Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Teaching Early Shakespeare Step by Step: Week 4 Email

I admit to having issues with the expectations of email.
First, it's not eMAIL, it's really eMemo:
  • To
  • From
  • Re/Subject
So I've never understood the expectation of a salutation. Memos don't, you just write what you're going to write.

Now, that being said, if I was cold-writing a professional, I always include a salutation, but with colleagues or people I'm familiar with? I don't get it.
But I've been told (by stuck up people I don't really like anyway) that I'm flat out wrong. So, whatever on that...

To give some background, I use work email for two main things, communicating with my students and with professors, colleagues in the field. When I talk to professors I don't know I address them as Dr. ---:

For close professors, I often put Professor: due mainly to studying under a Judaic studies professor at one point who explained Rebbe's definition as teacher which to me has the connotation of a special teacher-student relationship, so it's a specific title-term I use for mostly committee members.

For people I am familiar with it's Name:
Once we've traded two or three emails in a single conversation, I do not include the salutation, I just answer the question/continue the conversation. It's a flow thing for me.

For students, since I want to be approachable I start with Good Morning (or afternoon, or evening) (name):
With students I also use phrases like "I see what the misunderstanding was..." "No worries" and especially in online only courses, even :-) I tend to write how I speak, so it's relatively informal, mainly because it's not about a power play for me.
This was a conversation on Twitter this morning- dealing with how grad students are told to address faculty, which in turn got me thinking about how we ask our students to address us.
I tell students that Professor Shimabukuro is fine (not a doctor yet, but when I am, I'll add that), so is Ms. Shimabukuro, or Karra. I always tell them that HOW they say it is more important to me than WHAT they say. Funny enough, most of them end up using Professor Karra but a lot start with "Hi" or go straight into the message. Because of how I use email, I don't read this as rude or disrespectful unless there's something about the rest of the message that leans that way.

With my students, I do have the above image as an example, and this is the language in my syllabus:
Students often have varying expectations with regard to email. Much like office hours, email standards are designed to clarify expectations on both our ends. Please note the following:
  • I return all email contact within twenty-four hours Monday through Friday 9a-5p, often much faster. Be aware of this, and plan accordingly. If you wait until weekends, or the last minute to ask a question or to get help, you may not get an answer in the time you need.
  • Email is an effective way to schedule a meeting or to ask me to read a draft. It is not an effective way to have an in-depth discussion. For those types of issues it is best to use office hours so that all of your questions can be addressed in a complete and timely manner.
  • Email correspondence should be viewed as professional writing. This means no shorthand texting.
    • Some things to include in your email:
      • What the email is about in the subject line such as: Close Reading Paper Question
      • Begin with an address (so Professor: or Karra:) for the first email. If we’re then talking back and forth about the same subject it’s okay to drop it after the first time.
      • Please use complete sentences. The more detailed you can be, the more likely I can correctly and accurately address your question.
      • Please make sure that the tone of your email contact is respectful.
      • Here are some tips for how to email your professor. Likewise, here are things not to do.
    • For example: this email has a clear subject line that tells me what the email is about. It begins with Professor. It asks a clear question, and says thank you.

