Letters vs. Letter Grades

Several people ask me about what I mean by “no grades.”  In short, instead of letter grades, I wrote letters.  This is my final letter to David (The Sleeper).  This was read aloud – tears flowing as I did so – along with a letter for each student on the final day of class.

Dear David,

Don’t be embarrassed by your fascination with superheroes, comics, and games.   But don’t get lost in them either.  The beauty of the classic superhero is to distill complexities of the world into a more understandable archetype – good vs. evil, that kind of thing … but the best ones don’t stop there.  They add depth and interest, layer by layer, bringing the deepest of human truths into an understandable form – putting stale concepts and binaries into dynamic action.  They re-enchant the world.  They are immensely important, and that makes your exquisite knowledge of them immensely important as well.


How important are they?  During the Great Depression, Joseph Campbell couldn’t find a decent job so he went into the woods and read and read and read for 5 years.  He studied all of the world’s religions and mythologies – all of the great stories from every corner of the world.  He became the most famous mythologist in the world.  He found patterns such as the Hero cycle that have been imitated ever since by Hollywood.  That’s why Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Jesus Christ, and Siddhartha the Buddha were all born into profoundly marginal situations (stuffed under stairs, wasting away on a desolate planet, born in a manger at the fringe of the known world, or locked behind palace walls), only to hear a calling, answer the call, go on a great adventure, face trials, find mentors and helpers along the way, and bring light into a world of darkness.  But he also found that the old stories had stopped speaking to us.  They no longer filled their original and most basic functions of making the world seem alive and enchanted, of giving us guidance for the complexities of our time, of calling us together to have faith and trust in one another.  He called upon artists and storytellers to revive the ancient stories by putting them into new forms.  Luke Skywalker is a direct result of this. So is Rango and Nacho Libre.  And so are many of the heroes you so admire.


Do you hear your calling?  I can’t tell you what it is.  Only the hero can hear it.  Everybody’s path is different.  Campbell finds wisdom in the opening of the King Arthur tales in which the knights set out to find the Holy Grail.  Each one is said to have entered the forest where it appeared darkest to them – which is to say, you have to explore the darkest areas of your life to find your true path.  He goes on to point out the many metaphors suggesting just how narrow that true path might be – Lancelot balancing on his own sword to cross a crevice – the true path is a razor’s edge.  But when you are on it, he promises, “doors will open where you thought here ought not be a door.”


Though I can’t tell you what your true path might be I would be surprised if it is not something to do with making games that bring the wisdom of hero tales to help us along our own journeys of life.  


It has been absolutely delightful and inspiring to watch you dig deep and work with such dedication on developing the skills to create games.  If you had asked me to list your virtues six months ago, dedication would not have been one of them.


The lunch we shared last year is something I will always remember and cherish. Prior to that lunch my impression of you was that you were very smart, and that you thought you were too good for my classes, that you were literally, “too cool for school.”  I went into that lunch thinking that you would probably convince me of this, and that I would need to rethink how I teach.  Instead, I discovered passions within you I didn’t know existed.  I found somebody who could, would and has thrown themselves into meaningful creative projects that unfortunately are not especially valued by school, and might be labeled as nerdy or geeky by society at large. I found someone who has been mishandled, mistreated, and underappreciated by an education system focused on frustratingly narrow pursuits.  


In other words, I found a hero ready for adventure



– a hero pushed to the margins of society – who by virtue of having been pushed there sees things that others cannot see.  If he finds the strength to look honestly at himself and the world he will find the insight to heal himself and others and set forth into the world to share a new message of hope and redemption.


Rango: My friends … need some kind of a hero.  


Spirit of the West: Then be a hero.


Rango:  No no you don’t understand.  I’m not even supposed to be here.    


Spirit of the West: That’s right.  You came a long way to find something that isn’t out here.  


Don’t you see.


It’s not about you. It’s about them.


Rango:  But I can’t go back.


Spirit of the West: Don’t know that you got a choice, son.
No man can walk out on his own story.  

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About Me

About Me

University Distinguished Teaching Scholar and Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University.

Dubbed “the prophet of an education revolution” by the Kansas City Star and “the explainer” by Wired Magazine, Wesch is a recipient of the highly coveted “US Professor of the Year” Award from the Carnegie Foundation. After two years studying the implications of writing on a remote indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea, he turned his attention to the effects of social media and digital technology on global society and education. His videos on culture, technology, education, and information have been viewed over 20 million times, translated in over 20 languages, and are frequently featured at international film festivals and major academic conferences worldwide. Wesch has won several major awards for his work, including a Wired Magazine Rave Award, the John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in Media Ecology, and he was named an Emerging Explorer by National Geographic.

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