Email Instruction in First-Year Writing

November 22nd, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

Image courtesy of flickr user digitpedia // CC-BY

I get a lot of email. I probably get too much email, and my students often find the amount of email I receive to be shocking. I explain to them that I network with many people, I write for many public venues, I collaborate on academic projects, I teach many classes, and I belong to several discipline-specific listservs. As a result, I receive a lot of email.

Usually after I explain the giant heaping pile of email I receive, my students sit agape struggling to understand how such a pile is even possible. So, I try to tell students why the email genre is important and why clean email structure can help readers digest information. Too often, I receive email from my first-year writing students, and they exhibit many things in need of improvement.

I always think the best of my students, and I always assume that they do not willingly craft messages poorly but have just not been shown how. Over this past week, I talked to my first-year writing students about email. I wanted to demonstrate the types of email I receive from various students and do so humorously. I enjoy employing humor to talk about rather tedious topics. (I’m doing my best to not say the email genre is “boring.” I once got in trouble for saying memos were a boring genre, but that’s a different post.)

My students generally respond well to humor, so as I started to talk about why they need to send clean and clear email, I showed them one of my favorite videos from one of my favorite animators: “E-mails” by Domics.

After watching the short animation by Domics, which students usually love, we talked about what email should look like and how we should craft them. I then demonstrated the type of email I’ve received from students. I tell my students that this demonstration is simply my attempt to coalesce my experience into an example. Meaning, it is not an actual email. (That would be a violation of FERPA and my ethics.)

Here’s the email I type out for them on the projector:


Image courtesy of the author // CC-BY

I tell my students that everything in this email is typical of what I’ve seen. The most drastic things I outline for them:

    1. There’s no subject. This is a big no-no. To me, if an email doesn’t have a subject, it is not important enough for me to read. I tell students that the subject line is the first email impression the reader gets. Why would you leave it blank?
    2. No “hello” or “hi” or anything like that. For those who write tons of email, writing salutations can become tiresome; however, for students, it’s something they should maintain, especially when writing to instructors.
    3. Spelling, etc. Proofreading email is awesome. Well, I tell my students that it’s awesome–because it is.
    4. No sign-off. Sometimes my email client doesn’t place the name of the sender in the email address spot: I only get the email address. I don’t want to search. I want to know who the message is from, and I want to know what class they’re in.

After demonstrating the above email—let’s call it the “meh” email—most of my students groan and sheepishly volunteer that they are guilty of such email infractions. (To their credit, it takes a lot to admit in front a class of your peers that you might fall into the meh email category.) I tell them that I actually do not care if their email is meh. I don’t mind one bit. I am a writing teacher, and I don’t think first-year students should be judged by their email skills. However, there are instructors who will judge them and not be happy with their email prose, so I felt the need to show them a different way.

Here’s the improved email I typed for them on the projector:


Image courtesy of the author // CC-BY

I tell my students that this is an appropriate way to send an email. Such appropriateness includes:

    1. There is a clear subject line, and I know exactly what the email will be about before I even open it.
    2. Nice salutation. My students address me in various ways: Trent, Mr. Kays, Professor Kays, etc. It doesn’t really matter to me. Whatever naming convention they feel comfortable with is fine for me.
    3. Clear and short email outlining the problem and addressing how they will keep up with the consequences of said problem.
    4. Nice sign-off with identifying details.

I often teach business writing, and my advice might be different in that course. But, for first-year writing students, I think this is enough advice in order for them to send clear messages and avoid an instructor’s ire for poor email prose. Email is a weird genre on many levels, but it is still widely used and expected.

Originally, email existed to send short and quick messages between people in the same network, and it does predate the Internet. So, text language isn’t completely inappropriate for email exchanges; however, the ways in which email operates in the contemporary digital economy suggests that the email genre be considered in first-year writing courses. As always, it comes down to audience.

Image courtesy of flickr user shamaasa // CC-BY

I don’t mind emoticons or short-code in my email. Given the de-empathizing nature of email and many classic digital communication forms, I appreciate some symbology to help me understand the tone and mood of a message. Despite my appreciation for the emoticon, I don’t encourage my students to use them with other instructors, unless said instructors initiated emoticon use.

