Email Instruction in First-Year Writing

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!