One of my pet peeves as an educator is when instructors complain about students’ lack of email etiquette (though I know I have also been guilty of this in the past). Instead, like many other educators, I have stopped complaining about student emails, which are merely a product of unfamiliarity with the genre’s conventions. Just as I teach students how to write according to the conventions of academic writing as a genre (even as we critique and problematize these conventions), I have embraced teaching students to write emails as an opportunity to discuss the conventions of different rhetorical situations and strengthen their persuasive writing techniques. In this blog, I describe how I used a persuasive email competition to reinforce the semester’s lessons on rhetoric and incentivize strong student writing.
Some background: Initially, I shied away from teaching students how to write emails, worrying that it would emphasize the professional, careerist aspects of writing at the expense of critical thinking about language as a source of power. My classes aim to familiarize students with the structural nature of racism, sexism, and injustice, and I worried that, somehow, teaching students to write effective emails would undermine these lessons. Gradually, I came to realize, first, that learning how to communicate effectively in different rhetorical situations is necessary, whether you are running a major corporation or organizing a resistance movement. Second, I realized that demystifying the conventions of email writing (and cover letters), as I try to demystify the conventions of essay-writing, could make a small contribution to helping my students--many of whom are immigrants, working class, students of color, and/or the first in their families to attend college--get into the graduate programs, internships, and professions they desire.
In general, my courses emphasize collaboration: I help students develop the skills to successfully break down large projects, equitably distribute work, and collectively create a final project that is better than what any one student could have created on their own. Ask my students and they will tell you that I constantly talk about how collaboration is not natural -- how, in fact, most of our education trains us to compete with one another -- and how we must put deliberate effort into unlearning this individualism. However, I have also seen small-stakes competitions take students’ writing to a new level. This past semester, in my writing course on “The Purpose of Education” at Queens College, after four months of collaboration including a collaboratively-authored final project, I gave students a reprieve and assigned a small email-writing competition for students who had missed assignments earlier in the semester and were in need of some extra credit.
In class, we looked at humorous (anonymous) examples of poorly-written emails and used these to generate a list of what makes a good email. We discussed how an email, not unlike an essay, attempts to convince someone of something and move them to action. The four students who volunteered for this extra assignment were then given this blog prompt for homework:
Four students wrote emails to the class requesting extra credit, and the rest of the class used their comments to vote on which email they thought deserved the extra credit and why. “But if we know who wrote each email, we’re just going to vote for our friends!” one student remarked, and the class nodded in agreement. “They should be posted anonymously,” another student suggested, and we developed a procedure by which I would post all four of the students’ emails so the commenters wouldn’t know who authored each submission.
Much to my surprise, this assignment produced some of the strongest writing of the semester that demonstrated an awareness not only of the conventions of email writing but persuasive writing in general. Some used humor and some used humility to issue their pleas for extra credit. In their comments, students pointed out the rhetorical strategies each author used to convince the class that they deserved extra credit. Here is the winning email (you can read all of them here):
In the following class session, I printed these four student emails and projected a list of the rhetorical strategies used in the emails, which we continued to add to in class. (In the future, I want to have students generate this list, rather than providing it for them.) We went through the emails line by line, and the class correctly identified which rhetorical strategies the authors used in each sentence, demonstrating an awareness of the different tools at our disposal.
Rather than complaining in bad faith about emails with no names and no subject lines, this assignment made the “problem” into a collective challenge, and we all had fun writing, reading, and deliberating the merits of each email. While this assignment is not going to change the world, I like to think that it may, in some small way, help students think critically about the conventions of the genres in which they write and -- who knows -- help them towards their graduate school, career, and professional goals.