But I'm rethinking a few things.
  • First, just like the misleading/unclear comparison of presenting your syllabus as a contract, I'm starting to see the same problem with email as professional writing. I'm not saying that students shouldn't learn how to write in a professional or formal manner, but rather that to assume they know what this is from the get go, and framing in this language seems like not the right way to get them to see it.
    • I'm trying to think about how my students USE email. I think most of them only use it for class, I do not think it's how they communicate with peer groups, family, etc. I also don't think they use it for work (although this varies, if they're older students, working or military students). So it seems safe to assume I need to teach them how to use it, provide a general model, and then be specific about what I prefer (my syllabus video stresses pet peeves).
      • I'm actually thinking of adding an activity where they write two emails the first week of class, one the WORST example of what NOT to do, and then the 'right' way. Often it's easier to see the correct format when they have to create the opposite.
    • So if they only use it for classes, and communicating with their professor, the expectations, class culture, all contribute to this and I imagine is very different from course to course (because of discipline, but also generational, how comfortable professors are with this as default communication)
      • I've heard HORROR stories on Twitter and read in articles about how professors deal with email. It's a hot button issue that again makes me think why are you a teacher? But I digress...
  • The other is, while I have a how to/how not to examples, I don't stress it, as I don't like to emphasize the negative because I think it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For me, I try to model what I expect in my communication with them, and correct when I need to. But it seems like maybe there's a better way to frame this (although I like my image example, it's a fun tone, and the thing to include list) and set up my guidelines.
  • In my face to face and online classes, email is how my students communicate the most with me.
    • I give them my phone number, allow texting, as well as use Skype for office hours, and for f2f classes hold regular office hours.
    • But I've had students tell me that because of how available/helpful I am on email they don't feel the need to use these other forms. 
However, this past week what prompted all this was I was thinking about how to react/answer negative emails from students or issues with email.
I always assume someone else has figured it out, and I'm a big fan of not reinventing the wheel, so I took to the Interwebs.
I didn't find any of these helpful (although the Psychology one had some interesting viewpoints about interactions). But for the most part the tone and approach of all of these was not even close to what I was looking for.
These pages/articles ran the gamut from condescending to students- how dare they not write to me in a form they've never been taught, to flat out ugly- I don't answer emails, if they want to talk to me come see me (really? In this day and age how can you possibly make this argument?)

Now I admit, my high school teaching training peeks through here.
I was trained that you answered all contact within 24 hours. So I do. I can't imagine not answering emails, or worse, purposely not answering as a reaction to something, that's just wrong. That's petty and mean spirited and doesn't address the issue.
I am on my computer all day, so I answer emails lightning quick. I believe in being available to my students. How accessible I am, and how fast I respond is a positive that gets mentioned a lot on end of course evaluations. I have set some limits- I try not to check work email on weekends, if I get a bad email I do obsess and it will ruin my weekend. And the same for at night. I turned off notifications on my phone, so that helps. But I also lesson plan and grade on Saturday mornings, so if something comes up I will email them and if they email back, if I'm still at my desk I will answer. But as the syllabus says, don't expect it. To me that seems a fair compromise.

I also think how we use email with our students matters. In many cases I think it's a one sided relationship- students email you for stuff, you respond. This is fine, but I also think this can affect our responses. It can affect how our students perceive of us, and our availability and reliability.
I answer lots of student questions through email, as I said above, it's their preferred method. But I also initiate a lot of emails. If students miss deadlines, or aren't working in the class, I email them.

Good Morning,

I am checking in because when I went to grade this morning I noticed that you had not turned in several assignments, earning zeroes.

Now, first, I want to say that this early in the course, a few low or missing participation grades will not ultimately affect your final grade as long as you start working. Not only do we have more assignments, but there are also opportunities to replace these low grades.

If you need help with time management, or with the material, please let me know so we can work together to help you succeed in the course.

Please check in with me and let me know what’s going on.

I have a strict late work policy (let me know in advance and we can work it out, otherwise, focus forward) so this is not letting them off the hook. But what it does do is let them know I'm paying attention, I'm concerned, and I'm there to help. I tend to send these out more at the beginning of the course, when they're still juggling things. Later in the course, I tend to only send them out if I noticed a good student has suddenly dropped off. It takes no time at all on my end and has huge benefits. A lot of times it opens a dialogue with the student- they were sick, moving, having a hard time with time management. The personal stuff I don't respond to, but I appreciate the ownership and them letting me in. It doesn't change the grade, but gives me more information to help. The course related, time management stuff I always offer to help with. At the beginning of a course, if you mess up and see zeroes for grades, it can be disheartening, and a lot of times students don't realize those zeroes are participation, which is only 15% of the final grade, and there's literally 85% worth of grades left to do. The correction, the reminder, helps them see that.
Not all students respond. Not all students take the correction. But just like allowing revising low grades, it's an opportunity. They choose whether or not they take it.

