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Review of  The Inbox


Reviewer: Nicholas James Figueroa
Book Title: The Inbox
Book Author: Jennifer D. Ewald
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Pragmatics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 27.4154

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Reviews Editor: Robert A. Cote

SUMMARY

This book, “The Inbox: Understanding and Maximizing Student-Instructor Email”, by Jennifer D. Ewald, contributes to the study of e-mail communications that occur within the student-teacher relationship. As a common medium that transpires in most academic settings, students implement several discourse strategies for achieving their personal academic goals. E-mail has evolved to combine formal and informal discourse markers, which results in a plethora of mixed messages. This sets the stage for misunderstandings and misinterpretations by instructors who categorize such emails as improper and unprofessional. This investigation explores emails from a group of 338 university students, studying Spanish or linguistics, to one instructor of the same university.

The goal of this study is to add to what is known concerning the reasons students email teachers in the manner that they do and analyze the features and language used as well as the resulting patterns, strategies or connections between language selection, pragmatic functions and email “norms.” The approach is to examine elements of these emails with frameworks from past investigations and study the application of oral and written features. As each of the ten chapters highlights a different pragmatic strategy (e.g. request making, expressing gratitude, complaints, etc.), the author presents different perspectives and examples that can be useful as pedagogical feedback for instructors. By recognizing particular features teachers might avoid labeling the email/student as disrespectful or unprofessional and become more sensitive to alternate interpretations. This book concludes with suggestions for future areas of research.

In Chapter 1,“Student-Teacher E-Mail: An Introduction” the author introduces the fundamental characteristics of email interactions between a student and his/her teacher. As email is a hybrid between written and oral communication, the author advises that issues may develop related to the academic and interpersonal matters. This fosters the need for sensitivity and understanding to be expressed by the instructor through an analysis of the patterns, contexts, motives and goals of students while considering their individual experiences. The diverse quality of student emails complicate that relationship by frustrating the instructor due to the grammatical or pragmatic deliverance and misinterpretation. The instructor’s expectancy of the student’s “non-attentive” manner towards the norms of email protocol is what the author hopes to address by showing that such emails reveal an essence of etiquette and that the blame should not solely be placed upon students. Because of such a hybridity of formality and informality certain oral features resonate within the emails of students, which may spark miscommunication. The author ends the chapter by mentioning previous research and offers a categorization of functions for student emails (e.g. making requests, excuses, complaints, apologies, etc.). Within social frameworks, the author hopes to contextualize common interpretations by additionally offering large scale, naturalistic data from foreign/second language contexts. The author intends to explore the L2 aspects within students’ emails and investigate the patterns and beliefs of students’ understanding in hopes of establishing a better resource for instructors for the cultivation of relationships.

In Chapter 2, “The Present Study: Research Design,” the investigator outlines the research design of the investigation, which analyzed 1,403 emails written by 338 university students. These emails were written over a timeframe of 3.5 years to one instructor of both Spanish and Linguistics courses. Students enrolled in the Spanish courses (293) sent 1,193 message; those enrolled in the Linguistics courses (39) sent 161 messages, and students in both courses (6) sent 49 messages, a majority of which were initiated by the student. Although the investigation occurred without the informants’ consent, the Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research (IRB) and the investigator assured the identity protection of the informants as the investigator and instructor were the same individual. With a natural collection of authentic communicative interactions, this provided data of the students’ intentions within real-world situations as opposed to elicited data. After analyzing the data and the intent of the emails, the author compiled the following list of content/function categories: requests, apologies, “dropbox,” excuses, expressions of gratitude, complaints, and the students’ usage of their L1/L2. The results of the author’s investigation can assist educators and linguists in their interactions with students.

In Chapter 3, “E-mail Communication: Student Beliefs and Conventions,” the author offers qualitative insights towards student beliefs and perspectives on e-mail etiquette and norms.
“The understanding of how university students view and use email with professors might help faculty members accept, or at least better manage, email interactions with their students” (Ewald, 19). It focuses on the difficulties faced during communication within cyberspace as a result of the language, context, or norms. The author finds that students reveal patterns and trends regarding their beliefs and expectations in their e-mail practices. This chapter presents data concerning the content/function categories and provides contextualized examples of each. Of the emails, 828 were categorized as “request” emails that sought information or permission from the instructor. The investigator grouped both “excuses” and “apologies” under the same category: “repair work.” This group included 250 emails categorized as “excuse” emails and 17 “apology” emails. An additional 68 emails were categorized as “expressions of gratitude.” A total of 19 were identified as complaint emails. The chapter concludes with the author advising that instructors should disconnect themselves from the students emotionally and take their time when analyzing and replying to a message without overreacting or negatively internalizing a message. This can lead to more effective ways of communicating to the student and encouraging them to revisit their email etiquette.

