Friday, September 26, 2014

Notes on the Rhetoric of Playing with E-mail Auto Response

The Auto Response Consensus

The consensus on writing automatic out of office e-mail replies says, when you search for recommendations on writing them, that to be professional, best be brief, polite, and to give enough information on whom your correspondent can turn to if they cannot await your return.

U Stand Out's "How to Write the Perfect Out of Office Auto-Responder Email" is a good example of the advice genre: it's smart, well-written, and if your goal is to present yourself as a serious and sober professional, accurate. Written by Diana Urban, the article observes there are two forms of auto-response: the out of office for when you will be, or hope to be, fully away from e-mail, and the slow to respond for when work events -- a sales meeting, a conference, a business trip -- will limit time for e-mail.

Urban goes on to offer smart tips too:
To do:
Keep it short and simple
Use non-committal phrases 
What not to do:
Say why you're out
Say when your first day out was.
Say when you're getting back.
Offer excuses
I loved reading Urban's advice because her list of rules, which I happily break, provides a useful structure for looking at auto-responses as a form of communicative play.

To Hell with Consensus

My out of offices are, well, I'm not sure. They still feel professional to me, for the most part. They're often tongue in check, sometimes done as parodies of other forms. I've used them to detail itineraries, comment on locales, tell stories, poke fun at my job, and to play. Faculty with whom I work often right back to say they enjoy them, one colleague encouraged folks to send me e-mail just to see one. So by and large they work, but some work better than others. What I do is moderately risky; I had one auto response my boss objected to (it's below, so you'll see why), and he asked me to change it.

Still, when one doesn't work, I do risk coming off as unprofessional. And even when one does work, I'm sure there are fussbudgets who get my auto response and think I'm a jerk, or a showoff, or a diva, or self-indulgent. I can be all those things, and no doubt some of the less successful auto responses I write display those qualities. Ah well.

It's just that the tool is too much fun to not play with because the genre, the stuff that comes from following the usual advice, results in messages that are dull. Granted, there's a reason for that standard advice, and there's a comfort in keeping to convention, especially in a business context, where so much that transpires relies on conventions. But here's what I noticed about the conventional out of office. I ignore them. I see someone is out, see a line or two at most and delete without reading. O.k., every once in a while I'll email a hand-off person if it's provided. But 99.999 percent of the time, I ignore the message because I want to talk to the correspondent. And people who write me, almost do so about things I cannot hand-off.

So what fun is there in writing a message that will go out automatically, that I don't have to manually send, if it's going to be ignored? And really, what fun is it for the people who are writing me to get an ignorable note? Sure it's efficient, these ignorable things, that keep the wheels of commerce turning like so much axle grease, but really, how boring is that? Who wants to be axle grease? I'd rather try to be something else besides axle grease. If a lubricant, then maybe a good cocktail (you can define that how you'd like). And so I play with the form, maybe even break it, and I sometimes flop in the execution. But flops are part of play (and part of learning for that matter), and all that's required is getting back up and playing some more. And as you'll see, when it comes to auto response e-mail, all I do is play.

Examples, Followed by Notes, of Auto-Response E-mail Play

Per Urban's piece, my auto responses do come in two broad categories: I will not respond until I get back or I may not respond as quickly as usual while I'm away. But I notice other tropes creeping in as well: the parody, the jealous or angry inbox or e-mail program conceit, the access sucks or doesn't exist excuse, the happy travel itinerary, long travel itinerary, among them.

Two notes before proceeding. 
First: I don't save my out of offices -- the ones I have captured here I found in replies and email strings. I've been playing at this for several years now, and some old gems (and groaners) are lost. Though if you're reading this, and have gotten an out of office from me and saved it for amusement or because you wanted to show folks what not to do, feel free to reply and post it.

Second: I only use auto response from my work e-mail address -- The greater volume of e-mail in my life comes to me via Gmail, an account I use for reading and posting to a half dozen or so academic e-mail discussion lists.

The Parody

Out of Office as Absurdist Play

Macmillan Higher Education and Microsoft Outlook Present

Out of Office

A play about travel, delayed responses, and a lonely inbox looking for relief from the backlog of unaswered messages.

Starring Nick Carbone's e-mail as the forlorn messenger letting you know Nick will be gone pretty much for most of March as he sojourns to the CCCC conference, then to campuses in KY and WV.

Co-starring Nick Carbone, as the absent e-mailer, whose whereabouts wends and wanders on the winds of work and workshops.

Says Frank Rich: Gripping. Makes Waiting for Godot look like an appointment kept.

A song parody
I am going to San Francisco
And I'm gonna meet some gentle people there
I am going to Davis, CA too
And I'm gonna meet with teachers who care
I am going to Napa Valley
And I'm gonna see faculty who share
I will cross the nation, to get this research sensation
That comes from the smart notions
Of reflective teaching devotions,
A new generation of learning explanation
Apologies to Scott McKenzie, but at least you didn't have to hear me try to sing this. Though I will tune into your email when I get a chance, maybe even with a flower in my hair.
An academic conference program session parody
All Modes Lead to Frostburg: MultiModal / MultiMedia Travel in the Age of Conference Going.  
Session Z-28 
On this trip, speaker 1, your absent e-mail correspondent, will explore three modes of travel -- air, rail,  and road -- via three media -- train, plane, automobile. The discussion will focus on conference readiness and how much reading and writing can be accomplished via each mode and media. In creating an argument for productivity while conferencing, using the theories of William Least Heat-Moon, Sissy Hankshaw, and the Geese Concept in Fly Away Home, this session will look at whether getting to #cwcon ( and being at #CWCON counts as work, or whether, because so many of the attendees are friends and colleagues of long-standing, because so many of the sessions will simply rock, the conference time will be too rich and refreshing to count as work much less to get work correspondence done. The hypothesis is that while being there will be great, airlines, airports, the TSA, and other travel issues will make the getting there hell. Each mode via each media conveyance will bring its own special burden; for example, interrupting the ability to compose  during taxi-ing and takeoff, getting inconsistent wifi during railing on the train, and incurring too much swerving trying to write e-mail on the road. That is travel media and conference sessions will dismediate the speaker, causing a precipitous drop in e-mail response time. Findings will be revealed on Tuesday, June 11 at 9 AM upon speaker 1's return to his garret under the stairs.
Of the three samples, the first parody worked best, the second better than the third. The third was off-key.  The use of Playbill and the Playbill font used in the first line singled a theater signals the direction the message will take and sets up the conceit that play's at hand. Note the role given to the e-mail program. That's a common trope in these examples -- the inbox or e-mail program as forlorn, jealous, plotting. Though the parody does follow the advice to be vague about when regular e-mailing will resume, it gives no dates, no specific locations, just enough in the description of the e-mail program's role to set up the alliteration in the description of the Carbone role.

