Tuesday, June 17, 2008

E-mail over Essays?

email I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a month now. I saved the Campus Technology Web 2.0 newsletter in my inbox for more than a month, and now that I have the time I want to comment it. Dr. Trent Batson, PhD, is a professor of English and an ePortfolio consultant in the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology at MIT.

Dr Batson made an interesting proposal in the May issue of Web 2.0; in his viewpoint piece, Writing: It Ain’t the Same Anymore, he proposes that for the new digital age the basic form of writing that should be studied is the email instead of the essay.

A native form (“the boots”) in the digital world is e-mail. Yes, the first reaction to suggesting e-mail is a form worth studying and teaching is, “Oh, e-mail is simple, nothing there to teach or examine.” Until you look under the hood, that is. We thought spoken interaction was pretty simple, too, back when many people predicted we’d have natural language processing software by 1967. Forty years later, we’re doing ok, but no one counted on it taking us 40 years.

In fact, e-mail is one of the most complex written forms any of us has ever written. Essays only seemed hard in school because educators made it artificially difficult: Though many writing teachers are changing the paradigm, the essay has traditionally been taught as an autonomous (not collaborative -- that’s “cheating”) structured communication written by a novice to an expert, telling him or her (the teacher) what that expert already knows.

Being the recipient (and the sender) of hundreds of emails each week, I’m not convinced that email is a complex writing form. In fact, I’m not sure it qualifies as a traditional writing form, it has evolved into an asynchronous dialog. Anyone who has been cc’d on an email chain that consists of one or two sentence responses will attest to that. In fact I would wager to say that most email constitute a Web 1.0 solution to the instant messaging clients of the Web 2.0 world.

Dr. Batson then asks the question “Is ‘real writing’ the context-less essay or is real writing what we all do during a large part of each day as we work at our computers?” He contends that an essay constitutes a “design challenge” while an email is a “communications challenge.” I’m not really sure what the difference is explains that with an essay you must "state your thesis in the first paragraph, limit yourself to five paragraphs, and conclude by summing up." He doesn't explain how an email differs from this. In my experience a well-written email follows the same formula, except you can't count on your recipient reading beyond the text initially shown in their email client viewing pane.

So, I guess I respectfully disagree with Dr. Batson's proposal.

1 comment:

Dave Ferguson said...

I haven't written many essays in the business world, though by some criteria some of my emails might qualify.

I don't know whether most email could be replaced by instant messaging, but surely some could.

What email can do is provide more context to accompany a request, an explanation, a proposal, or instructions. So when that context matters to your reader, it's a good idea.

Many people fail to take advantage of something as straightforward as a subject line -- not "monthly report," but "customer satisfaction up 33%." Not "Re: Re: Re: " but "How to Set Up a Blog."

These folks are astonished at the notion that you could put headings in the email to make it easier for the other person to figure out why you're writing and what (if anything) you want.

Far too many emails combine stream-of-consciousness writing with ritual incantations ("if you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to let me know").

All the more reason to state your thesis (or make your request explicit, or spell out your instructions) in the first paragraph.