As a writing and communication instructor, I read emails from my students with great curiosity, trepidation and, oftentimes, a feeling of helplessness. Whether the email contains a confession (“I’m going through a difficult time…”), an apology (“I’m sorry…”), an assumption (“I’m sure you’ll understand…”), a plea (“Please, please, please…”), or a promise (“If you grant me this extension, I swear I’ll…”), the student hopes to persuade me.
In the instances where a student’s email is unclear and unpersuasive, a harsh voice in the back of my mind asks, "Does this email reflect my failure as a writing instructor? Have I failed to communicate how the rhetorical knowledge gained through coursework can be transferred to other contexts and forms, including one of today’s most common forms of writing?"
These self-critical questions stem from my desire to empower students. College and university instructors hold a reputation for persuasive scholarship, as well as political and social advocacy. But do we value persuasion and self-advocacy in the classroom? Do we encourage rhetoric from students that could challenge and persuade an authority figure? That could persuade us?
I want my students to not only transfer knowledge across the curriculum, but beyond it. Rather than passively requiring explicit instructions on how to communicate effectively in every situation, I want students to proactively harness their rhetorical confidence when advocating for themselves in a variety of contexts. And yet, when I read a fragmented and/or unpersuasive student email, my typical response is not pedagogical. I give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the student’s request, and move on. My behavior resembles a busy manager rather than a concerned teacher.
Understandably, for many students, email is a venue of freedom and distance from academic considerations. An inbox with messages from family and friends, advertisements, and spam for vitamin supplements hardly seems a venue for thoughtful, intentional writing. In turn, as a teacher, it’s easy to read student emails as separate from the content of the course, an extracurricular and social exchange. After all, student emails are not part of an assignment with specific guidelines or a grading rubric.
I am by no means proposing that instructors add a “how to write emails” unit in their courses. It is the absence of formal instruction on “email writing” that provides us with an exciting opportunity, a voyeuristic glimpse into how a student writes beyond the confines of specific assignments. The email sheds light on the student’s rhetorical awareness, or lack thereof, amidst a moment of self-advocacy.
While the majority of instructors likely respond to student emails with an appropriate and fair response, in other instances we have a tendency to read student emails with suspicion or react with condescension. Many articles written by instructors about student emails reflect this mindset, with titles such as “More (Unintentionally) Funny Student E-Mail Messages to Professors” (Chronicle 2008). Much of the writing on student emails stresses the… well, the stress and annoyance caused by the high volume of “inappropriate,” “unprofessional," “impolite” emails.
Studies have examined teachers’ reactions to student emails, such as how politeness can impact a teacher’s perception of the student’s competence and character (“You are such a great teacher and I hate to bother you”, Communication Education 2014; “R U Able to Meat Me”, Communication Education 2009), but there are no studies that have explored teachers’ pedagogical responses to student emails. I wonder how many instructors intentionally provide constructive feedback on the persuasiveness of their students’ emails? How would this impact our students’ ability to advocate for themselves in the future?
Rather than bring the emails we receive into the virtual teachers’ lounge where we snicker or sigh, there might be great benefit for our students if we as communication instructors not only respond to the content of student emails, but also engage students in a discussion of their rhetorical choices.
Time is likely the biggest obstacle for instructors. Responding to student emails on both a practical and analytical level would push many of us beyond the limits of our days. Though perhaps a plausible starting point, a self-piloted project for this term, would be to offer five unsuspecting students who send me an email the opportunity to discuss their rhetorical awareness and transference. Sure, this form of guerilla teaching would catch these students by surprise, but that would likely make the interaction all the more memorable.
Jared Berezin is a lecturer in the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
I am not your friend, but I do want students to feel comfortable approaching me. And I am not “Mr.” That would be my father.
Last week in this same space, Katrina Gulliver, made an argument regarding “an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates” that directly implicated white male faculty for “resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority.” I have witnessed this alleged epidemic in my very own classroom; and I have — much to the chagrin of Gulliver — done nothing to prevent it. Some, in fact, may even accuse me of silently fostering it.