Within Chapter 4, “Students’ Use of the Dropbox,” student emails are addressed related to the function category of “dropbox,” where students submit course documents through the electronic medium. In the author’s investigation, 78 emails were coded as “dropbox.” The emails’ opening and closing statements, forms of address and preclosing, and their intent were analyzed. Instructors have at times responded negatively as a result of “impolite dropbox” emails that lack salutations, greetings or closings. The author offers examples of different forms of address and closings and “dropbox” data on the percentages of emails in her study and compares them with those of previous investigations by Economidou-Kogetsidis (2011). The author found that native speakers have access to a broader range of lexical choices for closing remarks than non-native speakers. She suggests that future research provide instructors with feedback and that they include instructor preferences for particular forms of address and student use of forms. Additionally, future research should note the differences between “dropbox” and other forms of communication.

Chapter 5, entitled “Requests,” discusses 828 student emails categorized as “requests.” Some request emails asked the instructor for advice/help, meetings, favors, letters of recommendation, grading reconsiderations or the homework assignment. Within these emails, students added lexical expressions of gratitude, the usage of “please” and apology phrases to soften the strength of their request. The author offers examples of different “request” emails and lexical patterns found across messages. The chapter concludes with noting the implications that often accompany “request” emails. The author noted that instructors should anticipate that such emails will revolve around the student’s academic situation and include polite phrases, expressions of gratitude and apologies. Finally, the author suggests that instructors separate themselves from any prior interpersonal experiences or preconceived notions in their evaluation and response and take into account each student’s situation. The chapter concludes with the author’s recommendation for future research concerning strategies teachers use to convey politeness in response to such an interaction.

Chapter 6 entitled “Repair Work: Apologies,” presents findings concerning student emails that consist of repair work. It analyzes 267 apology emails in which students apologize for specific behaviors or problematic situations that occurred. With expressions of gratitude, accounts of the situation and apologies, students try to repair their interpersonal relationship with the student. The author offers a framework of the most frequent reasons students send apology emails: expressing an apology, explaining a situation, acknowledging responsibility, offering a repair and promising forbearance. The author presents patterns of lexical phrases found in apology emails. Through apology emails, the student attempts to reconstruct their image by positioning their explanation to be heartwarming; this is done in order to bring about convergence. It is a discourse strategy that combines an apology, excuse and justification. The author proposes that teachers recognize the vulnerability of the student and the difference of power in the teacher-student relationship. The teacher should demonstrate sensitivity and understand that students balance academic and non-academic commitments. The chapter concludes with suggestions for future research on discourse strategies that may help educators understand their reactions and responses to apology emails.

Chapter 7, Repair Work: Excuses,” offers an analysis of emails labeled repair work: “excuses.” The data consisted of 250 “excuse emails” in which students attempted to do repair work for previous or future actions or behaviors. One of the most frequent motivations behind an “excuse” email was the student not attending a class, whether for medical or personal reasons. With a combination of “apology” and justification, the student acknowledges their responsibility in hopes that the instructor will empathize. The chapter offers insight concerning instructor reactions towards these types of emails. The author advises instructors to become more sensitive to the situations which might arise. Suggestions were made for future research on instructor reaction towards students and if they are more likely to respond negatively or positively in online communication compared with face-to-face interactions.

In Chapter 8: Expressions of Gratitude, the author focuses on expressions of gratitude which may occur as a result of the instructor writing a letter of recommendation, providing course help, granting permission for course registration, postponing an exam, answering a grading question, etc. The author offers data from her study that supports other investigations and discusses common phrases found in the 68 emails under analysis and explains strategies that students use to express appreciation. The chapter concludes with the author’s suggestion for future research comparing the naturalistic data she presents with data taken from controlled investigations. Such research can result in teachers understanding and managing their relationships with students in a more effective way. She advises that instructors should put aside any natural suspicions towards these emails and try to cultivate positive communication with students.