The song parody, with the apologia, gives no dates as well, but does offer a places I'm going brag. I really like visiting campuses, and enjoy meeting teachers and their students, and so frequently the messages will celebrate that. Now in normal circumstances that might unprofessional, but that element of giving a shout out to the campuses I'm visiting, and the joy in the visit, is both heartfelt and, for the company I work for, a good thing.

The third just didn't work that well. I was going to an academic conference, and thought it'd be fun to do a conference session parody. The entry is dense, like some academic conference session descriptions can be. During the time at the conference, a preponderance of e-mail I received was from people for whom the conference program session description was not a regular read.

Contra Urban's advice, the conference parody offers excuses -- travel woes, sorry wifi; the "Going to San Francisco" parody boasts about the places I'll be and for me the fun I would be having (I enjoy those kinds of trips).  Speaking of trips, travel is the premise of the next examples.

The Itinerary

Where I'll Be
I'll be:  In the desert. Las Vegas mostly, but still the desert. For the Conference on College Composition and Communication. From Tuesday, March 12, when I drive to Vegas from LA until Sunday, March 17, when I drive back to LA. I look forward to the desolate desert driving -- five or so hours of no phone, no radio, just road, sand, and a place to be.

I'll be:  In LA for three days -- March 18 - 20 -- visiting campuses and the professors who teach there. LA's not a desert.

I'll be: At home, working from there, March 21 - 22, where work is defined as recovering from 8 days of conferencing and campusing. Home is not a desert.

I'll be: In Norfolk, VA, March 25 - 27.  Like LA, Norfolk sits by an ocean; unlike LA's ocean, Norfolk's is best for sunrise. Norfolk is not a desert.

I'll be: In the office. Eventually. March 28 I reckon, though who knows. The office is not a desert.

I'll be: In the desert, then not in the desert.

How Long and How Far
It's a good thing I don't have plants in my office. They'd be dead by September 2 when I get back. 
I'm about to embark on a national travel odyssey that will take me from Boston to Council Bluffs  and back, to Atlanta and Athens, GA and back to Boston, to Hartford, CT and back to Boston, to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, maybe Palm Beach, then to Memphis and Oxford, Mississippi, then to San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Napa Valley before coming back to Boston and then driving to Beverly, MA. Sadly, it's not one airline so there won't be rewards club boost. 
Here's the break down in case you frequent airports and want to catch up with me f2f. You may want to print this: 
August 7: From home, writing lesson plans and course designs and workshop materials and teaching advice and other things I need to take on, or have completed before going on, the road. 
August 8 - 10: I fly to Omaha on 8/8 so I can drive to Council Bluffs, Iowa, home of the raiding Reivers at Iowa Western Community College where I'll be doing a workshop on Saturday 8/9. The workshop will show teachers how to create assignments so captivating that to students, marauding Omaha's bars instead of doing course work will seem as exciting and rewarding as waiting for ice to melt in a snow storm. After picking up the key to the city from Omaha's mayor and a thank you share of Berkshire Class A stock from Mr. Buffet, I fly back. 
August 11 - 13: I get home August 10 and then head out again August 11, with a visit to UGA to see MARCA progress and then on to Georgia Tech for TA orientation with Brittain Fellows, some of the smartest scholars and teachers in the country where we'll look at strategies for teaching with an online handbook, followed by the all important wine and cheese, which the scholarship on teaching and learning shows binds new ideas to memory. I get back on March 13. 
August 14 - 15: Thursday Aug. 14 I drive to CT to work on a book project, returning the 15th to rest on the 16th before flying out again on the 17th to Fort Lauderdale. And no, I won't stay at hotel on the beach, even though August rates are low. I'll abode near the highway where the rates are really, really low, but where the bar across the fishing museum has a good happy hour. 
August 17 - 27: After arriving at FLL the day before, I wake early on  August 18 to visit Miami Dade Kendall via that convenient highway near the hotel to talk about differentiated teaching in college writing courses where first year courses now include learners who in the past would have been in developmental courses. 
Tuesday, 8/19 a fun day at the University of Miami for a workshop on teaching multimodal composition, with a look at Web tools for creating compositions and a discussion of how to integrate assignments into the fyc course in safe to take steps and on how to assess work that includes more than words. After the workshop, we'll have dinner with some of the UM faculty because research shows that dinner after a workshop, while it doesn't help memory, does increase the stamina needed to multimodal compose a multimodal writing assignment. Once the hangover lifts. 
August 20 it's off to Memphis for a drive to Ole Miss and TA orientation. I'll talk about trends in technology and compostion, followed by one hour conversation with friends who run the program about digital teaching and learning, followed by dinner and libation. 
August 21 I leave Memphis early and land in San Francisco, where I'll be operate out of until August 27, moving around a bit to stay in hotels that are under the company per deim for a big city. I start out of the gate on landing at SFO, where I grab a rental car and breakneck down to San Jose State for a workshop I'm really excited about: showing faculty how to use one of our online handbooks in ways that are fun, teach students how to use the handbook on their own after the course, and that take advantage of the book being Web-based. The workshop will be followed by an exercise in faculty bonding, hosted by the local rep, at bar just a short walk from campus. August 22 is split between San Jose State for follow up meetings faculty and department heads. Monday it's CCSF and Napa Valley, and Tuesday,  a visit to a potential software partner in Palo Alto, literally in their garage, to talk about teaching, writing, and student learning and how that can all be done better with their tools combined with our content and faculty development programs. 
August 27 is a day in airports and planes for the flight back east. A JetBlue kind of day, a direct flight day, but one w/ no Wifi on board. So it'll be a day of writing and annotating a manuscript. 
August 28  or 29, tbd, is Endicott College with one of our authors, Jeff Ousborne, to help in a workshop on teaching critical reading, writing, and thinking in a first year experience cost. Whichever day is not Endicott will be a day of laundry, local errands and some sleep catching up. 
Then comes the Labor Day Holiday weekend, and so back in the office September 2.   
Where even the dust will have died from neglect.
Phew. That second one is long, isn't it? And it includes typos too. Like most of the missives, it was done in one draft. I think it's the longest auto response I've ever used, so long I suggested printing it. One of the reasons for doing it long and listing the places and dates was simply so people would know, if they needed to know, where I was. So my boss, my family. Most people I figured wouldn't read past first two sentences, which form a traditionally brief out of office if taken alone. If you got the message on the 1st of August when it went live, the dead plants stuff makes sense.

What surprised me when I caught up with people at the locations where I was heading, people whom I was responding to on logistics, was how many of them read through and enjoyed the whole. Peppered in there are several references to bars and drink, a fantasy about Berkshire stock, more drinking as the week goes on. Then a full circle close back to neglected office.  I was surprised the long one worked as well as it did, at least for some correspondents.

The first example lead one friend to write me back after getting it thanking me for the poem. The "I'll be:" and "is not a desert" repetition made it seem poetic to her. I'd been going for a spare, bare bones effect, and the repetition just sort of emerged as a way to do that. Maybe the thought of being in a desert put me in a laconic mood. But looking back now, I do kind of agree with the friend who called it a poem. Cowboy poetry maybe? I don't know. I should get points too for keeping to Urban's advice about being non-committal about when I'll be back.

