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.