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.
A couple of weeks ago I decided, after prolonged dithering, to rent space in the digital warehousing district known as "the cloud." One of my laptops held at least five years' worth of material -- digital page proofs for books, JSTOR downloads, extensive photographic documentation of the lives of our cats, etc. -- running to about 14,000 files, or more than 50 gigabytes. Having all of it in one place seemed to tempt fate.
It also meant that use of my digital archive was restricted to times when that rather clunky laptop happened to be convenient. The biggest advantage of storing a file in the cloud is being able to retrieve it on any computer or e-reader that has web access. The savings in exasperation alone are considerable. A feeling of creeping senility kicks in when you end up with two or three copies of a paper that you probably already downloaded, but can't remember for sure (so just to be safe...) or spend part of a trip to the library gathering the same citations you collected a few years ago.
The one disadvantage -- in case anyone else out there has a similar digital hoarding problem -- is that first you have to upload everything, and it can take a while. The task does not require much attention. But even with sending batches of a hundred files or more at a time, it took a long weekend. That doesn't count the labor of sorting and labeling the files and weeding out duplicates, which, like housekeeping, is an ongoing process that never really ends.
After this long march into the paperless future, my study ought to look as aesthetically spare as an Ikea store display -- not crowded with cardboard boxes full of documents from projects both in progress and in limbo. But I'm not there yet and probably never will be. With a scanner and a few more weekends, all the files could all be rendered into PDF. For that matter, some of the material that took me years to locate, and not a few bucks to acquire, can now be downloaded in that format for free.
It's the same text, of course, yet somehow not the same document. The PDF lacks the aura of the original: the constant, lingering reminder that, in the past, readers held this specific document in their hands, focused attention on it for their own particular reasons, and decided that it was worth keeping.
Contact with the original document enriches the experience of reading -- thickening it with added layers of historicity. That said, it's also convenient to have a digital version of it on hand, to annotate or to share. But by the time I finished reading Lisa Gitelman's new book Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press), even the humble PDFs downloaded on a JSTOR binge began to seem interesting in their own right as a variety of social and cultural artifact.
Gitelman, a professor of English and of media, culture, and communication at New York University, finds the contrast between print culture and digital culture much less compelling than a series of developments from the past 150 years conditioning how we understand documents of whatever variety, whether published with ink or in bytes. My hunch going in was that the author would give a fair bit of space to one more rehearsal and critique of Foucault's treatment of the concepts of document and archive in The Archeology of Knowledge. The eyes fairly glaze at the prospect.
Instead, Gitelman practices a kind of conceptual archeology without obeisance to the master, in an argument that stands well on its own.
To sum it up all too quickly, then: Discussions of print culture typically concern published matter of a few general kinds, such as books, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers -- in short, mass-produced texts through which authors communicate with an audience.
But another category accounted for up to a third of the output of printers in the United States by the end of the 19th century: the "job printing" done for the government, industry, and small businesses, providing them with batches of application forms, tickets, order books, rent receipts, posters, and so on.
This layer of "print culture" was part of the basic infrastructure of modern bureaucracy and of advanced capitalism -- as essential to modernity as the circulation of books and magazines was in creating the "public sphere" (Jürgen Habermas) or the "imagined community" of the nation-state (Benedict Arnold). The concept of "author" hardly applied to the documents turned out by job printing, and they didn't typically have "readers," either, certainly not in the sense a newspaper did. But they were integral to everyday life -- and with the passing of time, they could become historical evidence, the raw material of scholarship.
Here the analysis begins to spin out a couple of threads that, by turns, twist together and move at odd angles to each other. Gitelman goes on to trace the efforts of academics in the 1920s and '30s to develop standards for making scarce primary sources available to the scholarly community (using emerging tools such as microfilm) while also establishing standards for cataloging and citing documents circulating through non-print modes of reproduction (for example, carbon copy or the hectograph).
Marketing of the Xerox machine in the early 1960s originally stressed its usefulness as a replacement for job printing. But by the end of the decade, copy shops were sprouting up around college campuses, precisely to meet the need for small-run reproduction of scholarly materials that American learned societies had anticipated in earlier decades.
By the time you reach the book's final chapter, on the rise of PDF, the relationship between the history of ground-level print culture and that of its Ivory Tower analog seem linked in so many suggestive ways that the advent of digital culture seems like just one part of an intricate pattern. Most of the stimulation of the book comes from Gitelman's narration and juxtaposition of developments across several decades, which unfortunately can't be captured in paraphrase.
It's the first of the author's books I have read, but it won't be the last.
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.