The Long Goodbye

In Great Expectations, Joe Gargery says to Pip, "life is made of ever so many partings welded together. . ." This auto reply recognized a departure.
Merciful travel will keep me out of the office for some time, which means the irregular checking of e-mail. 
I have back to back conferences, first in Pullman, WA and then Minneapolis, MN. After that, meetings in New York, NY.  So the earliest I might, just might, get back into the office is Monday, June 23rd.  I'm not in any rush to get back, though the air conditioning in July is a plus. 
I'm in no rush because the office won't be the same.  It will lack Denise Wydra's laugh. Denise had been with Bedford/St. Martin's a few days shy of 20 years when she resigned, making her last day in the office May 30.  
She had been Director of New Media, Editorial Director, President of Bedford/St. Martin's, and after a reorganization of Macmillan Education converted Bedford/St. Martin's from a company to an imprint, Denise departed as Vice President, Editorial for the Humanities. 
So back to the laugh. Denise's laugh punctuates not only the room she's in - loud, happy, ready, generous -- but carries. It's distinct, and though my office sits a floor down from hers, there's an open stairwell by mine. When her door was open and mine was, every once in a while during the day, if we were both in the office, and even though we wouldn't be meeting, I'd hear her laugh. 
I'll miss that laugh because I had 14 years to come to enjoy and look forward to it. It signifies what made her a good boss (in all my years at Bedford, I always reported directly, sometimes obliquely in practice, but always directly, to Denise): she did what she could, given my strengths and weaknesses, temperament and habits, to give me projects that I could be passionate about, which often meant creating roles that didn't exist before. 
I don't know of another college textbook publisher that has, for example, a Director of Digital Teaching and Learning or that would hire someone and at their start let him call himself a New Media Midwife. Denise rolled with that kind of thing, supported it, and made working for her what good learning should be: hard and important (getting teaching and learning right) fun. 
And so Denise is gone from the office, resigned from Macmillan Education and on to better things, well-deserved new challenges and joys.  
I'm just happy to be traveling and gone from the office now too for a while. The road takes me away from her absence, an absence I'll adjust to for sure. Not by forgetting but instead by learning to live with, when I am back in the office, the presence of her not being there.
Unlike most of the other replies, which try toward some sense of humor or wry observation, this one is a straight up song of praise that resonated most for people who worked in the office. I had thought to set the auto reply so that the full message went to only folks in the office, and one truncated to end after the second paragraph went to people outside the office. In the end,  I let it go out to all correspondents as is, a song of praise, thanks, and farewell. I tried to sketch a quick portrait, a micro profile of Denise, enough so that people who did not know her would get the reason for the sentiment.

Nearly all the other auto-response examples try at some degree of humor. The humor may or may not amuse -- see the next category -- but it's usually clear that humor is intended, which puts people at some ease. The farewell above was unusual for me in that it was heartfelt, and maybe in a way that put people at some slight discomfort. After all, what do you do with that kind of note if you don't know me well nor Denise at all? The other discomfiting element, of course, is the melancholy. All the other examples describe a moment when I'll be back in the office, ready to respond and work normally. This one doesn't paint a happy to be back picture; it focuses instead on getting used to someone being not part of your day any more.

Stuff That Didn't Work
This One Didn't Get Sent -- And You Can See Why
Thos Oot of Offoco os brooght to yoo bo tho lottor 'O' 
O woll bo oot of tho offoco from now untol Mondoy, Soptombor 15. 
O woll not hovo normol occoss to omool, whot woth boong on plonos, on cors, wolkong tho holls of focolty offocos, ond othor joornoys whoro ot woold bo onsofo, ompossoblo, or jost rodo to olso bo on omool.
Ond woth tho tomo zono dofforonco from oost to wost coost, bo tho hoor O got bock to mo hotol room, mo oost coost corrospondonts woll bo osloop, mo control zono froonds woll bo on tho woy to bod, mo moontoon tomo pols woll bo comong homo from thoor fovoroto bor, mo wost coost compodros woll bo workong no doobt, bot O'll bo so torod from jot log, thot O'll hovo no idoo whot tomo zono O'm port of.
So most lokoly, O moy not got to yoor mossogo ontol O got bock oost to Boston ond hovo mo normol sloop ond work pottorns bock. Whon O om bock, O'll roply to yoor mossogo boforo ony othors bocooso yoo oro tho bost.
This One Got Sent and Then Pulled Back
I am out office not attending the Macmillan Higher Education national sales meeting (NSM)  in Philadelphia until August 8.

On August 8 - 10, I will continue to not attend the MHE-NSM becaue instead of just being out of the office, I will actually be on the road.

I fly to Omaha so I can drive to Council Bluffs, Iowa, home of the raiding Reivers at Iowa Western Community College where I'll be doing a workshop on Saturday 8/9.

Though I have normal access to email and phones and things until 8/8's airporting, since I am out of office not attending the MHE-NSM, I will be on NSM e-mail patterns by pretending to be at the NSM. You see, people who don't see me at the office will think I'm at the NSM. My bosses at the NSM will think I'm at the office, working quietly away in the emptiness. And being at the NSM, they'll be too busy to send me e-mail, much less to read the out of office if they do send.

Only you and I will know I'm out of the office not attending the NSM, and then out of office defending Omaha from reivers by showing teachers how to create assignments so captivating that marauding seems as exciting and rewarding as waiting for ice to melt in a snow storm.
The first, or should that be forst?, message can be deciphered, but it takes too much work. And the payoff wasn't there, just pretty standard fare. So I didn't use it, and am glad of that.

The second e-mail went out; it's the one my boss asked me to pull. He was at the national sales meeting (a gathering of editors, marketing managers, and sales representatives to learn about the books and media to be sold this in the fall term) the e-mail references, and I suspect the message put him on the spot with his bosses; he was nice about it by the way, and I was happy to change it for him. The message started out by miming all the out of offices that I was getting from people who were in fact at the NSM, a meeting I do normally go to but skipped this past August because I had the trip to Omaha to do, which required me to travel during the heart of NSM. 

Here's why I think it didn't work. It opened with a NOT inserted. But since I was out of office and NOT at the NSM, where was I? I could have said nothing, or just the truth that I was home prepping materials needed for the trips about to ensue, but I thought it would be fun to make fun of myself as stupid enough to give away in writing that I was pretending to be in two places at once for different audiences. "Only you and I will know" is patently false, but maybe not patently enough to work the intended effect, a laugh at my expense. Instead it came off, unfairly to him, as a laugh at my boss's expense.

The thing about the failures and the ones that don't work too well is that they come from my own slips as a writer, misreading either what the bulk of readers will understand, or on one occasion, what an important reader or two thought. I got a reply to the NOT nsm message from a professor who called it a classic,so it did work for some readers. But as a writer playing with this stuff, I had to do a better job of assessing how it would play to other readers. And I misplayed the NOT one. But a misplay is no reason to quit a game.

