The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant

Information

Goodreads: The Buried Giant
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: March 3, 2015

Official Summary

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”

The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.

Review

I’ve read The Buried Giant twice now, and enjoyed it both times, but it’s taken me a while to sit down and write a review for it.  It’s a unique book, and though I know I like it, my thoughts are still a bit muddled–yet perhaps that’s part of the point.

The book follows an elderly Anglo-Saxon couple, Beatrice and Axl–who are setting out on a long-postponed journey to visit their son.  The problem? There’s a “fog” surrounding them and apparently the entire country; they find it hard to remember things, important things about themselves, their family, or the history of Britain itself.  The book is complicated because it intertwines the personal and the national.  It about both Axl and Beatrice AND the entire British identity.  As Axl and Beatrice travel, they meet a variety of people, including Sir Gawain, who raise questions about King Arthur and war and what horrors Britain experience or may experience in the future. The novel is about individual memory (and a friend of mine nicely noted that this is in large part a novel about dementia), but it is also about national memory. And these things do not always cleanly intersect into a coherent whole.

On top of this, the novel is also about love.  That’s partially connected to the personal memories of Axl and Beatrice, and there are questions about whether remembering or not remembering things can influence your love.  (Can you prove or know you really love someone if  you cannot remember your whole life together with them?)  And while this is fascinating, it often seems to be like it’s own separate theme and thread in the story.

Yet I like the book in spite of (because of?) this murkiness.  It’s unusual, unique.  First, books about elderly people are not entirely common. Second, books imagining the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain are not common.  Third, the Anglo-Saxon books that do exist focus on knights and royalty and those sorts of people.  While Beatrice and Axl meet knights, they themselves are perfectly ordinary peasants.  It’s interesting.

I haven’t read anything else by Ishiguro, but other people I’ve talked to have said that his writing style in The Buried Giant is similar to his other writing.  I personally don’t think the book sounds “old” or that he was necessarily trying to make it sound old.  He avoids anachronism (and I’ve had it pointed out to me that this is in itself difficult, which I concede), but the voice seems like a generic modern one to me, unobtrusive.  So if you like reading about older time periods but can’t deal with people walking around yelling, “Hark!” and “What aileth thee, goodman?” then this is a good choice for you.

I’m not about to prance off and read another Ishiguro book because what really drew me to this one was the setting and the plot. However, I do highly recommend The Buried Giant for a thoughtful story and imaginative book.

Note: You may have heard of the minor controversy around the book’s release when Ishiguro made a statement that many fantasy fans and authors (notably Ursual K. Le Guin) interpreted as a dig at fantasy.  After reading the book twice, I don’t think Ishiguro was actually trying to insult fantasy or to claim his book is not fantasy because he looks down on the genre (i.e. He wasn’t saying “Fantasy is garbage and my book is not garbage; therefore, I refuse to call it fantasy”).  I think he was actually just trying to grapple with a generic characterization of a book that has fantasy elements but also feels like history, memoir, magic realism, etc.

4 stars Briana

Tips for Writing Your Very First Post for Your New Book Blog

Blogging Tips and Tricks

I write blogging advice posts for people who are already blogging.  (The exception is the comprehensive post I wrote about how to start book blogging, which includes tips for both complete beginners and slightly more established bloggers.) However, we’ve been getting a few search engine hits from people looking for suggestions on what to do with their very first blog post when they launch the blog, so I’m here to give people what they want!

Disclaimer: When Krysta and I started Pages Unbound, we jumped right in.  Our first post was a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  So I’m not saying I personally followed this advice, but it is what I would do if I were to start a book blog again, based on what I’ve learned.

Introduce Yourself

Generally speaking, the first post on your new book blog (or probably any blog) is going to be an introduction.  Tell readers who you are–to the extent that you’re comfortable sharing personal information online.  You don’t have to tell readers your age, location, job title, etc. if you don’t want to, but tell them something.  How long have you been reading?  Why did you decide to start a book blog?  What are your favorite books or genres?  Feel free to add fun facts like your love of hedgehogs or obsession with strawberry lemonade.

Make It Meaty

In addition to introducing yourself, make sure you introduce your blog.  At the time you hit publish, this post is going to be the only content on your blog (excluding any information you have on your sidebar or on an “about page”).  So make sure you tell readers what they can expect your blog to be about.  Consider including:

  • what genre books you are most likely to feature
  • how often you plan to post (and what days if you think you will post specifically on Wed. and Sun. for instance)
  • what content you plan to feature (reviews? discussion posts? memes? author interviews?)
  • where else readers can connect with you (social media accounts?  Goodreads?)

You don’t have to stick to this.  If you think you’re going to post four times a week and realize in three months you only want to do three, that’s fine.  But give readers a sense of what your goals are right now.  (Pro top: Schedule some other posts in advance, before launching your blog!  This will help you keep up with the workload.)

