Monday, August 1, 2011

The potential of humble ol' e-mail to improve student writing

ISW reader James Somers has published a piece for, advancing the notion that e-mail has underutilized potential for teaching writing. James' basic insight is not radical: Like any expertise, expertise in writing requires practice (10,000 hours of deliberate, feedback-intensive practice, according to Malcolm Gladwell). E-mail is a medium where students can get rapid feedback from professors on their writing.

As James sees it, e-mail feedback is the antidote to many of the practices typically associated with teaching writing, practices that do little to provide students the feedback-intensive practice they need in order to improve:

In a typical semester-long university English class there might be three opportunities to showcase your writing, each one a standard one-to-three-thousand-word expository essay, each one born, for the most part, in a few miserable halfday blasts.

Whatever you produce joins dozens of other efforts in a stack whose growing thickness doesn't exactly thrill your professor. But still he'll soldier on and read, and maybe re-read, and mark up and grade each one. Along the way he might leave short contextual notes in the margin; he might write one long critique at the end; he might do both; or he might do neither and let your grade do all the talking.
Trouble is, no matter how detailed and incisive the feedback, by the time it gets back to you it's already too late -- and, in a way, too early. Too late because your paper has already been written, and what you really needed help with was its composition, with the micromechanics of style, with all the small decisions that led you to say whatever it is you said. And too early because even if the professor's ex post pointers make every bit of sense, a whole month might go by before you next get to use them.

This is not the way to develop a complicated skill. It would be like trying to master the violin, say, by going blind to a recital, having an expert tell you all the ways you've failed, and letting that gestate for a few weeks before your next recital.

It's no wonder that so many students struggle with writing: you're never really shown how to do it. Your practice is sporadic and undirected. You're expected to pick it up, basically, perhaps by reading, perhaps by winging an essay here and there. Which is like expecting a kid to pick up tennis by watching lots of Wimbledon and losing in the early rounds of the occasional junior tournament. 

I doubt anyone would question James' diagnosis: Very few of my students are truly good writers. The ones who think of themselves as good writers are good writers in a mechanical or organizational sense. Their paragraphs and sentences are 'clean'. But almost none of my students, particularly in introductory courses,  write 'clean' papers that logically and intensively engage the relevant philosophical content. Moreover, I believe that having students write more or less all the time, i.e., that there's never a point in the course when there's not a writing task at hand, is vital to the practice of learning writing.

The question is whether e-mail is as great a tool as James suggests in his article. He reports on the efforts of John Whittier-Ferguson, who teaches writing at the University of Michigan, The typical guidance professors give to students with their writing
however individuated, isn't fast enough. That it's too much of a loping catechism, not enough the snappy dialogue of master and apprentice. Or as John Whittier-Ferguson puts it, "It's moving at a pace that's not at all like the pace of someone actually working on a piece of writing." ...

What Whittier-Ferguson does is, early on in his classes, he'll make some joke about how fast he is on email, about how he even intentionally delays some responses just so the students think he's got a life. And around when the first essay gets assigned he'll show them that he really means it. Someone will send him an email just for the hell of it. He'll respond freakishly fast. And then they'll get into it.

"That's what it's all about," he says. "They rise to the level at which I'm engaging."

Indeed some students, about a third in each class, take "really substantial advantage" of his inbox: he'll exchange about forty emails apiece with them over the course of the term.

These are meaty emails. Ferguson trains students to focus on thesis articulation, on structure, on particular writing moments -- on the load-bearing columns of a well-written essay.

If nothing else the exchanges get students writing. In office hours ideas can be loose and suggestive, with tone and context carrying most of the discursive weight. Email requires concise specific articulations. 
Now there are two difficulties I see here. The first, noted by many of the commenters on James' piece, is being overwhelmed by numbers. Of course, I let students know they can e-mail me concerning their writing assignments. But I teach about 100 students per quarter. At 40 e-mails per student, that puts me at 4,000 e-mails per quarter, and 12,000 per year. Needless to say, with that volume, I couldn't give any of the students the snappy, incisive feedback James describes. I'm therefore fortunate that only a handful of students take advantage of this option.

Second, my own experience is that students who get e-mail feedback don't "rise to the level at which I'm engaging." Some will, of course, but I've actually found that a visit during office hours tends to generate the most engagement, and greatest improvement, in student written work. Part of this, I suspect, is that actually walking to my office, etc., is an effort in its own right, so students who do so this are already motivated and feel like they've invested something in our interaction. Second, the technologies available to us make student-instructor contact too convenient in some respects. E-mail, texts, etc., are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as casual forms of interaction. As has often been noted, when electronic communication is the norm, the handwritten note is the exception and so gets noticed. My own speculation is that in a technology-saturated environment, the face-to-face interaction during office hours feels exceptional, somehow elevated above the electronic buzz.

I (and James) would be curious to know your thoughts about his piece. He's definitely right that students need more meaningful critical interaction in order to develop as writer — indeed, I would argue that students need such interaction in order to learn anything at all! The challenge is figuring how best to do this given logistical and institutional constraints.

1 comment:

  1. I should add a few things:

    1. The professor, John Whittier-Ferguson, wrote a longish comment below my post explaining in more detail how the process works in his classes ( He talks about how the numbers work in his case.

    2. He's lucky (depending on how you look at it) to be teaching classes that don't satisfy any distribution requirements - they just count as electives for English majors. So the students in his classes are already "on the bus," so to speak. That self-selection helps in terms of engagement.

    3. I certainly benefited from office hours on top of my interaction over e-mail. In other classes, like philosophy of mind with Eric Lormand, I got very little out of e-mail - Lormand insisted I hash things out in person. That certainly helped sharpen my ability to generate hypotheticals and counterexamples, think on my feet, defend claims against objections, etc.

    4. I think this problem that Michael brings up of e-mail etc. being perceived as casual forms of communication, can be solved to some extent by explaining in class or in reply to certain messages what counts as an appropriate tone / style. Maybe this, too, depends a great deal on the students in one's class.


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