Now, when I talk about problem emails from students I'm not talking about threatening emails, or inappropriate or sexual themed emails. As far as I'm concerned those are all refer to Dean of Students or Department Chair, and are above my pay grade stuff. I admit too that I'm also not talking about emails like the drunk student one that made the rounds recently. I've never received these informal, wacky emails. In part it may be my personality, in part my class culture (and please don't let Murphy's law kick in and I start getting these) but I don't get them.

No, what I'm talking about are what I'm sure generate the majority of email complaints- ones that don't conform to perceived norms.
So, what are some of the common email problems? I think they really just come under two main groups:
  • Tone or wording comes off as rude or disrespectful
  • Writing style is not college level writing
Those are really the only ones that I get, and even then, infrequently, but since I didn't find posts that ACTUALLY helped or addressed this, I thought I'd write one.

First, I think it's important to identify why these occur. They fall into two main categories:
  • Student who is willfully being disrespectful
  • Student who does not realize they are coming off this way
    • This happens for lots of reasons- maybe they're not used to "hearing" how written word can come off.
    • Maybe they fire something off when frustrated, or upset, and it bleeds through
I tend to respond to both the same way (the first time). I focus first on the content of the email, because these are rarely just meanness, they're about something (class grade, instructions, material, etc.). So I answer the course content question first. Then I end the email with this: "Finally, I'm sure you didn't mean it, but this email came off as abrupt, rude even. In written communication, it's important to make sure that how we write comes off in the tone we meant."
I have found that I get a couple of responses. Students who honestly didn't realize how they came off take the note, many often respond and apologize. Students who meant to do it but recognize it was a bad idea take the note, don't repeat it, but often don't respond. I think this is the majority of the students, so easily, respectfully dealt with.
I also think that this politic, polite phrasing also makes sure you don't lose the student. A more direct email, one that assumed they MEANT to be rude, and then responds with rudeness I think results in a student seeing you as someone who doesn't care, and this in turn results in them tuning out of the course.

The willful student is a different beast altogether.
Now, I've taught for fifteen years, and while I think a lot of times the problem is something else, I ALSO think that there are some students who choose not to learn and who will not respect you no matter what. Thankfully, this is the minority. Any given semester maybe, MAYBE you get one. But you still have to figure out how you're going to deal with these situations as they arise.
In some cases these interactions are due to big, above your pay grade reasons. Sometimes they're just a jerk. Sometimes you're just oil and water. It happens. Not every interaction is rainbows and sunshine.
I do think women get these responses more than men (and from male students who just have an issue with female instructors). I've been challenged on what assignments I designed and assigned ("you didn't really mean for us to give a presentation did you?") and had my feedback and grades challenged. This is part of the larger gender issues we deal with.
But, regardless, we still have to deal with it. And we can't get angry, or upset by it (or rather we can, but God forbid we SHOW that). So we each need to figure out how we're going to respond.

I tend to respond by being overly formal, and specific. Over the years I've developed certain Mad Lib type responses (fill in pertinent details as necessary).

  • I modify the same strategy I used above with the inadvertent, unintentional rudeness. 
  • I answer, usually overly formal to emphasize the tone was a misstep, I only address the content, acknowledging their viewpoint ("I can tell that you're frustrated..." "It seems as though the disconnect was..."). 
  • I have also found it helpful in email responses and assignment feedback to first state what the assignment called for, so that there's no doubt/debate and keeps the conversation on the content ("This assignment had two parts, the first was to X, the second was to Y. While you did X you neglected Y").
I believe that most students will take the hint, and that will be that.
But some won't. Some will continue to challenge. In those cases, I respond with something along the lines of, "I am happy to offer more feedback, give suggestions for how to improve future assignments, or explain my comments in more detail. However, I will not engage in a conversation that is not grounded in these topics or directly tied to the course. As stated in the syllabus, grades are not negotiable."
I think this covers most issues- it corrects, but does so in a way that's not mean and won't negatively affect future interactions because quite frankly if you're trying to correct/model behavior and you do it nastily, the student is not going to listen to you, learn, and improve. So you've just shot yourself in the foot. Plus, you've set the tone for all future interactions, and not in a good way (I think this is particularly key at the beginning of a course). Fair or not, students make a lot of decisions about whether or not they like you. Or like the way you deal with them.