Of late, the most successful attempts have been auto responses like the ones which follow, where it's me versus the technology. 

It's Not Me, It's the Technology, Damnit!

Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time, from now to July 1, in a far away land called Outlook, an intrepid editor named Nick left the office, going on a journey that took him away from the comforts of his laptop and its expansive keyboard that Nick knew so well. 
Nick could clickity clack on that keyboard, writing fast replies, long replies, replies with egregarious typos, replies too, though, with sly asides and curmudgeonly preferred names for products he works on. 
But on this journey away from office and the power bequeathed by a full keyboard, Nick goes forth with only his wimpy Blackberry 9300 and its browser so crappy that it cannot load images without crashing, its company plan so cheap, there's no texting included, its email screen so small that even short messages seem long as he scrolls and scrolls and scrolls. 
And even more, this journey out of office with Blackberry 9300 only will be on a road where signals and cell towers connect tremulously, with intermittent fidelity, ready treachery. 
And so it is a journey bereft of timely reading and ready wording, a journey where email will be left largely behind, leaving Nick to wander the off line world untethered and adrift from the good ship Inbox. 
We pray that Nick, on 1 July, when he returns to laptop and full keyboard, is safe, sane, and able to find your most precious message before all others.
Soap Opera
Today on As Nick's Out of Office Turns . . .  
Nick takes a one day trip to an off line writing project, an assignation involving hard copy, face to face discussions, and other collaborative intimacies that will leave him no time for Outlook's Inbox. 
Meanwhile, the dormant hard-drive on Nick's laptop whispers to Inbox that maybe this isn't just a one time trip, an innocent project. Maybe Nick likes working directly and shoulder to shoulder instead of by e-mail. 
When Nick comes back to the Inbox on Monday, will he find turmoil in e-mail? 
Will spam have been answered instead of blocked, leaving Nick with e-mails from a Nigerian Prince offering profuse thanks for having been given Nick's social security number and bank routing codes?  Will Nick in response wait, as instructed, for the five million dollars to arrive in his bank account the following Monday? 
Will messages from regular correspondent have been marked as spam?  
Will filters that send certain messages to certain folders be scrambled, sending messages hither and yon? 
Will email that comes in marked by the sender as HIGH priority be transmogrified to LOW, with the subject line changed to Fwd: fwd: fwd: fwd: LOL cats vs. LOL dogs!!! - You gotta see this! 
Or will Outlook Inbox withstand the Iagoian whispers of hard drive and simply send you this message, telling you all is well but that Nick's in CT writing something with someone and won't be online much until Monday a.m. when he's back in the office again. 
Both of the above venture into light parody, the first evokes a fairy tale at the start and kind of morphs into a prayer at the end, with an implied finish that closing with an impossible over promise -- that the individual sender getting this message has the most precious e-mail in the inbox. The closing line, like joke in the  NOT nsm auto reply that was pulled, spins on the obvious. It's also nothing but an excuse, where I blame my semi-smart phone and connectivity for not replying.

The second sample parodies the what-will-happen-in-the-next? tease that soap operas like As the World Turns employed (Is that show even on any more? Do soap operas still use the question tease?). The second also echos a move used in the Playbill example -- ascribing feelings and intent to the e-mail program. Like a movie trailer that gives away the plot, the final sentence gives away the answers to the teaser questions.

Both make fun of technology and its discontents, a safe terrain for humor, and increasingly a go to move.

Playing Against Conventions Results in Conventions

Looking at these samples, using Urban's advice as a frame, it's clear that the play is defined by the genre I am playing against. Each example has features of the traditional out of office, whether of the won't respond or will be slow to respond types that Urban identifies. Their success depends on those hooks, on the need to start somewhat recognizably and then move off into a different direction. And there's an emerging set of tropes -- travel locations, the nature of visits; occasional commentary on place or events (drinking asides,hotel types); travel travails; connectivity and access; e-mail conventions; the personification of technology; the use of parody; and the use of repetition within the notes -- that give shape to these missives.

I know a lot of folks who do not bother setting an out of office, even when they're on vacation, let alone when they're doing business travel. Because they're always able to connect, they find it easier to just keep up with their e-mail. 

Myself, I look forward to using the auto-response; I travel a lot so I have plenty of chances to do so. It's too much fun not to.  And too, for me, it's necessary to do so. In closing, from an out of office used just a week or so ago, here's why:
I am out of the office.
I know what you're thinking.
It's either, why have an office if you're going to be so much out of it? 
Or it's, if you're going to be out so much out of it as to nearly never be in, then isn't an out of office message pointless, what with the wonders of wifi on planes, in hotels, in coffee shops?
Here's what I don't mean by out of office -- 
I don't mean out of the empty space I have as an official office at 75 Arlington Street in Boston, a space -- -- I've stripped down to nothing but a table, chair, phone and empty bookcase. 
I simply mean away from email access. Because if you're reaching me via my work email, then from your point of view this Inbox you send to is my office, and I'm out of it, not checking it as normally I would. 
So out of office really just means not reading AND/OR not responding to email with the alacrity I would were I sitting at my home desk or office table. 
Now, I do have a Blackberry, an old cranky one with a browser so wretched I have to set it to not load pictures, scripts, media or else it crashes.  Email is text only it, attachments cannot be read, long messages cannot be followed too easily, and detailed replies are hard to write, especially if other things need to be consulted, as oft is the case, things like Web sites I cannot see, files I cannot read, or messages deeper in threads I have not on the devilish little device. 
And so while technically with a BBerry the Inbox is always at hand, I'm not really IN when I have to rely on the Blackberry. It is to reading and writing email what driving is to being in a car with no gas. I can sit in it, maybe coast down hill, but I ain't going far.   
Out of office means I'll be off a regular computer a lot, almost all business hours and most non business ones too this week. In planes, cars, meetings, and workshops instead. 
Out of office means away from the right tools and quality time for reading and writing email. 
And if I cannot give your message the quality read, the quality response, the quality thinking it deserves, you should know that it is because:
I am out of the office.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Digital Academic Literacy and Two Divides: College Readiness and Income

In "Academic Skills on Web Are Tied to Income Level" at the New York Times Online, Motoko Rich reports on "research, led by Donald J. Leu at the University of Connecticut" that shows a "gap has emerged, with lower-income students again lagging more affluent students in their ability to find, evaluate, integrate and communicate the information they find online."

The study is a small sampling of Connecticut middle schools, one from a neighborhood where the median family income is $100,000 and the other from a community where the median income is $60,000.  The wealthier students had "one extra school year’s worth of online reading ability." Rich goes on to report:

“This is more likely a comparison between a wealthier district and a middle-class district,” said Mr. Leu, who said the researchers did not receive permission to study schools in the poorest communities in the state. “So the gap that we found, we would expect it to be greater if the economic differences were greater.”
Yes, given literacy trends in reading and writing map to income, the gap would likely be greater in poorer communities and schools. But the issue isn't just about richer and poorer because the study "demonstrates a general lack of online literacy among all students, indicating that schools have not yet caught up to teach the skills needed to navigate digital information."

