Is the Use of Letters and Memos Becoming Obsolete?

Today’s Daily Post on “Paper” reminds me that I had an interesting and shocking exchange with a group of students recently when I asked them to include with their end of semester portfolios either “a letter or memo to me” in which they were to explain their writing process and revisions. I did not have any specifics in terms of format other than, you know, “a letter or memo,” which, in my mind, was explanation enough for what format was required.

Although the assignment was not going to be graded according to the format of the letter or memo, I expected to see something that at least resembled the SHAPE of a letter or memo and I didn’t think that I needed to provide a detailed explanation of the letter or memo format in order for these intelligent, talented, savvy young people to know what to do.  These are writers who had created some of the most brilliant creative works I’ve ever read!

Ah, but I was sadly mistaken.

Rather than letters or memos, I received notes and messages from my students in various formats–paragraphs mostly–of varying lengths, on separate sheets of paper with no particular rhyme or reason. I was baffled, but when I raised the issue there was near unanimous surprise! “Oh,” they said. “we didn’t know you wanted our reponses to be in the actual form of a letter or memo!”

“Huh? Did not my instructions to write a ‘letter or memo’ indicate the actual form of a letter or memo?” I was lost, but my befuddlement became utter bewilderment when another student informed me that his concept of a “memo” was a “Post-It” note!


So, what does this mean? Have the ancient forms of letters and memos been co-opted by the modern forms of emails, texts, Tweets and other social media “posts”–even Post-its? If I, as an English teacher ask for a “letter or memo” I must not assume that the old forms come to mind?


Does this mean that technological changes in the way we communicate have made traditional forms unnecessary, even irrelevant? So, not only do we lose paper, we also lose the format of documents that were once printed on paper too?

I’m not one to knock the new forms or formats for communication, but it hurts my heart a little to think that the tried and true conventions might be becoming less necessary to our daily interactions. Letters and memos are still a part of business and I made it clear to my students that they can not disregard them just yet, but their ignorance caught my attention because they have apparently been able to go so long without knowing about or using these types of documents enough to consider them necessary.

I learned about and began using these forms in middle school!

Perhaps future generations will have less of a need for letters and memos in order to conduct business, but somehow, to my 20th century mind and fingers accostumed to the touch of paper and hard No. 2 pencils, this just seems wrong.


For samples of my students’ amazing works see Woman Enough and Flash fiction: Life’s a Challenge–Face It!