Who I am is a white, male, millennial faculty member and college administrator who prefers creating a respectful environment in which my students are afforded the greatest opportunity for success without worrying about the same interaction in other classrooms. I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however: I did not pursue a doctoral degree with visions of becoming Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society." Instead, I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.
I strongly believe there is no need to rest on my apparent genetic laurels. I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom. And more importantly, I think it has little to do with why students can respect me despite knowing my first name and using it if they feel so inclined. The underlying current of any college classroom involves a faculty member who is supposed to be more educated then the students on the topic being covered and understanding that this person will control assessment and grading. No matter how formal or informal interactions may be between faculty and students, those facts rest squarely in the backdrop of everything. If what students call me determines whether I am respected or not, I’m not deserving to be in a classroom.
Rather than worry incessantly about how an email is drafted, I am thankful students are asking questions. On the first day of class I consciously do not demand to be referred to by any particular title. There is no need for a lecture on why I want to be called Dr. Miller, Professor, Will, or even Master of the Universe. I may have a reputation for being laid-back and getting good teaching evaluations, but I also carry a hefty DWF percentage. Being informal does not imply that I am an easy A. In fact, I’d argue the opposite. If students respect me as an individual, I firmly believe I am able to push students to do more because of that mutual respect.
In an era of discussions throughout higher education about flipped classrooms, student engagement, and whether faculty should be a sage on the stage or a guide by their side, some faculty seem to be forgetting the importance of place, comfort, and feel in determining how to run their classes and manage their relationships with students. Like Gulliver, I did not use first names with my undergraduate instructors and still struggle using the first name of my dissertation chair. In fact, I still have nightmares about accidentally slipping and using the first name of a particular faculty member during an office hours meeting and the subsequent tongue lashing I received. Yet I did not lose respect for her nor her for me. Because the interaction fit the expectation for that particular faculty member.
And that is my major concern with the line of reasoning used by Gulliver yesterday. Without question, certain colleges, programs, and student bodies necessitate different levels of familiarity between faculty and students. Even perhaps more importantly students do need to be exposed to professional work behavior. Unlike Gulliver, however, I believe a part of that process is being able to navigate different environments and interactions. Students are fully capable of discerning what is acceptable with one faculty member and is not with another. If we look at today’s work environment, it is hard to believe that a student would fare well attempting to enter the workplace at Zappos.com or Google if they demonstrated the type of behavior Gulliver mandates with students.
In short, it is about fit. I am at time envious of my friends and colleagues who wear bow ties, five piece suits, or even just sports coats to class every day. But that’s not me. And I do not view colleagues any differently who wear Vans and comic book t-shirts into the classroom. What I wear, how I allow students to address me, and the way I conduct class sessions does not make me an inferior instructor or complicit in some alleged epidemic of familiarity. In my experience, it creates the learning environment that I feel best allows students in my classes to succeed.
Faculty should make expectations clear to students, but in an era where higher education faces regular attacks from outside actors, should we really be casting stones at each other regarding interpersonal style and choices? So, Dr. Gulliver, I apologize for not helping you out. But, in the grand scheme of things, I am considerably more concerned with making an environment that works for my students and I then worrying about you thinking I’m “down with the kids.” After all, am I not here for the kids? There is an important difference between formality and professionalism that appears to be misunderstood by some in the academy. I feel more comfortable teaching in jeans and being called Will than being Dr. Miller with a necktie on. Yet I’d welcome someone to attend one of my classes and suggest that I am ineffective as an instructor for these reasons.
Will Miller is director of institutional research and effectiveness and teaches at Flagler College.
Is it just me, or are we witnessing an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates?
They’re all calling me by my first name. Is this happening in your classroom too?
I’m not that much older than a lot of my students, generationally (I’m apparently just on the cusp between being an echo-boomer and a millennial, for those who keep track -- but old enough I don’t think they’re mistaking me for a fellow undergrad). However, I feel like their grandmother when I receive their emails, and clutch my pearls when I get a message addressed to “Hi Katrina” (or just “hi”) from students I haven’t even met.
Perhaps this has struck me particularly as I went from living in Germany, where even to colleagues I was “Frau Gulliver,” to teaching in Australia where students seem surprised I even have a last name.