That means college teachers see two gaps: one, a digital academic skills gap for almost all students in how they do research and work sources into their reading, thinking, and writing. The students lack the skills needed to do move quickly into academic research, reading, and writing; and two, the same kind of skills gaps among students based on income, where, for the most part, poorer students, first generation college students, and others identified as at risk have weaker skills than their better off classmates.

It's good to have research begin to describe and confirm the academic skills of students, but colleges and their  faculty already know these income gaps exist and so have programs and curricula to address them.

Though that said, not all approaches work to address digital academic literacy.  I visit a lot of programs that offer developmental reading and writing courses, where my work centers on helping programs use the online tools that my employer -- Macmillan Education under its Bedford/St. Martin's imprint -- offers for developmental reading and writing.

With rare exceptions, programs that I work with do not address digital literacy around the academic skills of finding, evaluating, and integrating online sources into online communications. Students, when they go online in most of the programs I see, go into a closed publisher system and do modules or units or lessons around discrete reading skills (summarizing, improving comprehension, figuring vocabulary from context) or sentence to paragraph level writing skills (learning grammar terms and rules, using multiple choice exercises to practice those acontextually, reading about paragraph development and using multiple choice exercises to assess paragraphs). 

The digital learning experience, then, while it attempts to address reading and writing, doesn't address the underlying academic literacy that needs to inform the "ability to find, evaluate, integrate and communicate the information they find online."

In most colleges that I visit, doing online research and learning the rhetorical uses of sources, inviting students to write and think as academics, begins in first year writing courses, courses that come after developmental courses. And in all those colleges where I consult with faculty and programs on teaching source based writing in a digital age, where we touch on everything from students research skills, the ability to evaluate sources, teachers' plagiarism anxieties, and more, teachers are often, though less and less so, surprised that students, these digital natives, don't know how to work more readily in the academic ways the course demands.

But hasn't this always been the case? Faculty have always complained about students' readiness to work and learn as academics. I remember taking first year writing in 1977, and having to go to the library for an orientation on how to use it, how to find things in it, how to develop the right kinds of research questions, how to use the microfiche, the card catalog. I went from a Dewey Decimal small, one-room-on-the-second-floor library in high school to a Library of Congress organized campus library that was its own building.  I went from writing research reports that relied heavily on one or two sources, mainly summarized but with strategically placed block quotes for key passages, to having to write more complex papers that involved more sources and papers of greater length.

I had to learn, as the Citation Project shows students still need to learn, how to read more deeply and slowly and to use the sources both more fully but with greater nuance as a writer and thinker, so that my use of the sources was in service of my argument, my goals in communicating to an audience, my need to find my own voice. That is, I distinctly remember starting college as competent reader and writer by high school standards, but in no way an academic reader and writer by college standards. I had to learn to become an academic.

So too with students today. Their fluency with the digital is economic and cultural. The wealthier the student, the more varied the devices they will have access to, the quality of bandwidth, the privacy at home to explore, the network of classmates, friends, neighbors, and family who will also be immersed in the digital. The greater too will be the likelihood that their high school will offer more digital activities that increase the kinds of academic literacies Leu measured. The less wealthy, the fewer the devices, the lower the access quality, the more stressed the school, the more strict and limited the use of technology in academic settings will be.

But for almost all students on the continuum of rich to poor, well connected to barely connected, the thing that is true about what native skills they do have, is that those skills will be social, informal, and consumerist, not academic. They might search for games to play, communities to join, friends to connect with, songs to download, movies to watch. They'll write a lot of texts and tweets, comments on blogs and social network updates. They may even blog, use a photo sharing site, upload videos, and do so in incredibly sophisticated ways.

But like all students before them, they aren't doing these things in academic ways, except for maybe one course here or there that they may have had. One course here or there has never been enough to cement academic literacy skills, no matter the era or the technology; any literacy skill needs to be used often, and in an academic context, often should mean every week in a variety of courses and contexts.

So no professor should be too surprised that first year students lack the kind of academic literacy first year courses introduce them to. The jump from high school to college has always been big.

What's bigger now, more complicated to address, is the variety of ways research can be done, the kinds of socio-cultural digital habits students have, the fact that even for academics, the landscape on what counts as research, how its conducted, communicated, published, and shared is shifting. And with all this too there is the fact that both professional and novice academics need to come to grips with tsunami of information. Everything is proliferating for everyone -- new academic journals and conferences challenges professionals to keep up and to find the right conversations to join and publish in, the range of databases, books, and source types students can find makes it harder to find things, reduces the time to read sources into a coherent context, makes it more challenging to move beyond the mechanics of an assignment.

The only way forward is to keep engaging, to have lots and lots of experiences and courses that require students to apply again and again their emerging academic literacy skills. It cannot be done in one course, not even one course per year. It's got to be done across the curriculum, in different contexts, with different reasons for research and writing.

Colleges are better poised right now for that kind of constancy than the K-12 schools are. But even in college, it's very difficult to build a cultural where there's sustained, rather than ad hoc, attention to direct instruction and transfer of academic literacy skills across courses. Not impossible -- good WAC/WID programs do exist -- but very challenging. And very necessary.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Suggestions for Teaching College Students How to Write a Teaching Evaluation

Why Teaching Evaluation Matters

Student evaluations of teachers (SETS) are tricky things. Many teachers do not find them particularly useful, yet many administrators rely on them to assess teaching. For adjuncts especially, SETs can be fraught because poor evaluations, or too many negative comments in otherwise neutral or even good evaluations, can get you fired.

If you talk to students about doing SETs, many, maybe most, will say that they don't think their comments matter, and so the do them, but not with as much thought or reflection as hoped for, maybe with a touch of cynicism.

Yet as imperfect a system SET is -- and Rebecca Schuman describes some of the problems here -- for those many professors who do care about teaching, student evaluations do sometimes offer constructive feedback. And it can happen more often if students are taught how to write constructive evaluative comments on those portions of SETs that call for written comments, a skill that can be and is worth teaching.

The student evaluation of teachers (SET) is a largely ignored genre. But to the extent that it involves writing, thinking, judgment, has a purpose and multiple audiences (the professor, the department chair, the promotion committee and others), can have an impact on the learning of future students if drafted effectively, the SET is a genre worth teaching.

So here are some notes toward doing that, beginning with some tips and strategies to give to students.  When I teach, I usually teach a writing course, where a lot of what follows can be worked in a course more easily than perhaps a psychology of physics course. And I don't want to suggest that writing courses should all be responsible for teaching SET writing. What I do want to suggest is that SET writing can be taught in any course if a professor wants to make some time for it, and that there are good reasons for doing so if one can find a way to make it work.