In many cases, my students tell me that no one ever showed or told them how to write email: They were just expected to know. After writing the improved email—let’s call it the “sweet” email—we contrast the syntax and structure of both examples in order to better understand how to write email for intended audiences.

As I’ve reflected on this over the past few weeks, it occurred to me that teaching email structure is not something I come across in first-year writing, yet it is the exact time it should be taught. Students move out of first-year writing, take their still burgeoning skills, and apply them in other courses. So, why wouldn’t email structure be part of that set of skills?

It seems a great disservice to send students out of first-year writing without at least some guidance on how to communicate with their instructors and other professionals. I explained this position to my students, and I was greeted with a sea of nodding heads: They agreed. Moreover, waiting until a business or technical writing course to examine the email genre is too late. If I have to listen to one more non-writing instructor complain about how students can’t even write an email, I might just dance naked in Times Square.

Introducing a discussion of email into first-year writing wouldn’t be that difficult. It doesn’t even need to be major coursework. First-year writing is already a place where genres are explored, analyzed, and employed. Inserting email into the curriculum would give FYW students practice in a practical genre, which they are required to use throughout their college and future professional careers.

Image courtesy of xkcd // CC-BY-NC

I know some instructors get irritated with their students when it comes to email; this includes writing instructors. But, instead of getting irritated about the inability of an 18 year old student to write an email, we should take the opportunity to show what is expected of them. Importantly, in the first-year writing classroom, we must allow students to send us poorly structured email. Students need a safe space and a safe person who will coach them and not deride them.

This applies to anything in the first-year writing classroom, but we often take email for granted. We expect students to already know. We expect students to enter our classrooms and clearly understand how to digitally interact with professionals. If they fail our expectation, students are docked or chastised. This should never be the case.

The digital immigrant/digital native binary is a false one. Often, we all poke around in the dark in this highly digital age. That’s part of the learning experience, and while generational issues abound, learning is a process for everyone. Understanding email isn’t a given, so we need to help students understand it.

We need to relate to students that email should always have the following:

    1. Clear subject line.
    2. A salutation.
    3. Concise and on topic message.
    4. A sign-off with a name and class section (if needed).

I don’t think integrating these genre conventions into first-year writing will be difficult. Email is one of the most practical digital communication venues available, and we should help students master its use. From my experience, they’ll be grateful for the guidance in their first year rather than their final year.

Thoughts, comments, questions, and rants are welcomed!

SWOT Analysis in First-Year Writing

November 19th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

flickr user .reid // CC-BY

Teaching first-year writing and developmental writing comes with a set of issues that often do not pervade other writing courses. Writing teachers know the compounded effort they must put into planning. The problems with first-year writing and developmental writing stem from both the students and institutional resources. Writing teachers usually don’t have much control over the latter, but this isn’t always true for the former.

Every semester students enter my classroom with the same mindset: They aren’t writers, and they can’t write. This mindset is exacerbated in developmental writing with some syntax, grammatical, and stylistic issues thrown on top. Each semester I tell my students the same thing on the first day: “There’s no such thing as a bad writer or a good writer; there are only inexperienced writers and experienced writers.”

This is often hard for students to accept. Many have been told that they are terrible writers. Past teachers have marked their work up with a bloody red pen, which only further intensified students’ self-doubt. As a result, students lack a strong support system, and, perhaps equally problematic, students don’t know how to identify their strengths and weaknesses in their writing and learning.

Wikipedia // CC-BY-SA

This semester I introduced SWOT Analysis to my first-year writing and developmental writing classes. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This type of analysis is often used in the business world; however, I am not using it for that reason. I’m using SWOT because it’s simple and clear. Students don’t need complexity when they start; students need to be eased into complex thinking. Using SWOT as a starting point, I can better help students identify where they need and don’t need help.

