editing that produces polished work.
But the class isn't just about the process of writing, Comer says. It's also about the process of representation. Using the course texts "as a theoretical lens to read postcards," students' first assignment is to examine postcards of Duke from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library and to study how their collegiate community has been portrayed to the public historically. They do a paper on one or two of the postcards and, in the process, learn that "postcards themselves are a form of argument," as Comer puts it.
Many of these arguments arise from the "tensions between public and private" that are inherent in postcards, says Comer. While postcards are often very personal reflections of certain memories or experiences, they are also a "very public form of correspondence." She challenges her students to think about the construction of images that are meant to "trigger recognition in a large number of people" and how these pictures influence the ways in which a certain place is perceived by the viewer.
Over the course of the semester, Comer continues to challenge her students by asking them to think about "why and how they would represent themselves and their environment." The course culminates with a class project in which students are required to apply what they've learned about issues of image and representation by creating their own postcards. "How do you construct a scene? Do you move a rock?" Comer asks them.
Each student compiles his work into a personal anthology that is shared with classmates who then use one or two of the postcards as primary documents to critique in their final paper. Through this interplay of primary sources, analytic investigation, and academic writing, Comer tries to show that postcards aren't trivial communication, but "rich and diverse texts" worthy of deep thought and consideration.
Denise Comer earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of South Carolina. Her academic interests include composition, women's studies, travel writing, and nineteenth-century British literature. Her current research focuses on issues of composition and rhetoric.
Must be a Duke freshman
John Berger, Ways of Seeing
One 4-6 page paper using postcards from Duke's special-collections library
Writing 20 "Wish You Were Here!": Travel and Postcards
November 30, 2006