On your mark…get set…email?

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.

Read the full post on HASTAC.