I want to start this post with a not-very-brief anecdote on the shifting discourse of email depending on the social context in which an email is being sent. Trust me, it will make sense in a moment.
When I started my PhD program, I spent the first year convinced that my advisor was angry with me for some inexcusable offense I had unwittingly committed before I ever arrived. This was because her emails never started with a salutation, rarely ended with a signature, and usually consisted of one or two short, not always sugary-sweet, and painfully to-the-point sentences.
Granted, I tend to be a little verbose.
(Okay, fine, a lot verbose.)
But her conciseness was downright off-putting. I didn’t know what to do with it, or what to make of it. And it wasn’t just her — emails from professors, grad students, and staff across the university seemed to reflect this “I’m not in this email to craft a lovely letter to you, I’m here to tell you all how it is and get outta here.”
I didn’t understand this until about three years into my program, when my emails started getting shorter, sweeter (not really) and incredibly to the point.
Basically, I stopped thinking so damn much about emails: whether to send them, how to start them, whether or not it was a good idea to send them, who to cc on them, who to bcc on them, when to reply all, etc. While I definitely kept such important (and often politically-loaded) factors in the back of my mind, I had become fully enculturated into the email structure of the space I occupied, which generally accepted the “just send it” approach to emails. Who has time to think about it?
A quick caveat to everything I just wrote: let no incoming grad student mistake this as an invitation to haphazardly email whatever pops into their minds straight to their advisor in a short, terse message. What you say in an email matters. How you say it matters. End caveat.
Then I moved back into K-12, but not into a school or classroom — into a district office. And into an entirely new email culture. Suffice it to say that it’s taking me a while to learn the ropes of email etiquette in my new digs: who to cc, who not to cc, when to cc them, when to use a greeting, what kind of greeting to use, when to use a first name, what kind of email signature is acceptable, when NOT to send an email and let someone else send it instead, when to ignore an email, what kind of subject line grabs attention… really, all the rules are different here, it seems.
If any of my coworkers are reading this, I’m sure I’ve screwed it up on an email you’ve been cc’ed on (or were supposed to be and weren’t…), and I’m sorry.
Why the lengthy anecdote about email? Because this seemingly minor issue I’ve been struggling with illustrates the extent to which digital writing is so deeply tied to the discourses of the communities we occupy in our day-to-day physical and virtual lives. As I was thinking about an email-incident-gone-awry from earlier this week, I reflected on just how entrenched the writing I do for work every single day is wrapped up in the conversations I have with people in my office, the interactions I have with teachers and students in the schools, the climate of the space and the relationships I have with my colleagues, and the history (or, in my case, lack thereof) of those relationships.
Which got me thinking about our students, and the kinds of interactional spaces they will need to navigate when they leave the classroom. Many teachers — within and beyond my district — are experimenting with new ways to communicate with students, but how many of those new modes of communication are also woven into conversations with students in the classroom? When teachers email students, or have students email them, message them, chat them, text them, tweet them, post a Facebook message on the class page, post a video to the Google Classroom feed… how often do teachers stop to talk to students about the discourse communities they are speaking to and within, the norms and expectations of those complex communities, and how to know what’s “okay” and what might offend or silence someone?
An Example: I thought of a moment from my dissertation study when “Mary” (a pseudonym) took an entire class day to discuss an email that a student had sent “on behalf of the entire class.” This particular moment opened up an opportunity for Mary to discuss digital responsibility with her students, to explain the norms of the classroom discourse community, to explore with her students the consequences of speaking for many in a single email. Such conversations, I find, are highly valued by teachers but are, on a day-to-day basis, somewhat rare in today’s classrooms. Lost in the shuffle of too many things, these conversations are sometimes silenced or shoved aside. However, given my own recent struggles with something as simple as email, I wonder if the role of these critical conversations is becoming an imperative.
As an ELA teacher, this is difficult for me to wrap my head around — I would have been incensed if someone suggested my curriculum should value things like email-writing over essay-writing. But when I think about it, I write thousands of emails in my work as a writer, and I write very few essays. Certainly, the academic environment is not all about preparing students for the workplace — it is also about teaching them to be thoughtful and critical human beings who challenge and question the world around them. Therein lies much of the purpose of argumentative writing (I think) — not to teach students how to write effective paragraphs, but to teach students how to develop and articulate a compelling idea.
However, in an increasingly digital world, developing and articulating a compelling idea sometimes happens in an email. It sometimes happens in a meme. Or even in a Facebook post. Furthermore, the social and rhetorical ramifications of “screwing up” in an email or a Facebook post are more severe than in an essay — such texts are directed specifically at certain people, at defined audiences.
What I’m noting here is nothing new. Teaching Channel has video resources related to talking about email etiquette with young students and an entire video playlist on teaching digital citizenship. If you’re a classroom teacher and you haven’t checked out Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship curriculum, you should! And bloggers on DigitalIs have been sharing their approaches to thinking about and teaching digital citizenship, which includes responsible interactions with others in online spaces, for years now.
My recent struggles with email only highlight that this kind of learning — figuring out how to navigate a digital discourse community and all of the types of writing that occur within it — never ceases. Despite considering myself a good writer, a social scientist, and someone who is (usually) pretty good at interacting with others, I am continually learning and re-learning how best to interact with my colleagues and others in my district over email (and Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and this blog, and the list goes on). As we interact with our colleagues and students, how often do we take a moment to make transparent the expectations and norms of the discourse communities we occupy? Conversely, how often do we take for granted that those norms will be understood or agreed upon by everyone in the community?
Questions I will continue to chew on… but will not put in an email. Because that would be obnoxious. (See? I’m learning!)