Friday, February 03, 2006

Let them know who you are: Talk back (a lot)

In my email folders for my online classes, I always include a “To” field. I can’t sort the messages by “From,” because almost all of the messages have the same sender: Me.

I nearly always have the “last word” in my email conversations with students. Why? So that they’ll know that I’ve heard their question or comment; I’m there. “Good deal,” “Gotcha,” “Thanks for the message”—even a short response helps create the communication fabric that I think is integral for developing the kind of relationship you need to help teach writers (especially first-year writers) how to improve their writing.

This might seem to contradict what I said regarding message boards and not being a “bottleneck” in the writing process, but it doesn’t. I’m talking about conversational responses to specific student messages, not assessments or evaluations or interposing myself in student-to-student dialogue. As I said, I do not at all reply to every message board post, but in the class there are four types of messages that I always respond to:
1) emails
2) posts on a message board thread like Questions about assignments
3) posts on a message board in which students introduce themselves
4) message board posts that directly address me

In the beginning of the term especially, I think teachers should respond a lot. Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm say the implicit “contract” between students and their teachers includes that teachers should know students personally and care about them as individuals (1). In an online class, brief conversational links with students go a long way in making them feel more welcome and connected, and when you’re teaching writing, these feelings can build the mutual respect necessary to work with someone about their core thinking skills.

Think about what you’re really doing by responding a lot. You are fleshing yourself out as an audience for your students, an important pedagogical tool. We might take it for granted, but as students look us over in our f2f classes, they are often subtly—and perhaps subconsciously—gauging what we’ll be like when we read their essays. Online, they can feel detached, unless we actually capitalize on the textual-conversational environment of the online class and give students a perhaps even sharper view of who we are than they can get in a f2f environment.

So in week one, if you give them a message board icebreaker to introduce themselves, write back a lot. It isn’t just touchy-feely to say you have visited their home town; went to the same place for vacation; or share their interest in watching the Philadelphia Eagles, playing guitar, or reading Vonnegut; these bits of data help them get a slightly sharper focus on you as an audience. After a series of responses and a sense that you’re a real person, you will have given students a snapshot of yourself, and they’ll be better prepared for the writing ahead.

1) From Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys (2002) (see p. 99).


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