Composition 1.01: How Email Can Change the Way Professors Teach

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Each year another thirty or so college students, for the most part English majors, stumble onto -- and then take furious advantages of -- an almost impossibly capable machine.

It works via e-mail. You send it fragments of your paper, maybe a provisional thesis or a few snippets of exegesis. Moments later it returns a fine-grained commentary: "I think you need to make this 'art' connection more clearly in your first paragraph if you're going to follow it throughout the paper.... Are you maybe a little too black / white here?.... I think it's key that you say both things -- that Stephen achieves a success but it's qualified by the ironies with which Joyce frames it.... I don't think the poem suggests he's in a daze."

It combines careful cross-examination of your argument with advice about structure. It copyedits your prose, flags awkward clauses, suggests the better word. It asks whether you've thought about a related passage and recommends books to help complicate your reading.

It does all of this quickly and unrelentingly. When you ask it over and over again, How about this? Is this okay? Am I on the right track?, it doesn't tire or protest. It just continues to politely feed you corrections, pointers, little snatches of wisdom.

If I hadn't used it myself I might not believe it exists. It sounds too much like the sort of overly general and fancifully articulate computer program that AI researchers have been promising, but never actually making, since the dawn of their endeavor.

But I know it's real -- it hums along most of the time in a small, cluttered office on the third floor of Angell Hall at the University of Michigan -- and for those who take advantage it may deliver exactly what they came to college to find: an attentive sounding board whose feedback, backed by daunting erudition but anchored, always, to the student's own words, shows the way to crisper, richer, more reticulated thought.

* * *

At certain moments on certain lazy Sunday afternoons, I'll watch a professional tennis player do something to a tennis ball that I didn't believe a person could do to a thing, and I'll wonder whether maybe world-class athletes are better at athletics than the rest of us will ever be at anything else.

My thinking in those moments runs something like this. I've read that paper by K. Anders Ericsson, the paper that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in Outliers, that touts "the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance." Ericsson argues that to become an expert at something you have to log about 10,000 hours of practice, but not just any practice -- a kind of practice that includes an "active search for methods to improve performance," immediate informative feedback, structure, supervision from an expert, and "close attention to every detail of performance 'each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.'"

I wonder: if Ericsson is right, does that mean that activities especially vulnerable to deliberate practice -- activities like sports -- have especially "climbable" learning curves? That those who devote themselves to the deliberately practicable, as opposed to the not, will master their work faster and more completely?

The idea scares me. I worry that I've chosen vocations -- programming, writing -- that can't be conquered. What's the equivalent, for a writer, of playing tennis with a broom handle instead of a racquet (as a way of learning how to really "see" the ball and hit it solid)? Trying not to use the letter "a"? Is there some academy where young wannabe Gladwells are fed four hundred transitive verbs, then four hundred intransitives, and asked to return each one with a smooth, driving sentence?

* * *

I had hoped I might find something of that sort at college. But of course professors don't train writers the way coaches train athletes. Instead they do it obliquely, one paper, one small barrage of comments at a time.

The whole process is rather clumsy. In a typical semester-long university English class there might be three opportunities to showcase your writing, each one a standard one-to-three-thousand-word expository essay, each one born, for the most part, in a few miserable halfday blasts.

Whatever you produce joins dozens of other efforts in a stack whose growing thickness doesn't exactly thrill your professor. But still he'll soldier on and read, and maybe re-read, and mark up and grade each one. Along the way he might leave short contextual notes in the margin; he might write one long critique at the end; he might do both; or he might do neither and let your grade do all the talking.

Trouble is, no matter how detailed and incisive the feedback, by the time it gets back to you it's already too late -- and, in a way, too early. Too late because your paper has already been written, and what you really needed help with was its composition, with the micromechanics of style, with all the small decisions that led you to say whatever it is you said. And too early because even if the professor's ex post pointers make every bit of sense, a whole month might go by before you next get to use them.

This is not the way to develop a complicated skill. It would be like trying to master the violin, say, by going blind to a recital, having an expert tell you all the ways you've failed, and letting that gestate for a few weeks before your next recital.

It's no wonder that so many students struggle with writing: you're never really shown how to do it. Your practice is sporadic and undirected. You're expected to pick it up, basically, perhaps by reading, perhaps by winging an essay here and there. Which is like expecting a kid to pick up tennis by watching lots of Wimbledon and losing in the early rounds of the occasional junior tournament.

