Blog Post

04. Email Instruction in First-Year Writing Courses

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 lots of public venues, I collaborate on several academic projects, I teach numerous 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 that exhibits poor syntax, unclear word usage, and other clarity issues.

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 to craft messages. As such, I talk to my first-year writing students about email. I 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 story.)

My students generally respond well to humor, so as I start to talk about why they need to send clean and clear email, I show them one of my favorite videos from one of my favorite animators: "E-mails" by Domics. The short animation is a tale of crafting an email and all the thinking or over-thinking that goes into its construction. 

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

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

Screenshot_11_22_13__12_32_PM
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 feel the need to show them a different way.

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

Screenshot_11_22_13__3_14_PM
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.

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.

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 exercise, 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 knowledge, and apply them in other courses. So, why wouldn't email structure be part of that set of knowledge?

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 explain this position to my students, and I'm usually greeted with a sea of nodding heads: They agree. 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 first-year writing 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 at least 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 (or any first-year course) 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.

This post is a contribution to HASTAC's Pedagogy Project.

A version of this post appeared on my personal website.

107

4 comments

I enjoyed your blog entry and have linked to it from "Effective E-mail Messages" which is part of my Resources for Researchers.  "Effective E-mail Messages" is a handout which is released under a Creative Commons license.  I have also shared your blog with colleagues via Facebook.

76

What a fantastic idea! I will be using this in the future- thanks! 

68

I think you make some excellent points here about the need to teach these practical genres in the first-year writing classroom.  We often assume that our students send emails so often that they already know how to structure a professional, clear Email message versus an informal one. But I often find that my students actually don't use e-mail that much anymore.  Many of them communicate through texting, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc., and Email is something they only use for school.  I like the idea of taking some class time to breakdown what it means to compose a crisp, professional Email.  Thank you for the tips.

68

I was struck by the compassionate and practical tone you adopt here. I'm convinced that teaching email in first-year writing will give students an advantage across the curriculum. But then... why not have lessons on web etiquette more generally? If students communicate through "texting, Twitter, Facebok, Tumblr" and these forms are increasingly a part of their post-college professional experiences, perhaps a short unit on web writing might be called for?

68