Tricks with Email

Not everything I do is related to debating, and I'm very thankful for that. I like diversity and I like the flow of things to change up.

But everything I do is informed by debating and my relationship to debating. It's unavoidable. Just as my work in debate is informed by my experiences as a teacher. And my teaching is informed by my experiences - both good and bad - as a student. It is something that eschews linearity and causality.

With fall here, there are new students to teach and new challenges in getting them to understand the course material. I am striving to make every effort to connect everything they are doing to the dominant themes we discuss about communication in the classroom.

Here is an example I'm somewhat proud of. After a few email exchanges in the morning just a couple of hours before the speech was due, a student kept emailing me basic questions about the assignment. I answered them directly and without cynicism - something I find harder and harder to do working in a place that thrives on the discourse of cynicism toward students. I also tried to avoid the disciplinary rhetoric of the disappointed teacher. Another difficult thing to do since our society expects that reaction as a part of normal exchanges like this.  Instead, I tried to bend what was happening in our email exchanges into an example that, hopefully, he could use to understand the aim of the class.

Here is my response to his fourth email, where he asked whether he should tell stories to prove his points or if he should "show pictures" because "pictures are more real than just something that someone says happened to them:"

Strange that all these questions are coming at the last minute... You wouldn’t be working on your speech right now would you?

Everything communicates. Everything you say, or type, or present, is going to be scrutinized by the audience for your motives. This email is a great example. As I read it, I think “Oh here is a student who waited to the last minute to work on the assignment.” Whether that is true or not is irrelevant. All that matters is the motive and the attitude that comes with it.

In this assignment, I ask you to persuade us that you are an expert. If you offer a personal life story, think – what will the audience think of me for offering that story? Put yourself in the audience’s position. What attitude will they have toward you as a result of your telling of the experience. The way you tell a story can be done in many ways. The situation or the “reality” is the same – you are working on your speech at the last minute – but the way you tell that story can set up many different responses in your audience (eg: I was sick, I work a lot, I am super busy with campus organizations, something happened in my family, I actually did work on it many days ago but the computer failed, I have it ready to go but I am just tweaking it and making sure I do it right, I presented it over the weekend to my friends and they offered me some critiques that I need clarification on, etc.) Again, it doesn’t matter what is true or what happened, it matters how you present that truth or occurrence to get the attitude from the audience you want – an attitude in this case that you know what you are talking about, you are fluid in your knowledge, you are an expert!

As for showing the images, same idea applies. What do you mean “show an image?” Long before photography people conveyed images with their words through poems, songs, etc. All of these things still have the same effect. Don’t think you can show a picture and be done. That picture needs attention from you as well. Showing a picture – why? What should we be looking for? What are we looking at? And most importantly in the mind of the audience, “What are his or her reasons for showing this to me right now?” This is the question of motive, and it’s one the audience is going to assign to you. What you don’t want is the audience to think, “He’s doing this to get an A” or “he’s doing this because it’s the assignment.” We must work to transcend that, or the class and all the time and energy we spent on it will be worse than meaningless.

In all speeches, every assignment for the whole semester do this: Work to get the attitude from the audience you want by making sure that you say things that set up the audience to believe you have the motives you want them to believe you have.

For a long time I've always wanted to incorporate Burke into public speaking. This should be apparent through the rhetoric I use in the email. After this, he stopped emailing me, and gave a very good speech about, ironically, being really good at instigating and trolling people. After his speech was over, and the class was laughing and applauding, I had to wonder - who was schooled here?
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