A new semester can only mean one thing: being thrown in front of a group of strangers who expect you to facilitate their learning how to write. Furthermore, they’ll expect that you will do so in a way that is engaging, applies to their specific discipline, and requires as little outside work as possible. Now, while my characterization may be (somewhat) exaggerated, you will inevitably be made to think about these three facets of teaching composition. This is not to say that some grumpy student will call you boring, out-of-touch, and/or too demanding (although there is always that specter). Rather, during the time that you reflect on your teaching, these questions will naturally creep to the fore of your thoughts. #1) Am I boring/reaching my students? #2) Am I requiring too much/too little reading and writing? #3) Do they see the worth of all this? This is good. Indeed, we should start thinking about these three questions early in a semester, so that we can refine our approach. By doing so, you will foster happy and learned students, and happy and learned students mean enjoyable class periods and positive SET evaluations.
With that said, I want to recommend one possible tactic that addresses the three questions above in order to realize our desired goal. I propose calling this tactic the “unilateral and unprovoked email” (UUE). The UUE, in both its form and content, will speak to the three questions suggested above, aide student learning, and produce positive evaluations.
Try to send out an UUE to the entire class at least once a week at varying times. By sending out this email, whatever its content, one is already “engaging” with students, which addresses question #1. When I use “engaging,” I don’t mean simply to be funny or attention-grabbing. I take “engaging” to be the feeling that someone is talking to me. An email, a little gesture that goes beyond the time spent in the classroom, can help to create that feeling.
Regarding the content, the UUE can contain a number of things: an elaboration of a topic, a reminder, a reading, etc. However, I recommend that it contain either a question or a strong suggestion that the students email you with any questions. Simply, make it known that you are available. What better way to engage students than to actively invite them into talking with you? Now, if you are one who bemoans checking your “inbox,” get over it. Not all students will reply to your queries, and, as a newly minted professor-friend of mine recently said, “Being a professor means answering an inordinate amount of email.”
By using an UUE to engage your students, you are also addressing question #2. If you are fretting about the amount of work your students are doing, an UUE will allay your concerns. If you think your students are doing too little, an UUE will have them think about and engage the class more than they would otherwise, which “increases” the workload. If you think they might be doing too much work, an UUE will help students to know that, despite the amount of work being done, you are available to help.
Alternatively, you might consider including in your UUEs brief commentaries that make explicit the connection between the work being done in your classroom, and the other major areas. For instance, in order to address question #3, I often tell my students about the business major who, after taking my class, came back to tell me that she had doubled her score on the reading section of the GMAT because of our focus on critical reading. Other times, I remind the future nurses and doctors in the classroom that once they enter their profession, their charts, notes, prescriptions, evaluations, and correspondences can all end up in litigation. So, they had better be clear and concise. Even if these anecdotes, because they target specific groups, don’t relate to all students, they nonetheless help to make the work in the composition class relevant and timely: If it applies to the marketing major who sits next to me, then it just might apply to me, the interior designer. Or, at the very least, students will recognize that you are reaching out to a certain student or group of students.
In short, I recommend the strategic use of the unilateral and unprovoked email (UUE). The UUE is a simple and effective adjunct to classroom instruction and can help alleviate three very important concerns. On the whole, this small gesture can prove fruitful to student and instructor alike.
Mike Ristich is a PhD candidate in the department whose research interests are at the intersection of rhetorical and critical theory, particularly as they relate to the study of radical political movements. He currently serves as the Graduate Student Tutor GSA in the Writing Center.