/  By  / 

E-mail as a ‘secret weapon’ to teach writing?

 The introduction of a recent article in The Atlantic caught my eye. James Somers describes a machine that uses e-mail to help students with their writing.

After the clever hook, though, you find in “Composition 1.01” that this experiment in artificial intelligence is not some robotic incarnation; rather, it’s just a professor from the University of Michigan who e-mails his students about their work.

Is this anything new? Somers thinks so.

Perhaps it’s new in college, but teachers have long encouraged students to submit their work online for revision and conversation.

In fact, e-mail is passe. Most teachers now use Google Docs. So do I.

But as I get ready to launch this year’s version of Google Docs, I admit I’m getting nostalgic about e-mail. There’s something quaint about it.

And in some ways, e-mail might be better than Google Docs.

1. It’s better for targeted writing and revision.

In e-mail, shorter is better. Google Docs is for full essays, while e-mail (no attachments, of course!) is for thesis statements.

In his article, Somers writes:

It’s deliberate practice: goal-directed, supervised. It’s unfolding in smallish chunks in a series of tight feedback cycles.

The key here is “smallish chunks.” We know that students (and adults) grow through repeated practice of discrete skills. Even though I can do the same thing on Google Docs, I’m more inclined to read the whole essay. E-mail forces me to stay focused on just the one thing I’m trying to teach.

2. It’s easier and takes less time.

Although e-mail can’t do as many things as Google Docs (colors, annotation, chatting, and more!), it’s probably quicker. When I’m on e-mail, I read a message, write a quick message, and get out. When I’m on Docs, I’m endlessly organizing and clicking and wondering what I’ve read.

Students, though they don’t use e-mail, find it easier than Docs. It’s just a simpler interface.

But here’s the truth: There’s no actual solution here; responding to student work takes eons, no matter which technology you use. If I have 100 students, and I spend just 1 minute on each piece, that’s about two hours, if you factor in paper shuffling, deep breaths, and other distractions.

3. It’s better in tracking growth.

As a teacher, I want to help my students write better, but what’s perhaps more important is the process. The student also should recognize her growth and attribute improvement to hard work and mentorship.

The new comments system on Google Docs — where you can delete comments and “resolve” them — is clunky. Sure, nothing is lost; the revision history allows for side-by-side comparison of drafts. Comments are saved chronologically in “discussions,” but they’re so piecemeal that they seem fragmented. And the worst part is that you get e-mail notifications of changes, which are impossible to turn off automatically.

E-mail seems saner: the student sends me her thesis, I respond in a paragraph, another thesis (and perhaps a kind note) comes back, and I repeat. The thread is preserved in a logical and readable way.

Somers is correct when he writes (and quotes the professor):

The conversations can be referenced, excerpted and combined; there is a clear trail of progress. “By the time we’ve done our half dozen email back-and-forths about their thesis, a lot of the time I can see direct evidence — and they can see direct evidence — that it’s gotten better.”
That sounds good to me. There’s a difference between “direct evidence” and broad generalizations, which teachers and students use too often to characterize academic growth.
Reading “Composition 1.01” has definitely gotten me thinking about whether to limit my Google Docs to completed essays and to rely on e-mail for targeted practice. Just because e-mail can’t do everything, it doesn’t mean I should abandon it as a tool. Besides, changing things up will provide the variety necessary to keep things fresh. 

Please share your brilliant insights!