Teaching Evaluation -- Four Things I Try Convey to Students When I Teach SET Writing

1. Show Don't Tell 

Early in the semester, sometimes on the first day of class, I write on the board this sentence: My wife has a pretty cat.  Then I sit down, tell students to take out a sheet of paper, put their name and the date on it, and I declare a test: they have 10 minutes to accurately describe my wife's cat.

Students cannot of course say anything accurate about the cat; "pretty" tells them nothing they can use to describe it. It's an opinion, unsupported by a photo, prior knowledge, context, or even a description of the cat. Much of the writing in SETs is of the "pretty cat" type: students assert a behavior or attribute to the course or professor without context or details enough to make the feedback useful.

So the first thing I tell students is that they need to describe something that leads to the judgment they are making; they need to ground their reviews.

Instead of "My teacher is lazy," for example, they might say:
In the syllabus, it said papers would be turned back within three days with comments. However, this semester, we only got our papers back in three days once. The average was five days, and for two assignments took even longer. Three of those times, we were not given more time to revise -- our next deadline held even though we lacked the time promised to get the work revised. The worst was the last assignment, when returned papers were five days late and we only got two days to revise a ten page paper that had extensive comments. This made it hard to plan work, and I had to cut into time I'd set aside for other courses. If it's going to take five days instead of three, change the syllabus, and for every day late back, we should get a day extension on the next due date. But it would be better to just stay on schedule.

2. Transfer Critical Reading and Writing to the SET Endeavor

The detail in the imaginary critique above describes a teacher not following the syllabus, and leads to a suggestion that the teacher either do what the syllabus says they will do or to change the syllabus and course schedule to do what the teacher ends up doing.

In other assignments and other courses, students are taught to write with the kind of detail, analysis and suggestion shown above. But that skill, I've found, doesn't transfer automatically. A SET doesn't trigger in most students their ability to write with the kind of detail they might have done in a formal assignment. I think this is so because SET questions that invite writing come in the context, often, of a survey, where Likert Scales and ratings questions are designed for data gathering set students to write short, "pretty cat" responses to open ended questions.

When I talk to students about SET writing, I have to know how the SET system in use where I teach frames and poses open-ended questions. With that knowledge, I can focus a bit on addressing the desire for students to transfer some of the analysis skills we used reading texts in the course to the course. That is, the course and my teaching become the text they are asked to analyze, assess, describe and review.

Something Any Teacher Can Try

To prepare for a semester ending SET, I'll often ask students to write anonymous mid-term reviews based on the kinds of questions I know the SET will ask. After students post anonymously, I'll log in and respond, focusing both on the structure of the critique -- whether it had enough detail for me to understand the basis of the review -- and if the structure was good, a response to the review. If the comments lacked the kind of detail needed to be useful, the kind of structure I asked for, I'd explain why I couldn't use the feedback, and would invite a revision.

For the mid-term self-generated SET, I mix this up and sometimes include peer review, letting students swap critiques so they can give one another feedback and advice for revision. But also, like with any reading they do, they can share a discussion about the shared reading (me as teacher and the course) and topics they're choosing to write on.

This call to revise and to peer review is a moment where I am treating the SET writing like any other writing in the course. Though in the final SET circumstance will often not allow for that kind of revision and review, getting practice writing to a SET question and treating it as writing worth revising, helps get them ready for official SET moment by giving them practice that associates SET writing with the same kind of critical writing and revising they do normally.

After receiving these mid-term evaluations, in addition to written responses, I'll say take some time to summarize for the class the gist of things, to discuss the course, and together, if I'm going to make adjustments to the syllabus and course, we'll talk about what those might be. I want students to see changes in my teaching that come from their reviews. I want them to see that constructive feedback can make a difference, and that for me these reviews matter. That helps them to write better reviews at the end of the term, reducing some of the cynicism.

3. Do Not Critique Dress, Hair, Make Up, Weight, Gender, Orientation, or Politics

So here's what I tell students: you may not like nor understand as a person every teacher you have. However, these reviews are a place to address teaching. Chances are if you're motivated to say anything about clothing, body, gender, orientation or other issues, you either did not like the course's topic, approach to the topics taught, or the teaching strategies used, the assignments, books, homework, and so on. Or, I say too, you've been to Rate My Professors and have used the hotness rating.

But to write an effective SET, to have your judgments considered, describe and critique or praise the teaching, the course content, the assignments, the grading policies, and teacher behavior as a teacher (handing back work on time, treating students fairly and with respect, for example).

A lot of times students fall into the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy-- a woman professor who assigns readings that criticize male behavior is a feminist who hates men. Because of this, they come to see a direct critique of a professor's gender, orientation, or politics as a critique of a course's content or politics, especially if the content, readings, and discussions make the student uncomfortable. When I teach SET writing, we spend a bit of time discussing this fallacy among others.

Instead of addressing the teacher, students can be taught to address the course: What questions did the course ask you to ask? Why did you not like those questions? If the professor critiqued your writing or comments you made in class discussions, was that done respectfully?

These kinds of questions will not stop a student who is angry about a course in some way from expressing that anger, what I stress with students is that this truth holds: -- the more they  can describe the details of a course that they did not like nor agree with, the better teachers, their mentors or supervisors, can discern how to address the complaint.

4. Describe Strengths, Things that Worked 

A lot can be learned from knowing what works, especially if a learner can tell a teacher why something worked. I ask students to think through these questions: What in an assignment helped you learn? What projects worked? What about the grading policy made sense and seemed fair? What motivated you to do better work?

When I address this with students, the need to describe what works and why, I remind them that teaching is an experiment. No teacher can control for all variables -- the collection of students assembled, the class chemistry that will emerge, how an assignment will work. We talk about how in a class an assignment will work for some students and not others. They almost all can recall a time when they've gotten something a classmate hasn't or vice-versa. Plus asking the questions also gives them insight into how they learn and what kinds of learners they are.

I tell them how sometimes as a teacher, an assignment that goes great in one class will bomb in the next when one is teaching two or three sections of the same course. Teaching is not a certain thing, no more than learning is it. A syllabus is a learning hypothesis, not a guarantee, not a fact. Teachers learn as much from knowing why something was good and how it worked for a learner as they do from when it doesn't.

I remind them too, if you can describe something that worked -- only doing so if something did, of course -- then descriptions of what didn't work or suggestions for what might change will be easier to hear, assess and consider.

Notes for Teachers

Assign Practice Writing Teacher Evaluations

As noted above, I'll ask students to practice evaluations. When they do a mid-term review of my teaching, it's easy to set up anonymous mini-evaluations using something like Survey Monkey, Google Forms, or other options.  I'll include some Likert and rating scale questions to mimic more the kind of context they'll see in a course ending SET. To transfer critical reading, analysis, review and recommendation skills takes practice.

