E-mail as a Teaching Technique
Most faculty still think of e-mail as informal (and it is), but it is also more formal than texting or Twitter. More importantly, it is perceived as a little old fashioned by students. It is precisely because e-mail is less immediate and allows for slightly longer and more detailed conversations (and attachments), that it is useful as a teaching technique. If you use e-mail for longer learning conversations, and reserve announcements about class being cancelled for tweets or text messages, you can create the expectation that email is a content delivery system.
Here are some things you can accomplish with email:
• Show Your Passion:
Communication is highly motivating and has a direct impact on students’ learning. Students want to know that you love your subject and that you care about their learning. Use your email style to demonstrate that this subject matters to you.
• Digress and Make Connections:
Make connections via email between today’s topic and current events, and have more time in class to stay focused on the topic at hand.
• Introduce Readings:
E-mail is a great way to prepare students for a reading, introduce them to a video, or introduce their first exposure with a new subject. We assume, incorrectly, that students will figure out why the readings are important and how they contribute to class lectures or discussion. It is much better first to get students interested in a question that matters to them and then introduce them to a reading that might provide the answer.
• Current Events
E-mail a link to a current news story once a week and ask your students how it relates to class.
• Reflection and Final Thoughts
Email is a great place to demonstrate how slow thinking can work.
Example of Email Introductions to Reading
This is an example of an email that I send to students a week before this reading is due. Motivation to read a difficult text is one of my goals, so I tell them some of what Rousseau is trying to say in advance and then ask questions that can open our discussion. I also try to supply some of the author’s agenda and demonstrate relevance to contemporary issues as well as those we’ve been discussing in class. Clarity is another goal: what are we reading and why?
Here is an introduction to our reading for Wednesday. We will be reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Letter to M.D. Alembert on the Theatre” from 1758. You do not need to read the intro or appendix, but I’d like you to read the entire letter (pp. 3-137) before you come to class on Wednesday.
I should note that, because I am sending you this email, I will NOT provide an introduction to the text in class. These are the issues I hope we can discuss together, so come to class with some answers to the questions I’ve raised below and some views about the big questions Rousseau asks. Deal?
Rousseau’s letter is a response to the article D’Alembert wrote about the city of Geneva for the seventh volume of the Encyclopedie. For D’Alembert, all Geneva needed to become a great city (like Paris) was a Théâtre Comique. For Rousseau, Geneva is the modern ideal of the great polis, Sparta. Why? What does this tell you about Rousseau?
Rousseau’s letter is a public attack on the fundamental assumption of the Enlightenment: that reason was, or should be, the core essence of humanity and human dialogue. For Rousseau, the Encyclopedie, his response, and indeed any discourse is also governed by rhetoric, passion and persuasion. Rousseau is particularly disdainful of philosophers or scientists trying to pretend they are above politics or emotions. The implications are that society can never be fully rational: trying to make society entirely rational only perverts and corrupts. So this is a text about the importance of persuasion. Do you agree with Rousseau? How important is emotion in any discourse? Note the similarity to today’s prevailing notion that logic is all it takes. (With a Presidential campaign in full swing, think about the importance of symbols and passion in politics. Does the music or drama of a convention matter? How would Rousseau advise the candidates?) Note too that Rousseau takes his own advice, and his letter is deliberately rhetorical and public and not just logical.
Some other key issues:
VIRTUE. This is a key concept for Rousseau. Do you care about virtue? In the end virtue vs. art is an impossible choice; is it better to be miserable and art-loving or happy and ignorant? That virtue is boring in the essay adds to the difficulty.
WOMEN. It is hard to argue that Rousseau isn’t a misogynist or at least a chauvinist, but the feminists are having another look. Sadly, his position on women is an important part of his critique of the theater that we can’t avoid. The basic argument is that when female modesty declines (according to Rousseau) men stop loving women as women and distrust builds (why is she dressing up so much?). Odd, yes, but his fundamental question is interesting. Is there something about modern society that makes women want to be less modest and what are the consequences? Will the men in class be wearing “guyliner” and “manscara” next week?
EDUCATION: This is also an attack on the value of education! Rousseau argues that science, as well as art, show people how stupid and unsophisticated they are. He asks if education will make you happier. Is that a reasonable question? What is his answer?
HABITS: Rousseau believes that habits are really what govern human society, and that we won’t change habits with reason. Habits come from (and can be changed) only through law, pleasure and public opinion. Which do you think will work best? Do your own habits help or hinder you?
In the end, this is a difficult and thorny text, but that is the point. In many aspects of life (including the arts, business, higher education, politics) we often recognize the most important thinkers as those who ask the really big questions, even if they get it totally wrong in the end. (This is how I will grade your papers: I would rather you wrestle with a big issue and fail than be unambitious!)
Rousseau did not resolve all of the problems he saw, but he was a critical thinker and saw new problems and issues. Many of the issues he identified are even bigger issues now. Many critics have noted that there is even more access to art and entertainment today and that might be bad. (Someone needs to defend “Real Housewives” please.)
In short, Rousseau should make you question a wide range of art, media, politics and even religious experiences. But you don’t have to agree with Rousseau. I should note that he calls into question all of the basic assumptions I routinely like to make about school and the importance of art in society! This is a humbling work and I hope you enjoy it.
See you in class.