The E-Mail Discussion Group: An Opportunity for Discourse Analysis

Article excerpt

Courses in business communication typically emphasize rhetorical concerns of written and oral communication - such as audience analysis, purpose, and organizational strategies. In such courses, however, computer-mediated communication, e-mail, may often be viewed more as a tool for communicating rather than a distinct medium of communication with unique rhetorical considerations. This approach describes a method for using electronic mail discussions as a heuristic for planning and writing business documents The method, however, also serves as an opportunity for students to explore and analyze an important communication medium - electronic mail.

A Heuristic for Planning and Writing Business Documents

In the business communications classes that I teach, students are routinely assigned individual e-mail accounts on a local area network that they can access at any time from various computer terminals around campus. On the one hand, e-mail serves a practical purpose in the course - it is an effective way for students to communicate with me and other students outside the confines of the classroom. At the same time, e-mail discussion groups, which occur via a group bulletin board, frequently function as forums for class discussion of writing tasks. These same electronic discussions serve an additional pedagogical purpose: They later become a "text" which students analyze in an attempt to develop an understanding of how computer-mediated communication may differ from written or oral communication.

The assignment is structured as follows:

1. Students are assigned a case to read that details a "communication problem."

2. After reading the case, students post to the bulletin board their individual rhetorical analysis of the case - what type of document the writer should produce, to whom the document should be sent, what relevant characteristics of the reader(s) should influence the purpose, content, organization of the document, and the like. These discussions often last a week or longer, depending upon the complexity of the case. During this time, students are encouraged to provide more than one response and to revise or expand upon their original analysis based on the comments of others. By the time the discussion ends, the bulletin board may contain over 100 e-mail messages.

3. While drafting their individual documents in response to the case, students review a printed transcript of the e-mail discussion and highlight various parts of the discussion that they felt were helpful to them when planning and writing the document.

4. After students turn in the document, they meet in small groups to collectively review transcripts of the e-mail discussion. Thus, these transcripts themselves become a case for analysis. The purpose of this exercise is twofold: (a) Students have the opportunity to see how different members of the group may have viewed the assignment from different perspectives; and (b) together, they begin to make some assumptions about the rhetorical nature of e-mail communication.

5. The last part of the assignment invites groups to synthesize their observations about the electronic discussion by writing a memo to the class that details effective strategies for communicating via e-mail. …