Moreover, SWOT embraces students’ autonomy. Students should have some control over their learning, and, hopefully, SWOT can introduce them to the feeling of controlling their education, learning, and future. If students can identify their writing abilities and inabilities, they can focus on their successes while clarifying areas for improvement.

SWOT Analysis has its pros and cons. It’s simple, clear, and easy to complete. Conversely, its origin is in the business world, its use may lock people into a box, and it doesn’t consider ethical issues. However, the cons can be regulated or addressed in order to place greater value on the pros. Furthermore, if you highlight the cons before use, students can mindfully and contextually use SWOT Analysis to suit their needs.

I created an initial SWOT Analysis where I considered my own writing. It needs work, and it’s overly simple. I intentionally made it rough and simple, so I can talk to students about how to refine their thinking. I will demonstrate, and I hope they will imitate until they are comfortable with SWOT.

I created my example using XMind. You can see it below.

Peer Review: Four Guiding Principles

July 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

We recently completed our first peer review session in my summer first-year writing course. I was really impressed with my students because they quickly understood what needed to be accomplished. Many of my students this semester are directly from high school. That is, they graduated from high school two or three weeks ago, and then they started taking summer classes at the University of Minnesota (UMN).

I’m sure the culture shock between high school and the university environment is startling, but I couldn’t imagine how startling it must be for students who only graduated high school two or three weeks ago. My own college experience allowed me six months respite between my high school graduation and beginning college coursework; I’m glad I had that respite.

So, I was impressed and immensely proud of all my students for picking up the pace and timber of the course. Peer review is not always easy. Many students don’t know how to do it, and many teachers don’t know how to explain it or don’t see value in it. I’m of the mind that the latter is more pervasive than the former (but that’s for another post!).

As we prepared for peer review, I instructed my students to bring two hard copies of their current assignment (a literacy narrative) to our class meeting. One copy was for their peer review partner(s), and one copy was for me, so I could see how far along they were with their writing. My students paired up or formed triads for peer reviewing. We worked from two main questions. I wanted them to keep these two questions in mind as they read through their peers’ work:

  1. What is the writer attempting to say in their work?
  2. How engaging and effective is the writer’s message?

These questions are obviously quite broad, but they are good guiding questions that allow students to explore their peers’ work without being boxed in by, for example, a worksheet.

We separated the peer review into two parts.

Part One: The Reader’s Stream of Consciousness

For part one of peer review, I asked my students not to write on anything and to simply read their peers’ work silently to themselves. But, instead of just reading or simply digesting, I asked them to say out loud how they were feeling or what they thought as those feelings and thoughts came into their mind. The writer would listen to the reader saying what comes into his mind as he is reading.

This way, the writer could get an honest gut reaction to their work. It’s important for writers to understand the gut reaction of their audience. (For those who know me, they know I encourage and appreciate appropriate bluntness, so this strategy is in keeping with my general stance.)

Hopefully, after part one of the peer review, the writer has honest and direct feedback, which they have jotted down, from the reader.

Part Two: The Reader’s Mark Up and Detail

For part two of peer review, I asked my students to mark up their peers’ work as they read through it. They needed to read through their peers’ entire document, and then they were to offer constructive feedback through mark up. However, they couldn’t just mark up work and leave it; they had to explain in detail why they were marking something. Thus, if they didn’t know how to explain something, then they couldn’t mark up their peers’ work.

This way, the reader could review and mark up the work, and the writer would only get feedback if the reader could explain why they were offering said feedback.

Hopefully, after part one and two of the peer review, the writer has both verbal and written feedback from their audience that they could incorporate during revision.

Four Guiding Thoughts for the Peer Reviewing Writer and Reader

I love doing peer review in my courses. I think students get a lot out of it (if it’s done correctly), and I think the instructor gets a lot out of it. I usually walk around, offer feedback, and help my students as they peer review.

With every session of peer review, I write the following four guiding thoughts on the board to remind my students and myself how we should act when we peer review:

  1. Be constructive
  2. Be kind.
  3. Be helpful.
  4. Read and listen.

I never want my students to feel attacked as their work is reviewed by one of their peers. It is unacceptable, and I do not tolerate such behavior in my courses. As much as I do give my students a lot of control over the class, there are just some things I need to mediate to ensure everyone has a productive and fun time.

