Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Dos and Do Nots of the Internet Class

Tuesday, May 25th, Nick Carbone stirred things up on the TechRhet discussion list when he shared a FoxNews article on the implications of the email addresses people choose: You've Got E-mail, but Will It Cost You a Job?

The discussion that followed touched on various ways to manage the problematic email address choices that students sometimes make. Hoping to avoid sending email to such addresses as or, some participants suggested such options as requiring students to use a school address and simply telling students that they must choose wisely if they wanted their email read.

According to this line of thought, students should be told that poorly chosen email addresses might not project the image they wanted, whether the choice is problematic because it's sexual or simply cutesy. It's hard to be taken seriously when you're going by the name cutebunnyface. It's an issue of audience awareness, of ethos. And it can be a simple issue of practicality as well—many of us delete email unread that's sent from any suggestive or unusual address that we don't recognize.

Jeff Rice questioned the practice of insisting upon certain kinds of addresses for student correspondence, explaining that the choice should be recognized as an element of individual expression. Rice urged us to allow students to explore their digital identities, contending that we shouldn't limit students' e-mail monikers, but let them play with the representations of self that cyberspace allows.

For the most part, the discussion has been fairly basic. I'd argue that's the problem with it. The online discussion focuses on the Dos and the Do Nots, on either rules that students must or should follow or a laissez-faire approach that translates into a third "Do As You Please" category. Only one post really addressed how to do anything about the very real issue of audience awareness that the article brought up. Will Banks wondered whether we might “make this sort of identity work relevant to our classes.” Banks suggested the following possibility:

What if we required students to have at least three or four email addresses: one for school work with teachers, one for friends, one for family, one for their Internet play as some differently gendered, differently classed, differently raced individual—and let them “play” with these a while. Then we brought them back for a meta-analysis of their emails, of tone and stance, of how they construct that self in these spaces . . . What might that do, to take email names seriously, perhaps even how those names “construct” the user?

Banks recognized that there were likely to be IRB objections, or at the very least concerns, about such an assignment. So how can we address these questions of audience awareness without running into trouble? First, focus on student-centered pedagogy rather than teacher-imposed (or workforce or university, etc.) rules and criteria. Students need to ask themselves questions similar to those Mike Valentine, of Website101, poses to the business community in an Internet Marketing Focus article:

How often do you give your email address to clients and business prospects? Is it memorable? Is it meaningful? Does it say something about you or your business? Does it suggest your role in the company? Does it project meaninglessness or generic emptiness? Is it playful, respectful, descriptive or bland beyond words? You may believe it is none of these, but you are wrong if you think nobody cares. Your email address speaks volumes.

What matters is that students understand that “Your email address speaks volumes”—not that they abide by a series of rules that they have had no say in. Our students, members of the Internet class, should not fall into the categories of the Dos and Do Nots. What matters is not whether they do or do not follow some rule, but whether they can create meaningful guidelines of their own.

To nudge students along this path, we can show them examples of user ids and email addresses and ask them what conclusions they draw about the people who use them. We can talk about how the marketing notion of branding applies to the individual in cyberspace. We can look at the many explorations of naming in fiction and in cultural traditions; then, ask students to extend what they see to the naming tradition shown in email addresses. We can explore the well-established practice of authorial pseudonyms and apply that idea to identities on the Internet. We can not provide students with list of rules; we can instead provide students with situations that let them create their own meaning. It's not paying attention to the Dos and Do Nots that will lead to success for our students. It's learning how to evaluate options and decide for themselves that matters.