Sometimes I'll ask students to craft a review with their name on it, of a course other than mine. They keep that course anonymous by not naming the professor nor the course title or section. They have to practice describing course activities -- a classroom discussion, homework, how a professor works in the course, and as well, in this version of the writing, how they responded to the work and managed their role in the class. This morphs a bit a traditional SET question into an exercise in learning awareness, but it gets at SET skill practices too.

I don't mind taking some time on this because the ability to read closely, to observe, record detail, draw inferences, come up with recommendations, analyze what might be worth changing, are all skills central to my writing course. In treating courses they take (mine included) like a text, I'm asking students to read courses and their own learning crtically. In asking them to look at the teaching and learning, I'm asking them to be reflective students, which goes to them being reflective writers, thinkers, and learners overall.

Not every course lends itself to asking students to do this kind of writing about what's going on in other courses. It is the kind of writing assignment that can work in first year seminars, study skills courses, or courses that touch on pedagogy and teaching and learning. If you are not teaching a course where the assignment makes sense, then I still recommend doing a mid-term SET of your course, where, on the writing portion, you ask students for detailed feedback. But teach what you mean by detailed feedback, perhaps by drafting examples (Take the one above under "Show Don't Tell" if you'd like.) of what you'd like to see.

You can connect the skills of observation, analysis, writing, and recommendation that might map to the disciplinary thinking your course encourages, and ask students to write in a way that applies those ways of seeing and thinking to your course and its structure. If you do not have time to read and respond to students individually, to ask for revisions, to organize peer review, that's o.k.. Just taking the time to read through the feedback, acknowledge it, and talk about how you'll use it will in itself be a form of feedback and validation, and just the act of being asked to write to a SET question, and to see that writing read and considered will give students some practice and motivation in writing better responses at the term's end.

How Teaching Evaluation Has Changed My Teaching

I had lunch with a friend last week who described a set of evaluations she once got, where the students complained that she didn't do enough work and that they did more. Students went into her course assuming she would lecture, give tests, and grade their essays. That their job was to show up, listen and take notes, go home, read, draft and revise, and answer questions when called upon. So the reviews were harsh when the course didn't do what they had come to expect.

The next time she taught, she spent more time explaining to students why they were doing more workshops, why they were in small group discussions taking turns as discussion leaders, why they had drafts were the only feedback they got was from fellow writers. All those choices my friend made had very good pedagogical reasons that once students understood them, they accepted more, which lead to better evaluations and reviews, including ideas for making the workshops even more effective. Students instead of pushing against, were pulling with the teacher, and the feedback became more constructive, the reviews more positive.

Getting students to understand the purpose of the work in the course -- the readings, discussions, workshops, peer review, why an essay will be held five days before getting it back instead of three, how one assignment paves the way for another, why some things are done over and over, why others are optional, how the work of the course will be assessed -- goes a long way to getting constructive teaching evaluations.

Too often students enter a course and are asked to do work in it without understanding how that work moves them to a teacher's goal. I believe in a constructivist classroom by and large, that in a writing course students learn to write by writing, by reading writing with a writer's eye (to see how something is constructed) as well as reader's eye (to understand the argument) and a critic's eye (to assay the essay). Writers need to be able to describe writing and to describe for fellow writers their reading experience, to offer suggestions for revision. Seeing writing this way helps them write their own stuff and helps the make decisions about the feedback they're given.

Every time I give an assignment, describe an activity, set up a workshop, I include in the doing a reminder of how the work pertains to those beliefs. Not once, not occasionally, but every time. I've found that with that, even if a student doesn't like me or my course (as sometimes will happen), they at least understand the rationale of my teaching and assignments, my purposes and pedagogy.  And understanding that helps them to write better evaluations and more useful reviews in the same way knowing something of a restaurant's aspirations, approach to food, style of service helps a food critic write a review.

That is, I teach to the kind of evaluation I hope to get, trying to give students enough information, guidance, and faith that the SET matters, that they can do it well, and that if they do it as taught, with ideas I can use, that I'll listen, learn, and will become a better teacher because of them.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

What My Work Is

I study and teach about teaching and learning. Often with an emphasis on helping faculty and programs transition to using digital tools, but too I do workshops on using older technologies creatively -- textbooks, whiteboards, seat arrangements in brick and mortar rooms, assignment ideas, and reasons to shift a teaching emphasis here or there.

Fourteen years ago, Bedford/St. Martin's (B/SM) hired me as a New Media Editor. Over that time, my title and responsibilities changed. I became Director of New Media, and then Director of Digital Teaching and Learning, a title I still hold for the moment.

I joined B/SM June 16, 2000, coming from Colorado State University (CSU) where I had been the Director of the Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator, a tenure track position I was offered, and accepted, despite not having finished my dissertation. And because I managed not to finish within a year of the hire, I forced CSU into the awkward and unwanted by them task of having to fire me.

I began teaching in 1986, as an MA student at Boston College, and did some adjunct teaching at Lyndon State College before joining the PhD program at UMass, Amherst, where I lucked into teaching first year writing in 1991 in a computer networked classroom, a rare opportunity back then. So I came of intellectual age, really vested in teaching writing and learning and pedagogy in a digital setting. UMass is where I got to work with Charlie Moran, Anne Herrington, Peter Elbow, Marcia Curtis and others, reading and writing about composition theory and practice, experimenting with teaching, being mentored and introduced into the field, all with people who really care, very deeply, about students learning to become writers -- people self-aware of their learning and writing processes -- as a way of learning to write. Computers and writing and teaching writing in a way that helps students find their way as writers all have been what I've focused on since, including since coming into college textbook publishing.

So back to my job. I am in editorial. I don't write code or supervise those who do. I don't work in sales or report to marketing. I work in editorial, though since Macmillan reorganized its companies a bit, my .sig file is a bit more complicated than it used to be, with Bedford/St. Martin's no longer a company but instead an imprint, a colophon on a book spine:
Nick Carbone
Director of Digital Teaching and Learning
Humanities Editorial Department        
U.S. Higher Education Division
Macmillan Education
ncarbone AT macmillan DOT GOES HERE com
But my work, by and large, is what it's always been. I focus my time on faculty professional development, technology for teaching writing/for teaching online, course development and curriculum design, writing and program assessment, QEP planning, and the like when I'm in the field.

Back in the office I offer advice to colleagues on what would be a good idea to develop in our technology, usually recommending things we lack the bandwidth or resources to do on the one hand or that not enough professors would ask students to buy on the other. But that's o.k.. An idea doesn't need to be enacted to be good, to do good work in developing what can be done. Things that cannot be done stretch the understanding of what's possible, and lay ground work for down the road, getting people to look at where things are going, what may emerge as necessary later. And in the meantime, someone somewhere else, whether a competing publishing company, an open education resource project, a new educational venture, will build something that executes the idea either proves its value, or demonstrates why it wasn't quite the right idea after all.