My students follow these guiding thoughts, and it helps them remember how to treat their fellow peers. College is difficult enough, and peer review, no matter how useful, should not be a source of difficulty or anxiety.

I have had success with this approach to peer review, and my students seem to get a lot out of their peer review experiences.

Photo provided by the author. 

Writing and Six Words About Work

July 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Several months ago, I submitted a six-word memoir to the Six Words About Work contest held by noted memoir publication, SMITH Magazine. The goal was to see how people understood their work in six words. It was an amazing idea on many levels. It allowed people to express themselves in memoir form, while those same people had to engage in brevity (which isn’t always easy for memoirists!).

The magazine’s editor, Larry Smith, chose the six-word memoir I submitted to be included in a small collection of 400 six-word memoirs he considered the best: Six Words About Work. I certainly never thought my short memoir would make it into the book publication. Indeed, I was just happy to participate and to see so many others writing about their work. Some submitted memoirs highlighting negative aspects of work, and some submitted ones highlighting positive aspects. Such is the nature of work, no?

For my part, I submitted something positive, and the editor subsequently labeled it as “inspirational.” As a writer and writing teacher, it is a lovely feeling to see my thoughts and words published in formats people can enjoy. I don’t know if my pittance will help someone, but it serves as a good reminder that I am dedicating my life to something I truly believe in.

Here is my six-word memoir with a short backstory:

I’d like to thank the book editor, Larry Smith, for the opportunity to contribute to his project encouraging people to write about their lives and experiences. It’s important for people to recognize they often have stories relevant to others in the world. Their stories matter, and no one should ever be told their story doesn’t matter.

Brenda Ueland, the famed writing teacher and feminist, once wrote: “This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original and has something to say.” Perhaps the bit about originality could be debated, but the heart of Ueland’s sentiment conveys a clear message: People often see, even if only slightly, the world differently than the person standing next to them, and their perception of the world is as relevant and valuable as anybody’s.

Ueland is right, and writing is an inherently intimate act. It is an act that carries our voice, our class, and our culture to various audiences, and we should all remember that what we have to say is important, even if it’s important to only a few.

Above all else, we should keep writing, keep living, and keep on keeping on.

Image from the author’s profile on

Reflections on Teacher Identity and Space

October 1st, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

My department recently moved to a new building on campus. Our old building was demolished to make room for green space. I think the department move is good. It indicates that our department is growing and becoming something great. I love being in my department, and I’ve never doubted my decision to pursue doctoral work in it.

But, the most important thing about this move has been the opportunity it’s afforded me for reflection. When I first arrived at the University of Minnesota, I was assigned a space in the Cubes. The Cubes was a large open office area for all Department of Writing Studies PhD students. It was lovely, and it was a huge step up from the space I had when I was an MA student.

I liked the Cubes. It was a space where everyone felt connected because everyone was in the same area. It fostered a sense of camaraderie across cohorts. It was great; however, I don’t know if it could actually be called “office space.” During a round of individual student conferences, a student showed up at my cubicle for our meeting. Here’s roughly how the conversation unfolded when she first arrived:

Student: Oh, hey, Trent. I wasn’t sure if this was your office or not. I was looking for something…different.

Me: Yes, this is my office.

Student: Oh…okay.

Me: What? What’s wrong with a cubicle? I kind of like it.

Student: Oh, nothing. I just thought you’d have a more personal office area or something.

Me: Ah, I see.

The student apologized profusely because she thought she had offended me by commenting in such a way on my workspace, but she didn’t offend me at all. I explained to her that there’s only so much space at the university, so PhD students only have access to what’s available.

I never really thought critically about my workspace before the conversation with my student. She brought up many interesting thoughts later on in our discussion about what exactly is “space.” I felt privileged and lucky to have such a nice clean area where I could rest and set up my laptop. It never occurred to me that the space I inhabited could be a reflection on my identity, especially when understood from a student’s perspective. What are the linkages between an instructor’s identity and students’ perspective in relation to the space the former occupies?

