Category Archives: Digital rhetoric

Make a Good Impression in my Inbox: Writing Emails for Your Rhetorical Purpose

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For my upcoming students 

Last year, one student’s email became famous online, not because he wrote the most beautiful note of gratitude or delivered the most persuasive request for a paper extension, but because he wrote a drunken, profanity laced message to let his professor know: 1. He is sorry that he is bald, 2. He can “hook him up,” and 3. He will need an extension on a paper due to his upcoming hangover. If you are curious to learn more, all you need to do is Google “drunk student email.” I mention this because in an English class we would refer to this as a failure to meet the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation refers to how our purpose, audience, stance, genre, and medium shape the construction of our texts.

Most commonly, students will email their professor when life interferes with their ability to complete their work or if they have questions about an upcoming assignment. In either case, the student should remember their purpose is to solicit help, whether that help is to be given more direction or more time. To best achieve your purpose, you must consider your audience.

Your audience is your professor, who is (despite any rumors) human. Humans respond best to polite requests, not frustration-driven demands. Accusations or negative comments usually result in feelings of defensiveness, so be careful of the stance you present. Also, remember you have a professional relationship with your professor. This means you do not address them as “Hey” and write a collection of fragments, typos, and LOLs.

Remember the medium. With emails there are no take backs when you hit send, unlike on social media when better judgment may cause you to delete a post or Tweet. It is good to remember an email message is a particular genre. It may even be an unfamiliar genre. Do not treat it like a text message or social media chat. It is more akin to a writing a letter. The example below fails to meet the expectations of the genre, utilize the features of the medium, or consider the audience.

badexample

Lately I have been reading how periods should not be used in text messages, as recipients perceive this as less sincere. This is not the case with emails. It is actually good to think of text messages and emails comparatively. Text messages to friends tend to be an informal form of communication. Email messages to professors and professional contacts are written formally. Like letters, emails usually include salutations and closings, at least when beginning a formal thread of conversation. Like business memos, they include a subject line, letting the reader immediately know what the email is about. This allows individuals to prioritize messages in their inbox.

The example below meets the expectations of the genre, utilizes the features of the medium, and is written in a manner that fulfills the purpose and considers the audience.

goodexample

The example above has all the proper formatting and information. The subject line succinctly tells the recipient what the email is about. It begins with a formal, respectful salutation. The content is polite, succinct, and grammatical.

TIP: You may not know whether or not your professor holds a Ph.D. If you do not know, it is best to use the honorific “Professor” rather than “Dr.” Often in higher education, we avoid gendered honorifics (Mr., Ms., and Mrs.).

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Remix – The Art of Juxtaposition

One of the featured assignments in my dissertation was the Remix Video. The Remix best illustrates what it means to be a new media writer. We gather, we curate, we link, we comment, and we create. Our social media identities are remixes of shares, posts, retweets, likes, etc. As we move forward in our digital era, we are leaving behind the myth of the self-contained author, who extracts brilliance from his own mind in isolation.

As Thomas Rickert in his book Ambient Rhetoric explains:

“The writer writing is not so much in the middle as extended into the very dynamics of ambience. The ‘writer’ writing cannot be understood as a discrete, individualized entity bounded by skin and self-image, wielding external tools and thoughts (which, by being external, can ‘alienate’ us), for in writing we can entwine ourselves with the accouterment of writing—pen, paper, keyboard, typewriter, computer, books, ideas, sounds, furniture, food, beverage, interruption, serendipity, the things dotting the local environment and the environment itself, the larger infrastructure, other people, even our own bodies—and lose ourselves in this immersion. Ideas emerge in the complexity of interaction beyond our individual control, since the ambient situation worlds us. We contribute, of course, but as catalyst and site of disclosure, not as sole producer and controller.”

What he is saying is that when we write and create we are synthesizing a collection of influences to respond to a certain rhetoric situation. Essentially we are remixing.

Remix and Fair Use

Now how do you deal with copyright in a world of remix? I imagine copyright lawyers will always wrangle with this issue. However, as of now, Fair Use offers new media writers a good deal of protection, especially in educational settings.

There are many great resources online discussing what the four statutory factors of Fair Use are, such as this one from University of Minnesota Library: https://www.lib.umn.edu/copyright/fairuse. Our remixes will most likely contain commentary and criticism of published media clips/shows. We won’t be stealing the main argument or heart of another work or taking a large portion of the original. All the clips we take will be transformed into our own creation. Hence, what we do will fall under the umbrella of Fair Use.