Using E-Mail in Computer Assisted Freshman Composition and Rhetoric

Most of us have been immersed head-first into the world of high-tech, and for most of us, once we have learned to tread water, electronic mail emerges as one of the most practical and frequently used applications.

Beyond the benefits of communicating with our colleagues both on campus and even around the world, electronic mail can play a valuable role in computer-assisted composition and rhetoric courses. Not only will students develop and write their papers using the computer as a tool, they will also engage in the experience of using e-mail to also read and comprehend the graded document electronically.

The authors have taught college freshman English in computer labs for the last three years. We have incorporated the use of e-mail in these courses as well as in distance-learning courses. Three years ago, we began teaching college freshman English via the Internet as distance education courses, and in them, our students communicate with us and send us their assignments via e-mail. This paper is based on those experiences.

How to Begin

Students enrolled in Composition and Rhetoric I at Tomball College are assigned a user I.D. and an initial password. All faculty and staff are already set-up on the server designated just for them, but a mailbox for the instructor must be also created on the student server.

At the beginning of a semester, students are asked to send some simple messages to the instructor. We spend the first couple of class sessions going through the procedures to log in to e-mail and send a simple message. A majority of our students have never had the opportunity to use e-mail. Thus, this experience can be time-consuming and frustrating for them at the beginning; however, in a couple of weeks it becomes second nature.

Once students have learned to send simple messages, they begin attaching documents. This involves the knowledge of saving documents and minimal control of File Manager in the Windows operating system.

Student Responsibilities

Word Processing - Obviously in a Composition and Rhetoric course, students must become competent in using a word processing program. It is the word-processed document that will be attached to their e-mail message. So, some time in class will be spent on learning the word processing application.

File Saving and Management - In addition to learning a word processor, students must learn how to save their document and later be able to find it in a directory and/or on their disk. Once the document is saved, it can then be attached to a message and sent to their instructor.

Even after they send them to the instructor, students still must be able to move documents, and find them in the directory and on their disk in order to perform revisions, send them electronically to peers for peer analysis, and for future reference.

E-Mail Procedures

Sending and Receiving - Once a document is written and saved, each student must know how to log-in to e-mail, compose an appropriate message and attach a document electronically. After the instructor grades it and e-mails the graded document back, the student must be able to open mail in his or her ìin boxî and open the attached document (double click on the attachment icon).

These procedures are very user friendly and easy to remember once they have been followed several times. However, at the beginning of the semester taking the time to go through these procedures with students can seem tedious; but be patient, soon they will all be a whiz at e-mail procedures.

The Instructor's Responsibilities

Folders - As the instructor, you may initially feel overwhelmed. Your mailbox will be stuffed full of student messages. Out of the necessity, you will begin to formulate a system for sorting and keeping your mail. It may be helpful to have a folder for each class that contains smaller folders for each assignment. After papers have been graded, these folders will also serve to hold the graded essays that you return to students, automatically creating an electronic gradebook if you move them from ìsent mail.î

Grades - You can, however, simply scan the message indicators in each folder where you have placed the studentís essay grade so it can be viewed without actually opening the message. Depending upon the e-mail package, place the grade on the subject line or name line, according to which one of those appears on the messageís notification. Your sent mail will contain the graded paper you sent back to the student, and the original paper will remain in the folder where you will be adding the essay score.

Revisions - Different word processing programs have different types of revision tools. It is best to have a tool that allows you to insert comments and corrections directly into the text. Second in importance for our needs, is the ability to place annotations within a document. It will take some extra time to grade individual essays this way in the beginning; however, with practice, it may seem more efficient to grade papers electronically.

Obviously, instructors need to learn the procedures in their e-mail program to send back graded essays. It is not necessary to save these versions, so it is simply a task of sending each graded paper to the proper student as an e-mail attachment.

Stumbling Blocks

Time - From the student and instructor responsibilities described, it is obvious that time ó both inside and outside of class ó can be an initial stumbling block. However, if instructors begin this project with a commitment to invest time teaching student e-mail procedures as well as to learn how to grade papers electronically using revisions and management of mail folders, this time investment will be rewarded with convenience in the end.

Space - Managing space on your hard drive or within your mail package may become a problem, depending on how big the hard drive is and how many students are sending you e-mail. There are several solutions to this problem. Some suggested solutions are as follows:

  • ï Save assignments to diskettes;
    ï Dedicate one networked drive to student course work, which will be cleared off at the end of the semester; and
    ï Print out hard copies.
  • ìDid you get my paper?î - Students may be insecure in the beginning with the magic of e-mail. They may not trust that their papers have actually been sent to you, and some of their mistakes in sending papers might contribute to that fear. However, with your reassurance that ìsent mailî will not lie, the majority of students will learn to check their own sent mail to ensure they have sent their paper.


    The results of using e-mail in Composition and Rhetoric have been even better than we expected. Students have not only learned a skill that will better equip them for the ìreal world,î it is one that instills a confidence that encourages them to further explore the computer/high-tech world around them. This confidence spills over into their achievements in Composition and Rhetoric and hopefully other academics as well. In our courses, we have seen students who believed they were terminally computer illiterate learn that, through persistence, they can learn skills and subject matter that seemed completely out of reach.

    As instructors, we benefit as well. We are given the opportunity to keep up in this fast-moving technological climate. And we enjoy the conveniences and expediency of word processing programs and electronic mail. These include:

  • ï No more loads of papers to carry home;
    ï Typed corrections rather than written ones;
    ï Accurate records reflecting the time and dates of received papers and grades assigned;
    ï The ability for quick review of studentsí essay ìportfoliosî; and
    ï Personal communication with each student as a bonus.
  • We urge you to expand your horizons as well as that of your students. The rewards will be worth the extra time both of you will invest early in the semester. n

    Rebecca Dowden is a professor of English and the English Coordinator for Tomball Community College in Tomball, Texas. Dowden received both bachelors and masterís degrees in English from Sam Houston State, a masters from Houston Baptist University, and her doctoral degree from Baylor University. She has been teaching at Tomball for seven years and teaching college for 10 years.

    E-mail: [email protected]

    Sharon Humphries is a professor of English at Montgomery Community College in Conr'e, Texas. She received her bachelors from Baylor University and her masters from Sam Houston State College.

    E-mail: [email protected]

    This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.