Wordsanctuary Revisited

Musings of a writer-teacher-counselor.

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Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

I am inquisitive and have worked in writing, editing, and teaching. I am a citizen of the USA and also concerned about the world. This is an addendum to my original blog, Wordsanctuary. That's at www.wordsanctuary.blogspot.com Please check out my column at www.insidehighered.com, "A Kinder Campus." Click on Career Advice to find it. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, February 17, 2012

E-maelstrom, e-mailstorm

"as you no i live at home with some of my bothers and sisters. sorry for miising class but i will be back … and i can saen you the articles that i have bben looking at for my essay over the weekend if you like. again i am sory and sorry …”
--from a student, details disguised ...

From time to time I still coin words, as the headline suggests. Or try. I googled e-maelstrom and got over 15,000 hits. I googled e-mailstorm and I got a colorful graph. So much for original. My word coining, undaunted, began in infancy and my family humored me, for better or worse, by adding my fake words to their German-English lexicon. Being so very young (some might say too young) to possess this huge responsibility, I became a little linguistically confused even as others related to my needs on my level. Thus, for more than a few years I believed that gock-gock really was German for egg, gaw-go meant chocolate, atta-atta meant to go outside, and bim-bam meant spinach.

And this is, perhaps, a genetic trait. A second generation word-coiner, my son spent an entire year – a whole year – on one syllable, ba. Understanding what that meant depended utterly on context.

Which brings me to the topic of this blog: e-communication. My ability to morph linguistically seemed to have stopped with a thud when I first read IMHO on a listserv. “Imhoe? What’s that, a garden tool?” And I’m still not sure what ROLF was. A medieval knight? He came and went before I had the courage to ask. And LOL. Isn’t that a big company?

Behave urself

My son informed me not long ago that I should not write “luv u” in communication with him – “no one writes like that.” Perhaps he is afraid his phone will end up in someone else’s hands and he will be embarrassed by an effusive, out-of-date mom. So I wrote back, more suitably, in a compound-complex sentence of multisyllabic words in the chat – how smart I am to know what even chat is – and perhaps more fitting to my station in life, empty nester and venerable adjunct. He had already signed off.

I can still remember when I first had email access at one of my schools. It was after multiple attempts to get into the system and to have my status changed from student to faculty member, albeit adjunct. I.T. did its best over and over (and over and over), but I was a glitch in the code, not their fault.

When it finally happened that the cosmic shift occurred and for better or worse, I was in, it was a watershed event. I began to write my first email, ever. And I proceeded to emote (not a pun) to the director of freshman composition. It began something like: I can’t believe I finally got in, after all this aggravation. And then I caught myself.

What if this were intercepted by an overworked I.T. staff member? What if my supervisor himself didn’t like this stream of consciousness, this tone? What did this show about my rhetorical savvy? For crying out loud, I teach argumentation. I realized in that first moment tripping on the keyboard that things were moving too fast. I deleted the post and brought myself down from 9/10 on the tactometer (too hot) to a measured 5. (If you don’t know whereof I speak, check out the previous column, and skip to the end.) I amended the post purposefully to something like: You can now reach me at ___________.

Email overload

Be kind to others but also to you. Watch out for this phenomenon, identified a full 15 years ago. It is possible to be snowed under an avalanche of emails, unable to dig out. “Writing is necessarily intertwined by technology,” wrote Baron (1998), from chisel to computer. And there may be days one wishes for a chisel with which to chop up the computer, if not its contents. Not really: A power outage will do. Or tendonitis. The saddest phenomenon I’ve encountered is people in my age group who simply don’t want to talk on the phone any more. I came of age on the phone. When I married, my clever brother-in-law quipped to my mom, “You’re not losing a daughter: You’re gaining a telephone.” When my son left for college I realized that I was not just losing a son; I was losing an I.T. expert and a computer.

Pushing buttons

To what degree loosened inhibitions are charming and to what degree disarming and to what degree alarming … I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule. I can count on about 10 fingers the number of times I’ve received overly emotional emails from students – in part because I teach so much. One was threatening legal action because his allegedly emailed papers had not arrived and he earned the grade of “F.” Another was ready to run to the dean – and emailing me day and night in all caps and strings of exclamation points -- because she alleged that a classmate had assured her that she had received an extension by me for her friend on a project. (This has led to new syllabus language, as in “no classmate can negotiate an extension for you by proxy.”) Another student told me, via email, that he understood plagiarism was wrong, but could he please just have an extra point to pull him up to…

You get the picture.

Students pushing whatever buttons they can is nothing new. But the force and pervasiveness of email is rather new. I have just finished a batch of syllabi, and I accidentally left out the part about: Please use standard conventions of grammar and punctuation when writing to me. That’s ok; I saved about a page by avoiding such minutiae. But in relation to audience, it’s good to know when to tighten up and when to loosen up.

Sarcasm plus smiley is not funny

I really hate it when people are blunt as a radish and then stick a smiley at the end of a sentence  . Animals in the wild, such as my dog in the backyard, do not growl and bare their teeth and then come up and offer a friendly tail wag.

When will life stop taking you by surprise?

My husband, an introvert, determined never to speak in front of a group as long as he lives and weary of teaching stories … said to me when I was a T.A. long ago and astounded at occasional student antics. In those fading halcyon days, the worst mutiny, perhaps, was a crude drawing of me in a notebook or some sassy comment I overheard right before I walked in.

Rat—I mean Ratemyprofessors? Well, at least I learned from one bitter entry that, push comes to shove, I do have what it takes to teach kindergarten. I also learned that I am mean and hard even as others said the course was a breeze.

I am not so sure that learning to type at the expense of learning to print or write cursive first is good for the deep brain of our kids, and our kids’ kids. I am not sure that having the power of a professional videographer and the ability to broadcast one’s whims to the world is such a good idea before one has established credit. And I am not sure that the ambiguity of what pops up on the screen always leads to razor-sharp discernment. Sometimes it is a flea market on the net, peddled by sinister forces. I will leave it to the neuroscientists out there to give the parts of the brain the proper names and the description of the firing of neurons and to do the needed studies. In Buddhist traditions, calligraphy can be an extension of meditation. Emailing today can be an extension of hypertension.

And I have read at least one study that showed that reading an alarming message is processed differently from left eye to right, but I read this much too fast surfing the web and thus my memory is sketchy.


I wonder if e-mpathy is eroding with our focus on technological speed. It really reminds me of the freeway, the high-speed lane. Maybe I should call this the e-way. Don’t worry; I’m almost done with this. Have you seen the predictable comments in blog queues? (Please don’t let this stop you from commenting.) Often e-rascible and e-viscerating and at times with e-quanimity … you get the picture.

With speed, too often comes brusqueness. I can’t see you squirm – and I’m entitled to make you feel bad -- so I’ll turn up the e-lectric voltage as high as it goes, as the classic Milgram experiment shows.

At what cost, I wonder? Can we collectively and individually still lower the voltage, or is this the world we now inhabit without inhibition? What do you think?

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