And when that happens, when a technology is available that looks interesting, I get to play with it. So I dance in and out of e-portfolio programs, swim in multimodal composing software, explore new ideas for online writing tools and communities. Sometimes I work these non-Macmillan tools  into workshops, encouraging faculty and students to experiment, especially if the tool looks like something teachers and students can come to know and use beyond one course, one college, in a way that will have more lasting value and purpose.

I also work offline a bit, looking at chapters of print books from time to time for editors and authors to help them address the presence of computer-based technologies in research, reading, thinking, and writing that faculty and students do. I keep up with reading the literature and attending conferences in the fields of composition and rhetoric, computers and writing, developmental reading and writing, and first year experience (all courses and fields I taught in over the years), dabbling in history and communications too once in a while.

I also get to travel -- to visit more colleges and campuses than I could ever imagine doing as a full-time professor. I see more variety of teachers and students, more variety of the physical classrooms, buildings, and locations of campuses. Teaching and learning are bound by material reality -- the shape of rooms, the location of windows, the nature of offices, the degree to which students commute or reside, what people are paid to teach, pay to learn, and more. When considering how best to help people teach and learn, there's nothing like being there. One of the great joys of the job is being on campus, talking to a faculty member in his or her office, and being interrupted by a student. It's great when students seek out teachers; it reveals more about a place, a professor, and a pedagogy than just about anything else. And witnessing these interactions is a privilege.

So the work I do is scholarly and academic, but without the pressure to publish for tenure. I still write articles for collections, give conference presentations and lead workshops, serve on an editorial board for the WAC Clearinghouse, teach as an adjunct on occasion, and do other service work in the field. So I live an academic life, but instead of being paid by a university, I'm paid by a textbook publisher.

My work then is not about publishing, though I work in publishing. It's not about profit, though I care that the company earns a profit. It's not about developing books or directly developing software, though I work with folks who do that and chip in my thoughts. It's about teaching and learning writ large and teaching and learning writing most of the time.

So it's a fun job because teaching writing is fun. It's an important job because teaching writing is important. And it's a job that involves lots of revision, adaptation, and change because how writing is taught and learned is revised and rethought over and again. So it's also an adventurous job, not settled, not fixed, offering something new at regular, if not all, turns.

Slow Editing and Student Error

A few weeks ago an e-mail came up on a discussion list I'm on that asked for advice about how to address what was termed a "Fatal Flaw Error Policy." I hadn't heard that phrase before, but recognized the practice -- drastically marking down or automatically failing unless revised, a paper with too many errors. I searched the Web, and found this incarnation of the approach at the School of Business at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (
Fatal Error Policy--Adopted by the School of Business faculty on November 13, 1995 
Business students must practice professional standards in writing. To this end, all written assignments must meet minimal presentation standards to be acceptable. These standards address spelling, punctuation, format and basic grammar. The term Fatal Errors refers to technical English errors of form. Specifically they include the following:
  1. Each different word misspelled,
  2. Each sentence fragment,
  3. Each run-on sentence or comma splice,
  4. Each mistake in capitalization,
  5. Each serious error in punctuation that obscures meaning,
  6. Each error in verb tense or subject/verb agreement,
  7. Lack of conformity with assignment format,
  8. Each improper citation, or lack of citation, where one is needed.
Papers with more than three fatal errors marked by an instructor on any one page, or more than a number specified by the instructor for the entire document will be returned to the student and subject to a grading penalty as prescribed by the instructor. Instructors will determine the number of resubmissions allowed and the penalty attached to each resubmission. Penalties for final course papers (where there is no time for a resubmission) will be determined by the instructor and will be based on the relative importance of the assignment to the determination of the final course grade. This policy applies to all 200-level and above business courses. 
Since the nature of written assignments will vary from course to course, please discuss writing expectations and other details on the application of this policy with each of your instructors.
As I said in reply to the post about the idea, a policy like this is borne usually from frustration. The policy assumes students can write without the flaws given above, but that  underneath they might be too lazy too attend to the issues unless failure to do so is, well, fatal. Or it assumes students can find a way to get the errors removed. It's an all stick approach. And as you can see, the School of Business at SIUE has been following it since 1995, 19 years come November 3, and so from the business school faculty's point of view, it must be working.

I don't like the policy, and I wouldn't use it in my own teaching. There are better ways, I think, to get students turning in close to error-free final drafts than threatening a dire grade. That said, I do think it is important and possible to set a final draft standard that calls for students to submit well proofed and edited prose. I  think writers at any level of ability, including students placed in basic or developmental writing courses, can write be shown how to proofread.

But a lot of courses with writing, including many first year and basic writing courses I've visited over the years,  do not teach how to proofread.  I've seen a lot of courses where students are asked to cram handbooks to try to learn the major and minor rules for standard edited English in 15 weeks, have witnessed students being lectured on dangling modifiers, have seen students required to submit over and over to automated spell and grammar checking software until the writing is cleared of errors, and I've seen policies like the above, where students are held to drastic consequences for having too many errors.

Often these approaches result in many students giving up, not because they are lazy or stupid, but because they are frustrated and not being shown how to look at their own and classmates' writing and to proofread and edit it for surface level errors. That skill -- proofreading -- is different from knowing what makes a modifier dangling, what is a fragment versus a full sentence, what verb tense is in use, where subjects and verbs are and whether they agree.  Being able to understand what a handbook says, in the context of looking at a handbook and its illustration of an error and how to correct it, is not the same as spotting an error in writing. Being able to choose the correct revision of an error on a multiple choice quiz, is not the same skill as being able to see the error in one's own prose and making the edit needed to address it.

So of late, in my travels and visits to campuses where student error is a concern, discussions have turned to slow editing strategies, things that help a student transfer what they learn from a handbook and its exercises to their own writing. A favorite handout for that at the Council on Basic Writing Resource Share from February 2014 (Direct link to the item here: -- ).  The idea of the handout is to show students how to use a word processor to break up their reading, to disorder a copy of the essay into an alphabetic list of sentences.

That step, making a copy of the essay using File/Save As, printing the draft, working with one sentence at a time and asking for each sentence if it needs an edit, is slow. It's slower than running through a spell checker, and slower than uploading the paper to a service like Grammarly. It's slower than asking a friend to proof, or getting an editor to catch errors (though both of those are good and valuable steps writers use, and students should be taught to use too).

It asks a writer to stop, to read not for meaning but for correctness. It's something they shouldn't do at all in early drafting or as they move and add details, cut things that aren't needed, refine thoughts with more reading. It's a step that works better if a piece has had time to sit, unread, untouched for a few days, a week. It's a step that works best with a bookmarked handbook, one that the writer's been taught to know how to look into on their own as well as from assignments and teacher direction to read about error X.

But if these issues are important to teachers, so important that their presence in writing is fatal, then it's just as important to teach the skills for addressing the error. Lecturing, harping, reading grammars, doing exercises do not teach the skill of proofreading. Teaching proofreading and giving students practice at it with their own and classmates' writing is required. And that takes time because to do it well, it has to be done, at least to start, slow.