As an undergraduate I never addressed my teachers by their first names (and I walked 10 miles a day, neck deep in snow ... believe me, I KNOW how fogeyish this all sounds); for me becoming a grad student and getting onto first names with my adviser was a big step. I’ve felt it sends a message to graduate students that they are more like colleagues than undergraduates.
I address my undergraduates as Ms. or Mr., in the classroom and when I reply to their emails. Some get the hint but many are apparently oblivious. I’ve tried joking about it when students use my first name in class, or writing in emails that I do not do first names with undergrads. It’s hard not to come off as uptight, and some students seem genuinely surprised. Other times it’s clearly an attempt to rile me with some disrespect (typically coming from male students who like to undermine female authority).
But I understand that students are often confused about how to approach their teachers at university. The world of academic ranks is all pretty confusing to anyone outside it, and the various titles on people’s doors doesn’t really help (Do any associate professors and vice presidents people get emails addressed to “Dear Associate” or “Dear Vice”?).
Add to that the fact that many undergraduates will be in classes led by T.A.s who tend to go by first names (and are themselves graduate students). I think this is where part of the confusion starts for undergraduates. They’re not clear on all of the respective statuses of the teachers they encounter.
Into this mix too there is of course a gender dimension. I’m often addressed in class as “Miss.” I recently asked students about this, and I was told it was a habit from high school, where they were used to addressing their teachers in high school as “Miss” or “Sir.” I pointed out that these terms are hardly equal, and that they are quite welcome to call me Sir (nobody took me up on that one).
I’ve always been of the view that I don’t want to undermine my own authority in the classroom by dressing like the students, inviting them to use my first name, or making any other gestures towards “being down with the kids.” I find many other female academics also take this approach.
To add to the confusion, in most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.
(For those who are going to slam me for being uptight, watch your privilege).
I also feel it’s our job to teach students how to behave in a professional setting, and not sending the kind of emails that are all lower-case is part of it. (Lisa Wade quoted the hilariously awful email she received from a student when she was visiting another university to give a talk -- read it here.) Addressing someone you don’t know by their first name is also something that won’t always win you any prizes in the real world.
So I’ll keep insisting on formality from my students, even if they make comments about my being pedantic or bossy on their student evaluations. And I thank goodness I’m not the friend of mine who received an email from a student that started “hello kitten.”
Katrina Gulliver teaches at the University of New South Wales.
Why do they come? Thirty-seven smiling young faces in a classroom look up at me, oozing confidence that I will teach them successfully and help them pass the course. I confide in them: the course should really have 24 students for an optimum presentation. Nobody moves. And the smiles stay fixed.
I tell them that everything I teach is available online, and the jokes there are probably funnier than the ones I use. They sit still. As they do in the classes of almost two million other faculty members.
They will continue to come, the 14 or 15 million students who can’t or won’t learn by themselves. Yes, there are two million or so students who can master difficult material on their own, and there are mature individuals whose life circumstances makes it necessary to learn essentials, to pass a course, and to move on.
But for the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.
And so they come….
Now picture a full colored photo on glossy paper of college students, gathered happily at graduation. Idyllic, but misleading. Look closely, very closely at the picture and find that the picture isn’t a picture at all, but an assemblage of thousands of individual dots. Separate, and often strikingly different from each other. Now take away the color and a further grim graininess appears.
That’s the real-world picture a faculty member sees in the classes s/he teaches. A group of individuals, each with different life experience, family circumstance, personal growth pattern, goals, and course selections.
Pretty pictures are for people who look at higher education from the far periphery; it is they who dare make general statements, universal predictions and global pronouncements about what will take place in college. I know better. I know that every one of the 2200 or so minutes I will be with this particular group of individuals will present its own challenges, its own opportunities for teaching and learning, and its own possibilities for failure.
I am alert to the pressures and influences that divert so many young people, and am no longer surprised at the number of hours many of them spend online. Nor do I express disappointment at the number of students who expect to be taught, who expect to know – but who will not do the work involved in learning. They are, after all, the children who learned the alphabet painlessly on Sesame Street, and grew up one click away from the world’s store of knowledge.