For my student, my identity as an instructor seemed to be directly tied to the space I occupied. It is a dimension I had not previously considered when reflecting on my identity and ethos. Whether my student realized it or not, she had forced me to think critically about something I wouldn’t have otherwise thought critically about (at least at that time).

Moving to my new space, which resembles a more typical office environment, has forced me, once again, to reflect on and consider the space I occupy and how that might influence my students’ perceptions of me. My new space is closed off, and I have a room with a locking door instead of a cubicle in a large open area. People are forced to knock on the door in order to see if I’m in my office (my building is going through major construction, so I have to keep the door closed), and I feel like this partly disconnects me from my students. There is now a barrier, whether the door is open or closed, that my students must pass through to reach me.

The move has also affected my colleagues. In our old building, someone could loudly ask a question and get a response because the entire area was open, and we could all hear each other. We can no longer do that because everyone is segregated into their own square rooms with locking doors that make up our offices. We all have officemates. Some have two while others have three officemates, but it’s not the same.

I am now disconnected from my colleagues in a large building, which is under massive construction. When I now work in my office, I feel as if I am a monastic working in solitude. The sense of openness and fellowship I once felt in the Cubes is gone. Despite the lack of openness I now feel, I can’t help but wonder if my students will now perceive me differently.

I don’t think teachers should be defined by the space they occupy because learning takes many forms and can be found in many places. I can understand how teachers’ identities could be linked to the space they occupy. In our society, it seems someone can only be a “professor” or “teacher” if they are attached in some way to a university or some other institution of learning. I find this issue problematic because teachers are given authority partly by the space they inhabit, but the space they inhabit is only given authority because they occupy it.

What is a university without teachers? It’s nothing but a space defined by the materials used to build it. A university loses its identity without teachers occupying its space. (The same could also be said about students.) What is a teacher outside the space of their learning institution? Do they somehow lose their identity? Does their ability to teach change? When a student sees me outside the university, they always look at me with a bemused look on their face as if my entire identity is tied solely to my work at the university. (It’s not uncommon for students to be mystified or startled to see that their instructors exist outside the classroom.)

In his seminal work, The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre asserts: “We are…confronted by an indefinite multitudes of spaces, each one piled upon, or perhaps contained within, the next: geographical, economic, demographic, sociological, ecological, political, commercial, national, continental, global. Not to mention nature’s (physical) space, the space of (energy) flows, and so on” (8). Considering the multitude of spaces we contend with every day, I can’t help but consider the role of a teacher in said spaces. Perhaps we should not consider a teacher as inhabiting one space and moving from one to the next, but we should, as Lefebvre suggests, consider the many spaces that are piled on a teacher as he navigates from one identity to the next.

My new building may seem impersonal, but for my students, it is the “right” space for me to occupy. My old space was not where my student expected to see me, and I think my identity as a teacher was altered for her. Students don’t always consider the spaces their instructors occupy and navigate; often, they only interact with teachers in one space without realizing the identities of their teachers are defined by the spaces before and after their interaction.

My identity is linked to the space I once inhabited in a building that once stood on campus, and my identity is now linked to a new space in a building that still stands on campus. While my identity has been altered, it has only been built upon through the addition of a new space. My students understand my status as a teacher via the fact that I am granted authority through the space I inhabit, i.e. the university.

Should a teacher’s identity be solely authorized by the space he occupies? I doubt it. A teacher doesn’t stop being a teacher when they step outside the confines of the university (or at least I don’t). Students should understand teachers’ identities as a product of the spaces they have inhabited and not solely by the one space in which they interact with their teachers.

Critical reflection of space is important for students and teachers because it is often the space we’re seen occupying that defines us. If students only understand teachers as inhabiting one space, then it could change how students understand the knowledge with which they are presented, and it could change how students understand the spaces they occupy in relation to their teachers.

Photos by Flickr users Tim Patterson, rutlo, and Dwonderwall, respectively // All Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

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