COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 10(4), November 1993, pages 5-10

Entries From A New E-Mail User's Notebook

Shirley Haley-James

The journal entries below chronicle my move from only wanting to learn how to use e-mail to reaching the point that I could. The spark that finally got me going? I discovered that without e-mail, I would have serious difficulty taking a step that I wanted to take toward expanding NCTE's international initiatives. Suddenly, my need to learn became greater than my fear of electronic unknowns.

Prior to this epiphanous moment, I had met English educators in three countries that were part of the former U.S.S.R., and other Council members and I, plus several Council affiliates, had begun building various kinds of relationships with them and with their students. Now I was attempting to contact people in the Baltic countries to set up appointments to interview them during an upcoming visit there. Both telephone and FAX communication in the Baltics are difficult. There are few lines; those that exist are undependable, and virtually no educators can afford to have telephones in their apartments. I tried for weeks to make contact, without success, yet when a friend posted a notice for me on an e-mail network about my desire to reach English educators in the Baltics, she got a response from a woman in Estonia the next day.

Though it is not the case that large numbers of educators in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, or in emerging nations, have access to e-mail, I have learned that--in many such countries--a few teachers do. Most often, these people are faculty or students at technical universities. Characteristically, they are willing to transmit and receive messages for their colleagues. They know what I discovered: English educators are eager to communicate with their peers around the world, and many can accomplish communication through E-mail as, or more, readily than through any other means.

Today, NCTE continues expanding its international activities. From contacts with educators in countries in which English is the most widely spoken language and with educators in countries that were part of the former Soviet Bloc, the Council is moving forward with contacting English teachers on virtually every continent. It has formed a new group, the International Consortium of the National Council of Teachers of English (IC/NCTE), which not only individuals can join but also English teachers' associations in other countries and institutions concerned with English teaching. There is a good deal of evidence that as the Council continues developing international relationships, E-mail will remain one way of initiating and sustaining them.

I am glad that my desire to reach educators in the Baltic countries led me to plunge into the world of electronic mail, even if jumping in was not without its frustrations and shocks. The following excerpts from the journal I kept when I served as President of the NCTE reveal part of my electronic journey.

The contents of these journal entries are true. However, the story does not end with the last entry I included here. After I wrote that entry, I continued sending and receiving E-mail, and I made a first attempt to learn to use UNIX to gain greater flexibility in running E-mail (I still haven't conquered UNIX). I also started using E-mail to send parts of writing pieces I had under development to my E-mail friends for response. This experience seemed a bit different to me than the usual asking for--and getting--response, and it started me on exploring another aspect of electronic mail: its communicative qualities.

I am mindful of the saying, "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Most beginners in a field leave exploratory thinking, and speculation concerning it, to scholars and researchers in that area or at least to others whose experience exceeds theirs. I am about to violate that common sense. I ask you to view what I say only as the thoughts of one who is curious about whether getting, and giving, response to writing might in any way be distinctive when electronic mail is the communicative mode.

If it is distinctive, I wonder if the difference may reside in the fact that electronic mail permits conversations between senders and receivers that seem immediate and intimate, when in reality the people involved have had opportunity to reflect, examine their initial reflections, and even evaluate. One finishes an E-mail note, presses a few keyboard keys, and learns quickly, often within seconds, that the note has been delivered to the intended recipient. That makes that person seem "close," even if there is a time lapse before he or she responds. Further, if they wish, the sender and receiver may talk as often as several times in one day, reflection punctuating their dialogue. My speculation is that this mix of apparent conversational immediacy and of reflective response meets simultaneously two needs of speakers and writers that seldom are met simultaneously--those of dynamic interaction and tempered thought. Even if this is true, the implications remain to be explored.

A second point I am mulling over is the possibility that during electronic mail communication, writers and responders who do not know one another can speak honestly yet protect their privacy. It might be that when this safety zone is used repeatedly over time, this leads to a confidence that permits them to speak with their own voices in other, less electronically sheltered, contexts. Still, from what I have read, what I am calling confidence could have another side to it--people could be spiteful and unnecessarily hurtful when responding to someone else's writing, all the while hiding in the folds of their electronically derived. It seems this speculation is leading me to explore not only emergence of voice, but also ethics of electronic mail use.

I use the word speculation, not theory because I am a beginner in electronic mail communication. On the other hand, my own engagement in sending and receiving E-mail has led me to think about what happens when E-mail is used to communicate--to engage in meta-communication, if you will.

What if such meta-communication could become typical of E-mail users in our classrooms? And what if our students, too, were to be in touch with English-speaking peers around the globe? What if this communication with these peers included responding to writing they and the other students involved had under way?

I have more questions than answers. E-mail seems to be pushing against philosophical and pedagogical conclusions, adding not just opportunity but also ambiguity to my world. Sometimes, when I think about all of this, I feel as though I have stepped off into an abyss and lost my compass in the fall. I'm only beginning to discover how much I do not know.

Still, while I flounder, NCTE's international programming is moving forward. The Consortium is taking shape and developing substance. English teachers of elementary-level through college-level students are becoming involved in it. Though its genesis was a set of interviews in three countries, NCTE members are now in touch with educators in ten countries in East-Central and Northern Europe, and we are developing networks that we think will lead to involvement with English teachers in countries around the globe. E-mail has played a significant role in this work. So, though I struggle with UNIX and with the communicative advantages and pitfalls of using E-mail, I intend to keep logging on. I do not have the tiger by the tail, but the tiger keeps beckoning me to follow.

Shirley Haley-James is Professor of English Education at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Readers who would like further information on NCTE's International Consortium, which she discussed in this article, can either contact her through CUISMH@GSUVM1.GSU.EDU, or contact Zarina Hock, NCTE's staff coordinator of international initiatives, at NCTE headquarters, 1111 Kenyon Road, Urbana, IL 61801.