For the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.
My students need hand-holding, human-hand-holding, to become engaged, and focus on the depth of material rather than on obtaining a quick, superficial answer. They live in a digital world, but remain analog beings and must learn to acquire and assimilate great bodies of knowledge, comprehensive, continuous, and coherent.
Fortunately, they don’t face this task alone. Together with their 30-odd peers, they begin to form a class. Even though this class will not reach the level of a community of scholars, the collective plays its role. Students begin to share notes, discuss homework, assist each other in understanding difficult material, and interact during class. There is argument, shared humor and collective disappointment; a sudden scurry when an exam is announced, a flurry of conversation just before the exam takes place, and consultation right after it ends. Every one of these interactions enhances student engagement.
There is something about the structure of the classroom that contributes to the learning process, perhaps akin to a group of musicians whose joint effort is so much more effective than it would be were they to play their instrument at a separate location with an expert mixing the sounds. People do interact and college students better than most.
Fortunately, too, there is the faculty member who knows that teaching is more than presenting information and that learning is a very complex process, difficult and unusual for most people. A whole range of strategies is needed to keep students striving and stretching for a whole period, let alone a whole term. Students must be induced, sometimes with humor, to concentrate. There must be challenge, repetition, surprise and praise.
A successful teacher can offer spontaneity, immediacy, and instant, interactive feedback. He/she knows that a question is not just a request for information. A question can signal to the teacher that something is wrong with the presentation. Often, it can enable a teacher to involve all the others in the class, becoming part of a different, sometimes unanticipated learning experience.
Teachers learn to walk the aisles, to watch faces, to orchestrate discussion and stimulate questions. Eye contact and a smile – or lack of it – can guide the next part of the discussion, and one student’s difficulties can be used to address those who can’t even formulate their lack of understanding.
Some teachers know how to seize on a recent event and weave it into the discussion, or look at a student’s notebook to determine whether the student was following properly or not.
Depending on the course and the class, a faculty member will help students overcome anxiety, shyness and diffidence. College teachers will use connection and analogies to get a point across. And alert students will follow as a scholar approaches a new problem or situation to understand how an expert thinks.
Listening, correcting, suggesting, modeling, prodding, affirming, critiquing, reflecting, admitting, weighing, arguing, and guiding are but some of the other strategies faculty will use to move students along on a trajectory of learning.
For many there is nothing as effective as face-to-face teaching, and the five-minute explanation at the chalkboard after class has rescued many a student.
There is so much more. Experienced instructors know how to address the blank stare, and are able to evoke expression from students who seat themselves at the back of the room. Reinforcement, encouragement, constructive argumentation all help develop patterns of thinking and behavior which will long outlast the specific topic being taught.
A traditional college education usually comprises 40 or so separate courses offered by as many different faculty members, each of whom will bring to bear those qualities and strategies appropriate to the subject, reflecting his/her character and talents. Students will be brought into discussions where they will venture opinions – and defend them without anger. Most will learn to evaluate disagreeable perspectives and remain friends with both proponents and opponents.
They will learn how to change their minds, to deal with mistakes, and to respect the rights of others.
Faculty members know how to jostle students into active learning. As often as not they are enthusiastic advocates as well as practitioners of the subject at hand, and students will experience the passion as well as the process of a presentation.
Learning from a scholar enables a student to acquire knowledge in an organized framework from someone who has assimilated so much, and knows how to provide a roadmap that is uniquely effective for each particular group.
A scholar knows how to form connections with other courses and plant ideas and insights that will bear fruit in a subsequent course, or later in life. Students must be taught how to approach the unknown, the impossible, the unanticipated and the future. It is the competent, confident scholar/faculty member who will see the need for this kind of learning and have the ability to present it.
Only after the usual 1,800 hours (over 100,000 minutes in the classroom) and the hoped-for 3,600 hours of after class assignments have been completed is it possible to compose the glossy, colored picture. Only then do the thousands of interactions, lessons, topics, and learnings combine to make the graduate and the graduating class.
Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and a former accreditor.