E-mail Pedagogy and the Cascade Effect

Virtual channels like e-mail can be our voice in an online classroom. They’re one important way we have direct interactions with students. When we go silent on these channels, it’s like staring in prolonged silence at a student sitting in front of us during live office hours.

I was once a master of e-mail, shuffling messages into nested folders, juggling aliases, and networking in plain text. I’ve always had a paperless classroom, so I’d collect student work by e-mail, I’d write students long feedback letters by e-mail, and I used e-mail as an at-the-time-radical tool for building learning communities. In 2001, I had classes using e-mail lists for asynchronous online discussion, extending our engagement outside the time and space of the class, re-flipping my already flipped classroom. In my class, there was no outside the flip. We had discussion and workshopping in rooms together, and discussion and workshopping by e-mail was also the “homework”.

Over time, this evolved from e-mail lists through a now lost precursor to Google Groups, into a learning management system, out of a learning management system, and finally onto the open web. By 2009, I was having students using WordPress and other platforms to build their own spaces on the web, so our online community could gather on their turf and not mine.

But I cut my teeth on teaching hybrid in 2001 with a simple hand-crafted text-only HTML course site and an e-mail list. The prompts were simple. A sentence or a question for each week to jump-start a conversation. My hope, though, and also my invitation, was always that students would ignore my prompts and create their own, using the e-mail list as a habitat for wanderings and tangents.

For many years, e-mail felt deeply pedagogical, a site of agency and creativity. E-mail felt reckless and even rebellious. It was where the most playful flights of our writing fancy and thinking lived. E-mail felt exciting and subversive, a conversation-space with a whole new set of social codes. I would look forward to checking my e-mail at the end of the day — to the flurry of text I’d encounter there.

But now e-mail is dead. It has been murdered by reply-alls, obligatory gratitude, excessive e-mail signatures, productivity tools, mass e-mails, phishing, junk mail, corporate e-cards, and the cascade effect by which every e-mail I send begets at least three in return of decreasing sincerity and substance. The tool has also been killed by faster, more organized, more communal tools that make e-mail feel vestigial. Even the hand-written letter is quaint, easy, and relevant by comparison.

E-mail no longer has the immediacy that once made it so vital. What it enabled (a feeling of always-on connection) now feels stifling inside its confines. In place of e-mail, I’ve turned to tools that invite shorter exchanges (like Twitter and text-messaging) — exchanges that resemble dialogues more than the series of monologues colliding inside my e-mail inbox. And for group collaboration, I use the altogether more elegant Gingko Tree, Google Docs, or even Facebook chat.

E-mail, though, is still ubiquitous for most of us, and our inboxes are still a bear, so I offer here some thoughts on how e-mail can be used and not usedpedagogically:

Shut up about inbox zero. I’ve heard its sirens call and spent a joyous half day with the very useful cavalcade of stuff that started an uprising against the e-mail juggernaut. I even tried to gamify my e-mail in an attempt to bring joy back to the platform. The problem for me is that getting to zero doesn’t actually solve the problem of e-mail and doesn’t make the tool any less anachronistic. No matter how I use it, e-mail increasingly gets in the way of my pedagogies more than it supports them.

Write fewer e-mails. The driving metaphor of e-mail is the repository, the inbox, that gathers content and demands processing. An e-mail has no life outside these containers. When in doubt, set e-mail free by sharing the information on a more open platform (or within a discussion thread inside an LMS). If what you find yourself writing in a message to one student would be more broadly relevant, post to a course site instead and openly share the link. And recognize that the stuff e-mail traffics in — content, rote processing, and tidy containers — is often directly at odds with learning.

Encourage peer feedback. More and more, I’ve given the task of offering copious feedback (which I used to do by e-mail) over to students. If students build portfolios or blogs on open platforms, they can inhabit each other’s virtual space, and the job of offering feedback is dispersed. I still comment on student work, but my comments are one perspective among many and part of a more dynamic conversation. What I’ve found is that I comment less, my comments are more valuable, and students learn more when they’re learning from each other.

Crowdsource Q&A so it isn’t all happening by e-mail. First, anticipate questions and design assignments carefully so confusion is minimized. Then, make space for students to answer each other’s questions. In syllabi and assignment instructions, I write about the importance of agency, so students feel empowered to ask and answer their own questions. The less rigid I am, the less anxiety students feel and the more they take ownership of their work and support one another. This allows me to answer questions with questions, and I don’t feel the need to respond to confusion with expectations or disappointment.

Don’t send students lectures by e-mail. If lectures are to be given, the teacher’s voice should be part and parcel with the rest of the voices in the class. And the players of learning should meet on neutral terrain (which e-mail is not). The ideas of students and not teachers should be privileged in our pedagogies, and teachers should listen to lectures more than give them. So, keep e-mails short and use communication skills (reflection, amplification, questioning) to help students know they’re being heard.

Don’t be in five places at once. The number of inboxes we maintain is increasing rapidly, and I recognize that my brain is no longer capable of keeping track of all the virtual threads that connect me to friends, family, students, and fellow teachers. I used to have a single e-mail account, but now I’m juggling inboxes on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, inside several learning management systems, my educational e-mail account, my personal account, and the account for Hybrid Pedagogy. Not only are individual e-mail messages reproducing like bunnies, but so are my inboxes.

Ultimately, what’s helped me the most is to privilege my presence on one social platform over all others and to communicate this choice to students and everyone else in my life. If you want to find me, the best place to look for me is on Twitter. While this isn’t foolproof, since my entire network isn’t on Twitter, it does help considerably to make me more present for students and to reduce the feeling that I have to be everywhere all at once. (It has also led to some genuinely hilarious public mentions on Twitter from my dad.)

[Photo, “Where’s my mail?“, by Éole licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]