Today’s multimodal assignment comes to us from Molly Scanlon, an Assistant Professor of Writing at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Shanti Bruce, Associate Professor of Writing at Nova Southeastern University, found that her colleagues were turned off by the informal and unprofessional writing in student emails, so she designed an assignment that would be taught in all composition courses in the first week of classes each semester. I embraced this assignment and combined it with some of the email writing tips I’d shared with students in the past. Making professionalism a habit of student writing can be difficult. For incentive, I give a “professionalism” grade, which measures whether they come to class regularly and on time, collaborate well with colleagues, and conduct professional correspondence throughout the term–all habits which will be useful no matter which field they enter after graduation.
Distinguish between professional and informal writing with an email assignment
Background reading before class
- The St. Martin’s Handbook, section 20a, “Composing academic and professional messages”
- The Everyday Writer, section 2e, “Use media to communicate effectively”
- Writing in Action, section 2f, “Use media to communicate effectively,” pp. 18-19
- EasyWriter, section 4a, “Interactive digital communication,” pp. 46-47
Lead your class in a discussion about how composing an email is a rhetorical situation like any other, requiring writers to think about their audience, purpose, and context.
As a class, develop a list or chart with examples of informal writing devices and academic or professional writing strategies. Then, discuss why each of these is a rhetorical choice the writer makes to appeal to his or her audience. Here is an example:
You may also want to address practical strategies for sending professional emails that can be accomplished by adjusting e-mail settings. For example, students should ensure their names are displayed professionally so that when people receive an email from them, it displays the full name, not “jd420” or “QTpie2014.” Or, suggest that students create an automatic signature.
One-and-Done: Email Settings
These tips can be consulted and fixed in one trip to the email account settings. Since email providers vary, ask a student to show you the interface for their email account and walk through the steps before presenting them to the rest of the class.
Ensure your name is displayed professionally so that when people receive an email from you, it displays your full name, not “jd420” or “QTpie2014.” Usernames can come off as incriminating and extremely unprofessional. This is particularly important if you use an email account for both personal and professional business.
Kim Anthony, Furby Collector:
Include a formal signature below your name that includes your vital contact information: Full name, title, organization/school, phone number, email address. While it may seem silly to include your email, your message may be forwarded to another recipient and may lose the metadata of your message in transit. It’s helpful to provide your email just in case.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Develop a professional email-writing checklist for yourself that identifies elements of a good email and explains why each is important to your ethos as a writer. Molly Scanlon provides the following as an example.
Professional Email-Writing Checklist
Every time you write a professional email, consult this checklist:
Make sure you have the correct email address of the recipient. I once thought that a colleague was ignoring my requests for an interview. There was really no need for this drama; I had misspelled her email address!
Carbon Copies and Reply ALLs:
Be conscious of forwarding, CCing, or the career-killing “Reply All” button when corresponding over email. If you choose to copy (CC) someone on an email, double check that the messages contain no sensitive information. Some email providers chain emails together so you may think you are forwarding a single message when really you are sharing an entire back-and-forth with someone. Lastly, always acknowledge a CC: “Thank you for answering my questions regarding this group project, Dr. Concannon. I have CCed the other group members on this email so that they can benefit from this explanation as well.”
An informative subject line can help to catch the attention of your receiver. Be brief but specific: “Request for Recommendation,” “Question Regarding Journal #4,” or “Setting an Office Hours Meeting.” These provide information that the reader can use to anticipate the purpose of the email as well as its contents.
“Hello Mr. Bond,”
Begin with a respectful and professional salutation such as “Dear Dr. Vanguri,” “Hello Ms. Doeringer,” or “Hi Professor Ekoniak.” If you are unsure if your professor has a Doctorate, then you can always use “Professor.” This is a formal title that denotes respect and doesn’t require you to know their credentials.
“I have a question.”
State the reason for your e-mail concisely and accurately. Remember that people in some positions receive hundreds of emails each day. Long form emails may get starred to read later and then buried under the next day’s influx, only to be forgotten for days or even weeks. Be respectful but direct in stating your purpose for writing.
Be sure to consider any information your recipient might need to understand and respond to your email. For example, at the beginning of the semester, before I have mastered each student’s name, I ask that they include which class and section that they are in. Since I teach four courses, this saves me time from consulting my roster and allows the student to get their questions answered more quickly.
End with a formal closing such as “Sincerely,” “Thank you,” “Best regards,” or “Best.” This is the last opportunity it make a good impression to your recipient. Make it count.
Each time you send a professional email, check your Sent Mail folder to ensure that the message was processed and, if you attached a document, that it accompanied the message.
Consult the syllabus for the course. Using the checklist you developed, send your professor a professional email in which you confirm your understanding of an upcoming assignment or reading and pose a related question or two.
Reflection on the Activity
Ask students to reflect on the activity, using questions like these as prompts for discussion or writing:
- How did you develop your checklist? Did you use past experience with online communication?
- Was it difficult to adjust your writing to a professional tone?
- Is it easier to ask your instructor questions in person or by email? How do you change your approach accordingly?
- How would your writing have differed if you were sending this email to a classmate? To a different professor?
- Describe your revision process. How much did you reread the email before sending it? What elements or words did you revise?
Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org for possible inclusion in a future post.