Since the pandemic, our student audiences are distant, both literally and figuratively. Anecdotal reports of student disengagement are soaring, and more classes are being offered in hybrid and online formats. Thus, it’s pressing for instructors to collaborate on concrete ways to create a welcoming tone and build rapport in digital spaces.
Initially, we want to establish tone in our digital communications much like we do in an in-person classroom at the beginning of the semester. Certainly, videos are one means of doing this, as is audio. But how do we infuse warmth in digital learning spaces through written communication? As English professors and educational developers, we think this question is essential when creating a sense of belonging for all students. With the advent of AI, the limitations of ChatGPT are a good reminder that effective writing is human writing. As Ian Bogost (2022) notes, “the bot’s output, while fluent and persuasive as text, is consistently uninteresting as prose. It’s formulaic in structure, style, and content.” How we write to our classes—even more so than what we write—is more important than ever.
A written welcome announcement to our students is our first opportunity to create a warm and inclusive climate in our classrooms for a diverse student audience. We know that our students are culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse. Their gender identities are varied. They are neurodiverse. Creating a community of learners who each feel a sense of belonging starts with how we set the tone from our first written communication. As Michelle Pacansky-Brock (2023) notes, “connecting with you [the instructor] before they connect with course content will establish a supportive and welcoming course climate that will also cultivate community.” Conveying our “humanity” through writing, especially in digital spaces, is also something we need to model for learners.
Tone, however, is elusive to define and easy to misunderstand. Thus, we should consider three factors when composing a welcome message: relationship, distance, and audience. First, when the relationship is distant, it is important to provide enough context. Take the example of texting with friends. We can write brief responses, e.g., “Later!” or misspell “Puhleaze!” with close friends who will interpret our tone accurately. But if we are texting with someone we just met, we need to add more context to avoid being misunderstood. Second, if we are teaching in digital spaces, the distance between professor and student can become an obstacle to effective communication. The greater the distance, the more context we need to add to our messages. And lastly, we should also consider the assumptions we hold about our student audiences—their grade level, motivations, abilities, goals, backgrounds, and more.
In his book Grammar for a full life: How the ways we shape a sentence can limit or enlarge us, Lawrence Weinstein characterizes tone as “vocalizing in writing.” He continues: “If you care about fostering a sense of community between us—a sense of shared presence—don’t just write to me. In your writing, be that person who you are in the flesh” (Weinstein, 2020). To demonstrate who we are and to welcome the rich diversity of learners in our classes, we should strike a tone informed by these tenets from linguistic and culturally responsive perspectives:
- Acknowledge and honor language variation, which is the fact that diverse groups of speakers use language differently (Palmer & Devereaux, 2019).
- Understand beyond mere transmission, written communication is also about “creating relationships, cohesion, and community among different people” (Lakoff, 2004 cited in Gay, 2018).
- Realize that one type of language or dialect is not inherently superior to another. Each language/dialect has value (Palmer & Devereaux, 2019).
- Value the linguistic capital of students’ home languages (Yosso, 2005).
In our own experience, here are some ways we strive to build rapport with our students in our messaging:
- To ensure all students feel equally welcome, carefully consider the use of our salutations, closings, word choice, punctuation, spelling, contractions, and phrasings to establish a humanizing tone that can build rapport with all students. For example, which salutation would you be most likely to use: Dear students; Welcome scholars; Welcome, all; Hi folks/folx; Hello, everyone; Good morning; Hola; Ciao; How’s it going?
- Include our preferred pronouns to signify we do not assume pronouns match names.
- Include tone indicators that can be helpful for neurodiverse students who might miss a joke or ironic remark. Tone indicators help readers understand the intent behind language use. For example, /jk can mean “joking.” /l can mean “literally.” /srs can mean “serious.” If you use tone indicators frequently in classroom communications, consider providing a key.
- Situate the message in time and place. For example, mention the weather, a campus event, a news item, or a common experience before launching into the course information.
- Let students know something about us.
- Demonstrate our enthusiasm for teaching the course.
- Acknowledge our interest in meeting and learning from them.
- Share former students’ feedback about the course.
These moves might seem small, but they can make a significant difference. We know from studies about online written communication with students, that there is a connection between e-mail tone and student performance in an online class. What we write and how we write it matters and can lead to better class performance. Yet, there is “very little literature on the importance of rapport-building and its relationship to written communication” (Dickinson, 2017). The guidance we provide in the context of writing welcome announcements can be applied to all written communications with classes.
We have also compiled a short list of culturally responsive moves that, when sustained throughout the semester, help build community in the classroom when paired with intentionality around tone.
Make it your mission to learn more about who your students are. For example, invite them to informally share their experiences, goals, concerns, and questions with you and their classmates. Tailor your communications to signify that you value not only what they have shared, but how they share it. Demonstrate an appreciation for different communication styles.
Use multicultural examples. Be intentional with the examples and readings you give to your students. Actively work to develop a deeper understanding of cultural diversity through professional development, reading, film, art, and interactions with others.
Reflect on your teaching persona. Is it aligned with your values and strengths? What aspects of your own culture, background, and experience are infused into your teaching? Ask yourself how you are communicating that persona to others, especially through written communication. It might be helpful to ask a trusted friend or colleague if your written instructional materials “sound like you.” Informally, survey students anonymously for feedback about your communication style in the classroom. Invite students to share suggestions and recommendations for how you can better connect with them through written communication. Self-awareness is key to authenticity and culturally responsive teaching.
Be transparent with students about the importance of audience, communication style, and tone. Encourage them to reflect on their classroom persona, their culture, their background, and their experience in creating their own content, such as discussion board posts and peer review feedback.
Collaborate with students to establish classroom communication expectations. Take netiquette into account, as well as culturally significant factors. Ask students to share what makes them feel most comfortable in communication styles and collaborate with them to develop essential agreements around this topic.
What tips would you add for building community through tone in online communications with students?
Laura Howard is a senior lecturer of English and the teaching assistant coordinator for the Master of Arts in Professional Writing (MAPW) program at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, GA. Her research interests include educational development and online writing instruction.
Linda S. Stewart is an associate professor of English and CETL (Center for Excellence in Teaching Learning) assistant director for Graduate Student Support at Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA. Her research interests include narrative and contemplative pedagogies and practices in graduate student and faculty educational development.
The authors contributed equally to this piece.
Bogost, I. (2022, December 7) Chap GPT is Dumber Than You Think. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2022/12/chatgpt-openai-artificial-intelligence-writing-ethics/672386/
Dickinson, A. (2017). Communicating with the online student: The impact of email tone on student performance and teacher evaluations. Journal of Educators Online, 14(2).
Gay, G. (2018) Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. Teacher’s College Press.
Lakoff, R. (2004) Language and a Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries. Oxford University Press.
Eds. Devereaux, M. D. & Palmer, C. C. (2019). Teaching language variation in the classroom: Strategies and models from teachers and linguists. Routledge.
Pacansky-Brock, M. (2023) Getting Started. Michelle Pacansky-Brock. https://brocansky.com/humanizing/start
Weinstein, L. (2020) Grammar for a full life: How the ways we shape a sentence can limit or enlarge us. Lexigraphic Publishing.
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1).
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