* * *

Professors will sometimes gesture toward a better approach -- they'll share an example of good writing in class and walk through the specific reasons it works; they'll hold office hours or encourage one-on-one sessions to work on drafts -- but still that leaves the central problem: that their guidance, however individuated, isn't fast enough. That it's too much of a loping catechism, not enough the snappy dialogue of master and apprentice. Or as John Whittier-Ferguson puts it, "It's moving at a pace that's not at all like the pace of someone actually working on a piece of writing."

With e-mail, Whittier-Ferguson didn't have to so much invent a wonderfully responsive critical machine as become one: sit at his computer; encourage students to send him work in progress; respond to it quickly. That's all it had to be.

Whittier-Ferguson is a professor of English at the University of Michigan who has been teaching for thirty years. All along he's wanted a way to work with students on their writing as they were writing -- when they were most in need of, and most receptive to, targeted concrete feedback.

It's a tall order. The "English class" has long been a pedagogical vehicle freighted with too many imperatives: teach them how to read carefully, how to think, how to engage the culture, how to write. It's hard to do it all -- hard, especially, when you're one and they're thirty and your principal weapon is an hourlong lecture.

But then came electronic mail. The instant transmission of text. With e-mail, Whittier-Ferguson didn't have to so much invent a wonderfully responsive critical machine as become one: sit at his computer; encourage students to send him work in progress; respond to it quickly. That's all it had to be. And yet that simple practice would incubate "a whole new order of engagement and exchange with their writing that just wasn't there" when he started teaching in the late seventies.

* * *

What Whittier-Ferguson does is, early on in his classes, he'll make some joke about how fast he is on email, about how he even intentionally delays some responses just so the students think he's got a life. And around when the first essay gets assigned he'll show them that he really means it. Someone will send him an email just for the hell of it. He'll respond freakishly fast. And then they'll get into it.

"That's what it's all about," he says. "They rise to the level at which I'm engaging."

Indeed some students, about a third in each class, take "really substantial advantage" of his inbox: he'll exchange about forty emails apiece with them over the course of the term.

These are meaty emails. Ferguson trains students to focus on thesis articulation, on structure, on particular writing moments -- on the load-bearing columns of a well-written essay.

If nothing else the exchanges get students writing. In office hours ideas can be loose and suggestive, with tone and context carrying most of the discursive weight. Email requires concise specific articulations.

But above all it's deliberate practice: goal-directed, supervised. It's unfolding in smallish chunks in a series of tight feedback cycles. 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."

* * *

Of course email has been around for a long time. It grew up in the university. So why isn't this simple practice more common?

I suspect that the liberal arts academy is in some ways allergic to email, that they implicate it somehow -- along with the Web, the word processor, cell phones and social media -- in the dissolution of the written word, and so abide it only to the extent they must.

Which is funny because email has such obvious promise as a tool for writing, and sharing writing, and teaching writing. It takes words and it sends them anywhere right away. If in 1976 you wanted to see a student's work in progress, you needed a printer and an appointment. The student had to take notes while you talked, walk home, remember what exactly you said, and work up a new draft. If he came to another impasse he'd probably keep it to himself -- nobody is going to office hours five times in three days. (Nobody is holding office hours five times in three days.)

Today each of these transactions -- copy, paste, send; receive, annotate, reply -- might take a few minutes. Emails can be composed and consumed anywhere, privately, quietly, at one's convenience. It is the free ubiquitous highway for words. It is exactly the tool you'd invent if you were a teacher of writing who wanted a better way to teach people to write.

Of course that may be the answer: the practice might be uncommon because professors just don't want to see that much student writing or spend that much time critiquing it. Indeed Whittier-Ferguson warns that his approach may not be a good idea for young professors (who ought to be publishing) or professors with young families -- your scholarship will move slower; you'll have less personal time.

It doesn't help that student writing can be unpolished and hard to read, to the point, even, where some young grad students leading intro composition classes find the situation hopelessly broken.

Understandable, then, that teachers aren't keen to open their inboxes to the clamoring hordes.

But it's a shame, too, because that could be all it takes to get a few of those students to take seriously the idea that they have something to say, that saying it right matters; to show them how hard that is and to give them a taste of the labor; to rope them into the delightfully painful business of trying and trying to write.

Image: Alexis Madrigal.

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James Somers is a writer and programmer based in New York. He works at Rap Genius. His personal site is jsomers.net.

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