Something to Think About

I was given something to think about today, and I want to toss it out to you and see what YOU think about it.

At the start of every term – in every class – I give my students “The E-Mail Lecture.” I’ve been the recipient of some pretty jaw-dropping, astoundingly bad emails over the short tenure of my teaching career, and I try to stress to my students, early and often, that it’s important to comport oneself in a professional manner when dealing with people like teachers, clients, and bosses.

To that end, I give my students a handout that contains some of the winners of my email collection – letters from Henry and Tad and Dave – remember them? Yes, I saved them – they’re pedagogical gold, as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, I cut-and-pasted them directly to a page that I then printed out and offer up to my new students as examples of some of the sloppy and inappropriate communication that I’ve been subjected to.

Up until today, no one has ever so much as batted an eyelash (well, except to proclaim how terrible the email messages are and how THEY would NEVER send me ANYTHING even REMOTELY like that; the lady doth protest too much, but whatever). This afternoon, though, someone questioned the ethics of my using these emails as a teaching tool, and we had a bit of a showdown.

His stance is that these were “private communications” between me and the students, and that I was violating the students’ rights to privacy by using these emails in this very public way without their permission. It doesn’t matter to him that there are absolutely NO identifying clues in the emails – there is nothing to say that Henry wrote this one or Tad wrote that one – none of that matters to him. His thinking is that I’m being unethical by using the emails, and nothing I could say would change his mind.

While he’s right that I don’t have the students’ permission to use the emails, I don’t think he’s right that I’m being unethical. I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that the emails are scrubbed of ANYTHING that could identify the author. I further obscure them by attributing the emails to the wrong gender – sometimes, I’ll say that the email Tad wrote was written by a woman, for example. I believe that it’s true that, with the exception of Henry, all the students who contributed to the handout are long gone from TCC. Moreover, the students who wrote these went through the same lesson that I give my current students about email (though, of course, they did it without the rotten examples). One of the points that I stress – to the point of actually repeating the heading of the section of the handout – is that there is no such thing as private email. Let me say that again – there is no such thing as private email (heh – that’s actually what I say in the lecture). The students know this, and the fact that they’re still willing, after this lesson, to send me such abominable drivel is almost reason enough to use it in public.

Because I started this blog as a forum for discussion and learning, and because I’m always interested to hear what other people think, I’m turning this over to all of you. What do YOU think? I’m happy to entertain both sides; though I do have to say that it would take an eloquent argument to get me to stop handing out the “Fun with Mrs. Chili’s Emails” paper, if someone makes that eloquent argument, I might have to find another way of getting my point across. Still, pedagogical gold is what I’m sayin’ here, People…



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11 responses to “Something to Think About

  1. I’m on your side – email should not be considered private communication. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve read that the legal system does not recognize emails as private. Plus, the students send the email via your employer’s email system which means the school has access to them (as well as any external service provider) so that pretty much nullifies any expectation of privacy.

    My guess is that she might have been reacting strongly not because she has a strong belief in everyone’s right to privacy but because it gave her that uncomfortable feeling of laughing at people behind their backs (and she’s afraid she may be a future target).

    I’ve been in the same sort of situation when I was a student and had the same initial gut reaction, but it subsided quickly when I saw how abhorrent the examples were. I feel completely justified in using people as examples when they do stupid things and should know better.

  2. Every time you use specific student communication and work on this blog it gives me a queasy feeling about privacy and ethics. We’ve talked about it and you feel strongly in the right so I just keep reading but I still get the feeling every time. I’d be interested to know if the legal system feels they are private communication. Since often e-mails need to be subpoenaed I suspect they can be seen as such but there may be parameters for that.

    Whatever the legal ramifications what I think is more interesting is what Jules has brought up about how the newer students may feel when reading them. They may feel like they are entering an unsafe learning environment where their mistakes will be ridiculed. That, to me, is the more compelling argument for using something else as an example.

  3. nhfalcon

    I see what you’re saying, Kizz, about the students’ feeling towards entering the unsafe environment, but I have a hard time believing Mrs. C. would ridicule any student at any time. I have not witnessed this lecture, but I would imagine Mrs. C. is simply using these emails as examples of what not to do and why they are examples of such. I’m willing to put a fairly large sum of money down that any ridiculing is being done by the other students, not Mrs. C., and that is something over which she has little, if any, control.

    Have you discussed this with Bowyer, Mrs. C? If so, what was his take on it?

  4. I have mixed views here; but all in all, I agree with you. On one hand sure e-mails are being sent under the assumption that only one person is going to read it; however, on the other hand, I have had my e-mails forward to others without my permission and with my name on it. In the end, I see no crime here. Seeing that you removed their names from the note — no crime.

    I do like the idea of using e-mails to teach writing; I have sent my share of poor e-mails due to a lack of reading over them before pressing send. You know, repeating the same word twice in a row or my favorite, thinking about adding a word while writing but not doing so.

    At one point many thought e-mails would improve writing….It forces people to write; however, I receive a number of e-mails in code, no periods, etc.

  5. You can always couch it with an additional layer. As in, here are sample emails that were sent to a variety of professors at a variety of places.

    I understand the qualms, though. I would hate to feel that someone was making fun of me. However, I try not to give them the opportunity when it is as easy as cleaning up my email.

  6. I also agree with you. Since you “wash” them of identity I see nothing wrong with using them as examples. I do something similar in my classroom.

    I think you also do more than prove your point regarding email, but it also emphasize the importance of grammar, spelling, punctuation…

    Think you have another student who might be a problem?

  7. Elena

    I agree with Kizz. I am even afraid to leave messages on your blog. I know that I am not a great writer, but I may have an intresting opinion now and then. I would hate to log on and see this response filled with red lines and corrections.

  8. Pingback: Something to Think About, Part II « A Teacher’s Education

  9. Hm. ARE they pedagogical gold? If, after showing these emails to students and demonstrating what’s wrong with them, you still get similar emails… is it really working?

    (This is something I wrestle with A LOT. Sometimes I’ll think that lesson X has worked better than lesson Y… but you know, it’s never with the same group of students, so maybe the lesson X group was more attentive and would’ve done just as well with lesson Y…)

    I don’t think you’re in water that’s ETHICALLY murky, that’s for sure. Teachers use prior student work as samples all the time, and that’s stuff that’s turned in for a grade, not for use as an example. As long as you leave out identifying details, you’re fine.

    OTOH, there’s something to be said against ridicule in general. I don’t think it’s an effective teaching method. The students who most need to see your real point – that stupid mistakes should be avoided – are the ones most likely to get caught up in the vicarious embarrassment and tune out what you really want them to hear.

    Anyway, to make a long story short (well, short-ER at least!) I just don’t know. I think mostly it depends on your delivery.

  10. Pingback: The Post I’ve Been Promising | A Teacher's Education


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