Email "Conferences," Source Handling and Evaluation
This is a good example of an email conference. Think about how much progress you can make by putting your questions into writing and giving me adequate context with which to answer them. This exchange originated when students first were grappling with the Product Purchase Recommendation. It may help you think about the problem of narrowing your topic, establishing your best reader, and dealing with the available sources. By now we should have discussed the concept of "best reader" in class, but simply put it is a kind of reader who comes to your paper aware of your topic, and in need of a solution to a problem that you will help them to define and to solve. They are the readers whose needs will tell you what issues to be addressed, what can be assumed, in what order to say what you need to tell them, and how to tell when you are done.
As a fairly good example of email etiquette, this exchange also gives us a chance to consider how adult professionals use email. Consider the things this student did RIGHT when emailing an instructor about an assignment: 1) Included a "Subject" description--the email's title--no adult reads emails with blank subject fields without seriously thinking about deleting them as probable spam or phishing; 2) Identified her/himself, though this could have been improved--most Goucher instructors teach three sections in their subject areas, so "I'm in your English 105 section" would have been better; 3) Specified a topic and a question that could be answered rather than just announcing "I need to talk to you about the assignment," which wastes time because it is so vague; 4) Looked for and responded to my reply within 24 hours, rather than coming to class and asking me "did you get my email?," a question I almost always have to answer "yes, and I guess you have not checked your Inbox to read my reply." If your typical emails do not yet employ all of these strategies, please make sure they do from now on and your emails will get much more respect and attention from their readers.
Sent: Sunday, February 01, 1998 11:10 PM
To: Arnie Sanders
Subject: Product Rec. paper
I'm in your English section and have a question on the paper due on Friday.
My product is on push or self propelled lawnmowers. Should I narrow this down to push or self propelled or is it possible to do both? I have my audience, but both of these types of mowers pertain to the same people.
From: Arnie Sanders
Sent: Monday, February 02, 1998 8:39 AM
Subject: RE: Product Rec. paper
On first reading it seems like you are addressing a key choice. Aren't self-propelled mowers always more expensive than comparable push mowers? The price point may be the deciding issue in the circumstance you describe in the introductory paragraph.
The "you" address to the reader will work fairly well in this kind of semi-formal academic writing, but it has limited usefulness for serious academic scholarship. Keep in mind that it constitutes a kind of short cut to the problem of establishing your credibility with the reader. It's as if you just rushed up and put your arm around a total stranger.
I also note you have not yet located sources. That's going to be slightly more difficult for this type of product than for electronics, cars, and other more commonly reviewed consumer goods. Have you got secondary sources (Consumer Reports?) or will you have to do your own legwork at Home Depot or Hechinger's?
Some additional issues you might consider re: the push vs. self-propelled choice: time spent mowing, pollution produced, safety (which is more likely to run over your foot or your kid?), and attachments. As you can tell, I've been there.
Sent: Monday, February 02, 1998 12:35 PM
To: Arnie Sanders
Thank you for the useful tips. I did find sources from Consumer Reports and some kind of business magazine, but I still might need some extra research from places like Home Depot.
Especially for this early paper, I'm almost as interested in your critique of flawed sources as in your ability to find sources of scholarly disinterestedness and accuracy. Unless you want to check out the mowers in a hands-on demonstration, you could save yourself some time and practice a key skill by considering (in an endnote? in text?) the limitations of using Consumers Union or the business mag.'s staff as your researchers.
Your instructors will be looking for how you weigh major scholarly sources for strengths and weaknesses. Check out publications in your potential major and you should see that going on as key predecessor sources are introduced. For instance, in the January 1998 PMLA, one of my discipline's journals, a writer on Merchant of Venice summarizes approvingly the arguments of critics named Hall and Shapiro who have changed the way we understand Shakespeare's use of Jews as characters, but then she says "Yet like critics before them, Hall and Shapiro do not see Jessica [Shylock's runaway daughter] as a major character in The Merchant or in the play's discourse of racial difference" (Metzger 53). Obviously, that's her point of departure for her own thesis and the grounds upon which she will defend it. Of course Metzger is using some terms of art from Eng. Lit. method which save her a lot of time (though they infuriate outsiders) and which save her from having to mount a full explanation of what's wrong with excluding Jessica as a major character or from "the play's discourse of racial difference." Such are the perks of having mastered the codes of the discipline. For lawn mower analysis, I doubt there has been much refinement of the "discourse of self-propelledness," so you'll probably have to do a few sentences of hard work setting out the hazards of CR or the other magazine's handling of their test method or choice of models to evaluate. Just keep in mind the famous empirical study questions: "What is the size and nature of the sample?" That usually will produce a good test of the source's handling of the test.