I feel the need to write a caveat here- my favorite, best teachers were hard asses. One made students cry and run out of the room. He was a god. I adored him. I learned best from them not because they were mean but because they were honest and direct. They were no BS people. The teachers, the professors, I learned the most from were not warm and fuzzy people but I didn't expect them to be, twenty years ago I think there were different expectations on both sides (and I'm not saying "kids these days" so hush). But I did know that I was there to be taught, and whether or not I liked them was irrelevant. I was taught to respect teachers, regardless of how I felt personally. Mom would have smacked the crap out of me if I was rude to a teacher (and often did). In life you're going to have lots of people you don't like, but can get things from. It's good prep for the workplace.
However, the flip side is that these people didn't "act" mean. They were not putting on an act. They didn't think less of their students. They didn't refuse to help them. They were simply of a different generation of teaching, and expected a lot. 
I go back and forth- yes I want my students to like me and my class because it makes everything better. But on the other side, them not liking me personally (when I am available, do offer extra help, do give so much feedback, and work to help them succeed) is not reason enough for a complaint. 
But again, this becomes a gender issue. I am often judged not on how good a teacher I am but how well I conform to students' ideas of what a female teacher SHOULD be. Being direct, and not Ms. Honey, this often doesn't work out.
But also, as I've written about before, I think too that taking policing out of the classroom, and instead focusing on the content allows us to be US. Most of us adopt a teaching persona, a way of being, as another way of policing, heading off trouble. IF we don't have to do this, then we can just be us. And most of us who are teachers want our students to succeed, want to be a resource, and are willing to do whatever we can to make this all work.

Now for emails that don't conform to the expected writing style. This can be trickier, and is why I have some guidelines in my syllabus (again, not assuming they already know, I provide help and clear expectations). Some issues, an occasional misspelled word or capitalization issue I assume is a mistake, not willful. From the signature I can tell that a lot of my students are emailing from phones, and typos and grammar mistakes happen. I take them as just that, mistakes. My signature on my phone says "Typos or brevity no matter how amusing are not intentional" for exactly this reason, sometimes if I'm out and running errands I want to get a student an answer as soon as possible. BUT, phone replies do to tend to be short and to the point, so the signature helps mitigate that. A lot of times if it's a more involved email I will wait until I'm home to make sure i get it right.

Now, if I'm getting actual emails that don't follow standard English conventions, this is a different issue, probably also occurring in their assignments, and for me, that's the better place to address this. If I correct a students spelling, grammar, mechanics in an email it can come across as mean, and nit-picky, no matter how justified you may think it is, it can often come off as a personal attack. They've asked a question, or for help, and instead get attacked (perception counts for a lot). However, in an assignment, this is a reasonable expectation. In addition, I do a lot of formative, smaller assignments, which make it easy to correct through feedback before it's an issue on larger assignments. So I tend to leave the emails alone and instead give this instruction on assignments. I also do a lot of discussion boards, which is also a great place to give this feedback and model the "correct" way.
If the problem continues, with no correction based on my feedback, I tend to write a personal email to the student, tell them that I've noticed there hasn't been an improvement, and offer suggestions to help.

I like to think about emails as another piece of my class culture puzzle. I like to present me, and my class a certain way. I use gifs in announcements. I use videos and funny Web 2.0 tools in my course content. I want students to see connections between our content and the world. I want them to see me as accessible, as a resource, and a help. For me these are all part of the same thing.
In my online training, communication in announcements and email emphasized connections, teaching, modeling as parts that worked together. So text to self, text to text, real world connections. Mini lessons that taught or introduced material, and the modeling of Web 2.0 and other tools. So all these things are in my head when building announcements, but also too trying to apply them to all communication.

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