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.

New Media Douchebags

April 8th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

I first saw this video in a graduate course focused on new literacies, and, recently, I showed this in my FYW class. My students found it quite humorous and true. I think it really speaks to the saturation of social media into our lives.

How many can go without Facebook now? Or Twitter? Or Delicious? It has reached the point where we need these social media tools to function in the world. We need them to communicate, understand, and connect to the world.

Are you a new media douchebag? If so, I suggest you join DA: Douchebags Anonymous.

Misleading Book Titles: A Literacy Narrative

April 6th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

*This literacy narrative was originally written for a reading I gave at UMN for a FYW program event highlighting writing teachers as readers and writers.*

I quickly grew tired of teen fiction. Usually the thought that would run through my head at the next teen novel was “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Another teen crybaby whiny story! Ah!” So, one month, I decided I would pick up a novel that wasn’t teen fiction. I had my parents take me to Barnes and Noble, one of my favorite places, and I looked around for a novel that looked cool. To be honest, I was looking for a cover that looked interesting. In retrospect, I probably should have thought of a different way to pick a book, but I was young (13!) and couldn’t think of another way. When I picked up the book I finally settled on, I thought it must have something to do with sex because the word mistress was in the title, and I had overheard adults—not my parents—talking about their mistresses and the sexual acts they engaged in with said mistresses (none of which I will go into here!). Anyway, I, like most freshly minted teenage boys, was interested in sex, so I thought I could slip the book past my parents keen eyes and hide it under my bed. To my joy, my parents let me buy the book, and I was so happy because I had fooled them…or so I’d thought.

When I got home, I quickly ran off with my book to my room to examine it for, ahem, literary purposes, but to my chagrin, the book wasn’t about sex at all. It was then that I cursed book titles for being misleading. I mean, if I bought a book with the word Rasputin in the title, I wouldn’t expect it to be about muffins; therefore, when I see a book title with the word mistress in it, I don’t necessarily think it will be about revolution. The book title, which had carelessly misled me into thinking about sex, was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress written by Robert Heinlein. It’s a science fiction novel about libertarian revolution on the moon.

It’s amazing how much a book can change your perspective on the world. When I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I felt alive. I never understood how one book could make me feel alive or make me want to lead revolutionaries against a tyrannically government. I quickly devoured the book, I read every line and then I read it again and again and again until I had almost memorized the entire text. This was the first book that made me laugh, made me cry, made me angry, and made me sad. I will always remember the story and message it gave me: there is no substitute for freedom of knowledge.

Literacy is something that means many different things, but I think the overall benefit of any type of literacy is that it empowers and enlightens. Heinlein’s novel empowered me when I was 13, and it empowers me now because it is the book that set me on my current path in higher education. It helped me become who I am, so it will always have a special place in my heart.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, after reading Heinlein’s novel, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to evoke the same emotions through text that Heinlein had conjured in me. I set about writing in many genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I wrote short stories about ladybugs and fireflies, essays about my dad mowing the yard and my grandmother making fried chicken, and poetry about my striped socks and wishes of sweet lovers. Even today, I still write poetry of my colorful socks and my sweet lovers. I write fiction stories of my kitty, Gen. Sir Tanner Fitzgibbons (names pending), leading his balls of yarn into battle or pouncing on the poor defenseless moth that dared to invade his domain. I still write essays about life and compose poetry every Sunday morning at dawn. I dream of words and combine sentences that I think will be lovely in stories that I have yet to write, but like most of my students and many of my colleagues, I still have trouble saying I am a writer. They are four words but frequently difficult to say because we do not always think of ourselves as writers, but the other thing that also writes. Well, I most certainly must be something of a writer because I teach writing and the thousands of pages bulging from my file cabinet suggests I am a writer. I’ve often thought that writers would much rather be apart of WA: Writer’s Anonymous.

So, I’ll leave you with a rather simple thought as I end: I am a writer and so are you.


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