In that lesson, we start with appropriate professional salutations and closings in the target language, the importance of using a clear subject line to ensure that the recipient knows what to expect in the email (and indeed wants to read the message based on your well-crafted subject line), and then work toward the importance of the content of email messages in professional contexts.
Strategically, I am working toward heading off those end-of-course grade grubbing emails by planting these seeds now. But at midterm time, I limit the discussion to the following points:
Don’t put your problems in someone else’s inbox with the expectation that they will resolve them for you. We know from employer surveys that employers want new hires who are recent grads to be able to independently resolve problems and make decisions. Writing emails to your professors is an opportunity to practice this while the stakes are still relatively low!
Use the rules of journalism to provide complete information, including a suggestion or two to resolve your problem in a way that imposes least upon the recipient:
1- Don’t bury the lead. Say what you’re writing about–first, in the subject line and then again in the first couple sentences. Don’t overshare–too many personal details get in the way of the short, clear, concise message that you want all emails to contain.
2- Provide information that answers the 5 W’s: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?
In my course, the in-class activity posited a hypothetical situation that was starting to arise in reality: you’ve missed the opportunity to sign up for the midterm oral exam–all the remaining available times are in the past!
Note that this is not a problem for me, the professor. I had more free time than I expected; it’s easier to record 0’s in the grade book than actually have to pay attention and grade their spoken interaction in Spanish. I don’t necessarily have time set aside outside of the hours already made available to all students.
The students who have a problem surely want to resolve it, but they have to offer some options that have the potential to resolve the situation in a way that is least inconvenient for the faculty member.
I instruct each student in my class to be resourceful and write a complete, professional email to me in real time. The first student to send a complete professional email will end the exercise and I put that example on the class screen for everyone to see.
It can take some nudging to get students to be resourceful in this context:
-“When’s the best time to suggest a make up exam?”
-“Office hours!” “When are those?”
-“Where can you look up that information?”
This isn’t hard core research here, but it is true that we’re not asking students to deploy these executive function skills in real world contexts very often during their university years. If they’re not capable of this level of reasoning in college, how are they going to succeed in an entry-level job when they graduate? This is precisely the kind of decision-making, problem-solving and resourcefulness employers are talking about when they name these soft skills on surveys.
Here is the Spanish-language activity I used in Spanish 2 when we were just starting informal commands:
Cómo escribir un correo electrónico profesional:
1- Usa la línea de asunto. El recipiente debe entender de qué se trata el mensaje basándose en la información escrita en la línea de asunto.
2- Empieza con un saludo profesional: Estimado/a –s:
3- No le entregues tus problemas a otra persona para que te los arregle. Sabemos que los empleadores buscan a empleados que puedan resolver problemas y tomar decisiones de manera independiente—usando recursos que ellos mismos encuentran (Googlear!)
4- Emplea las reglas del periodismo:
- No escondas el titular (don’t bury the lede): di de que se trata el mensaje al principio. No ofrezcas muchos detalles personales.
- ¿Por qué?
5- Termina el mensaje de manera apropiada y profesional: Atentamente,
Ahora, envíame un correo electrónico: firstname.lastname@example.org en que el problema es “Perdí el examen oral parcial…”
This thread of professional correspondence in which you avoid depositing your problems in someone else’s inbox with be a thread I’ll continue to weave throughout my language courses–along with the explicit ties to students’ future careers.
Let me know what professional development and career prep activities you’re weaving into your language courses in the comments below!
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: email@example.com