Throughout Chapter 9 entitled “Complaints,” the author analyzes “complaint” emails where the student is dissatisfied with an action, behavior or expectation of the teacher. Complaints are interpreted as a threat to the student-teacher relationship, as the instructor may emotionally internalize and misinterpret the complaint. The author’s data included only 19 complaint emails sent towards the end of the semester and which involved a student grade, the amount of work due, or the instructor’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation. Instructors often misinterpret “complaint” emails as “request” or “excuse” emails, depending on when the email was sent. She compares her findings with data from other investigators and notes similar ways in which students allude to what had occurred, their ways of expressing discontent and requests, patterns of linguistic features, and tone. The author suggests future research on thoroughly understanding the student complaints. Teachers should evaluate each email they receive in order to understand the type of email involved and how they might respond. Such caution may protect the student-teacher relationship and prevent further negative interactions.

Chapter 10, “Student Use of L1/L2,” focuses on the role of student use of their L1 (native language) and L2 (target language) within emails sent to their Spanish instructor, focusing on the L2 (Spanish) that is present. A total of 63 emails were written entirely in Spanish, and 1,340 emails contained some Spanish phrases, such as opening and closing statements. Such emails varied in terms of student motive. The author notes the importance of understanding why students convey a specific message in one language or another. Student inclusion of the L2 can additionally allow instructors to understand and assess the linguistic needs of students. The author suggests that teachers should be understanding of the amount of L2 used and encourage it in spite of student grammatical, linguistic, and pragmatic errors.

In Chapter 11, the final chapter entitled “A Few Final Thoughts: Where to Go From Here,”
the author offers thoughts concerning her study and its results. She mentions the need for more research including emails from students to multiple teachers or which involve use of multiple languages. An improved understanding of the nature of different emails and email etiquette can strengthen the communicative relationship between student and teacher. The author’s data allows instructors to become aware of patterns within student emails and assist them in making constructive and positive solutions responses. The author concludes by mentioning that it is important for the instructor to identify and modify their response to encourage students to maintain their academic relationship.

EVALUATION

This book serves as an excellent aid in recognizing and elaborating on the patterns found within email communication between students and instructors. It is beneficial to linguists and the academic field as it enhances knowledge concerning the discourse strategies used by students. The author does an excellent job of presenting her collected natural data, analyzing the different function categories, identifying patterns and offering explanations. At times, an instructor may receive many emails with similar motives, and the instructor may unproductively reference past experiences and respond negatively.

This book’s investigation targets an audience of instructors and challenges them to become more understanding of the situations and email etiquette of students, and to practice different methods and strategies in addressing them. Through an analysis of the author’s data and the frameworks of similar investigations, the author does an excellent job of determining what features correlate to different email functions, of categorizing the most frequent characteristics of student emails, and of understanding the linguistic strategies and choices students make. The author encourages her audience to be open to offering positive feedback and suggests strategies to that end.

The goal of the author was to analyze such emails and elicit a stronger student-teacher relationship and create an awareness for the processes that occur. This book would be beneficial in university pedagogy courses that educate young and aspiring instructors to become more knowledgeable, insightful and effective. The contents of this book can easily be understood, and is pertinent in particular to foreign language instructors. Each chapter’s focus and examples are relevant and can help instructors and educators understand the difficulties faced by students. Every chapter ends with a summary of themes, pedagogical implications and suggestions for future research and builds upon the previous chapter in an efficient manner. The book provides a new perspective regarding the academic field of student-teacher electronic communication and the issues each faces in their linguistic and communicative interpretation and strategies.


REFERENCES

Economidou-Kogetsidis , M. (2011). ‘Please answer me as soon as possible’: pragmatic
Failure in non-native speaker’s email requests to faculty. Journal of Pragmatics, 43(13),
3193-3215. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2011.06.006

Ewald, Jennifer D. The Inbox: Understanding and Maximizing Student-Instructor Email. Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2016. Print.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Nicholas James Figueroa is a PhD student at the State University of New York at Albany in the Hispanic and Italian Studies Program. He is currently conducting research on the neutralization of Spanish liquid consonants in syllable final positions in the speech of U.S.-born Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage Spanish language speakers. His primary research interests are in Caribbean dialectology, sociolinguistics, bilingualism, language contact, phonology and Latin American/Caribbean Studies.

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