In a previous post, I talked about the importance of using the subject line of an email to convey important, contextual information and make the recipient want to read the content of the message as well as the value of using formal greetings and sign offs. On the latter point, I have noticed that even when I explicitly script for students, “Estimada Darcy:” and “Atentamente,” I still find myself impressed with the professionalism of their messages–and more willing to enthusiastically answer them. I tell students this and explicitly suggest to them that professionals (including their professors) are probably going to be even more impressed than I am when they receive professionally-crafted emails.
Here is another aspect of email writing that coincides with principles of language education: transcultural competence. This comes into play when crafting a subject line. For example, if students use the following subject line: “Spanish class today,” that probably doesn’t give the average Spanish instructor enough information. I ask students to put themselves in the position of the recipient and improve that subject line. Most students quickly understand that most instructors probably teach more than one course (I sometimes add that many teach on more than one campus) and edit the subject line to “SPAN 1101, section 4.”
A week or two later, a more challenging transcultural competence task tied to email writing might be appropriate. For example, it’s the middle of the second week of classes (on the quarter system, that’s more than 15% of the course) and your instructor is receiving messages like this:
I am writing to ask to be added to your SPAN 1101/4 class. I’ve always loved Spanish and I took two years in high school; the university placement test placed me into this level and I really look forward to studying Spanish.
When I ask students to deploy their transcultural competence skills and imagine themselves in the role of the recipient of that message, they struggle. They offer what we’ve already covered earlier: “They need to use Estimada!”, “Atentamente?”, “It doesn’t say what campus they’re on!” They intuitively understand that the message itself is polite and subtly flattering. I nudge: “It’s the middle of the second week of classes; more than 15% of the course is completed. What is the one question the professor has that the student writing that email has not answered?”
Some students start to slowly brainstorm: how are they going to make up all the missed classes and work? That would be good to know. I push a bit more: are there any inherent contradictions or big gaps in the content of that message? If all of that is true, then….? Slowly it dawns on some students: ..if all of that is true, then why are you trying to get into the class so late? Why didn’t you register for it back during registration?
The instructor needs the backstory. Did you start in the wrong level and you’re just trying to bump up or down? Did you start in a different section but have a schedule conflict? Did you start in a different language and find yourself in over your head? Did someone just drop the class freeing up a seat? Those are all simple explanations that make sense and provide important context for how one might proceed, especially if offered along with a plan for independently catching up on missed content so the instructor isn’t being asked to offer two weeks of independent study.
If this content is part of a workshop, we can often delve deeply into the intersection of language studies and professional email writing. If it’s part of a language course, the whole activity should take 1-2 minutes so as to proceed with the usual course content.
In any context, I also try to be encouraging by telling students that developing transcultural competence is hard; we all send confusing emails once in awhile; typos abound in emails for a variety of reasons; putting yourself in the position of others and seeing yourself from the outside takes time and effort each and every time you do it; none of us will always get it right. Transcultural competence is aspirational for all of us. Always. This is partly because the whole point of transcultural competence is that it is a constant process of observing, being aware of our own mistakes, taking steps to correct them, and learn as well go through life.
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in job search documents, interview preparation, and academic documents. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” For help customizing your job application documents and navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: firstname.lastname@example.org