Include an Image

Studies have shown that blog posts with at least one image are better at engaging readers and attracting more traffic, so make sure you have one in your introduction post.  This will help set the tone for your blog.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  It can just be a photo of you (if you’re comfortable with that) or of your cat or of your bookshelf or just your favorite book.  Include an image that will both grab your readers’ eyes and help them get to know you.

Here are some of my recommendations for websites for photos and graphics.

Consider Ending with a Question

Your first post is like to get a lot of comments to the effect of “Welcome to book blogging!”  If you want a bit more of a conversation, try ending your post with a question that helps you get to know your future readers a bit better.  For instance, ask them their favorite books or genre, or even something like their favorite sport or food, or their preferred Hogwarts House.

Promote the Post

After you’ve put all that work into writing your very first post, you want to make sure people see it!  If you have an established social media presence, you can let people know about your book blog on those accounts.  If not, it’s time to start visiting other book blogs and leaving comments!

As fair warning, a lot of bloggers dislike comments that essentially amount to “I wrote a blog post.  Please visit my blog.”  So try to visit blogs you’re interested in and leave thoughtful comments.  You can throw in a sentence at the end noting that you’re new to blogging, and this may encourage other people to more naturally check out your blog–without your having to ask them.  You can also approach bloggers with questions about blogging and note that you’re a newbie; most of us are pretty friendly and will want to help you out!

Follow It Up with Other Content

Once you’ve written and published your first post, don’t leave your readers hanging!  They want to see some of the great content you’ll be offering on your blog.  Even if you’ve decided that you only want to post once a week, I would suggest publishing a second post on your blog just a couple days after the introduction post goes live.  When I visit a blog for the first time, I like to look around at their various pages and posts to get a sense of their writing style and their reading tastes, to see if it’s a blog I want to follow.

If you have only one post on your blog for a week or more, you’re not giving readers much to look at.  You may sound like a really fun and interesting person based on your introduction post and “about me” page, but giving your readers at least one review or discussion post to look at, as well, will be helpful to attracting followers to your blog. (Just ask yourself: Would you follow a blog with one post? Or an Instagram account with one photo?  Or a Twitter account with one tweet? Probably not.)

Briana

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Mirk and Midnight Hour
Series:  Strands #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014

SUMMARY

With her twin brother dead and her father gone off to fight for the South, Violet Dancey is trying to hold her life together.  Unfortunately, her new stepmother is addicted to laudanum, her stepsister Sunny is an obnoxious flirt, and her cousin Dorian seems charming but could mean trouble.  Then Violet and her young cousin Seeley find an injured Union soldier in the woods.  Unexpectedly, he’s handsome and intelligent, nothing like she thought a Yankee would be.  But why are the mysterious VanZeldts caring from him?  Will he be a victim of their dark powers?  A retelling of “Tam Lin.”

Review

Jane Nickerson’s The Mirk and Midnight Hour reimagines the Scottish tale of “Tam Lin” in Civil War-era Mississippi.  Her interest in the Southern Gothic combined with a story of forbidden love makes the story intriguing.  Unfortunately, the plot feels a little messy and the depiction of slavery indicates that, even though Nickerson seems to be attempting to deal with the difficulties inherent in discussing such a terrible topic, she ultimately is unable to avoid reinforcing stereotypes or to avoid the influence of the narrative of the Lost Cause.

[Spoilers Ahead for the Rest of the Review.] The uncomfortable depiction of slavery and Black individuals is in, fact, part of the reason the plot feels like such a mess.  In Nickerson’s retelling of “Tam Lin,” the fairies are replaced by voodoo practitioners.  Because they are invoking mysterious powers, Nickerson wants to depict them as strange and other-worldly.  And, of course, as villainous.  This gets incredibly awkward since it means that the people of the town  see the African men and women as something other than people.  They move strangely, are associated with snakes. and are referred to as (by another Black character) “People-things” to indicate that they are not normal.  In a book where race and racial politics must always be at the forefront, associating Black characters with dark powers and wrongness is…well, it feels wrong.  Furthermore,the voodoo really doesn’t add much to the plot but seems like it was awkwardly tacked on to a standard Union-Confederate forbidden romance story.  So these depictions and their problematic implications could have easily be edited out and improved the book in more ways than one.

The book, however, seems unsure exactly how to deal with racial politics even while it seems clear it knows that it has to.  For example, Nickerson seems to realize that depicting a young woman whose family owns slaves and making that woman the heroine is going to be a problem.  She attempts to deal with this by making Violet and her slave Laney friends.  Violet and Laney grew up together, share secrets, even do the household chores together.  Violet loves Laney’s baby Cubby and babysits him.  There are two nods given to this inexplicable arrangement.  Violet muses randomly that if she were Laney she would run to the Union lines despite the friendship.  And Laney reminds Violet at one point that she cannot, in fact, drop Master Seeley’s formal title when speaking about him.  Otherwise, however, slavery is depicted as fairly benign.  In fact, the neighbor and her slave Jubal seem to have had feelings for each other and are great friends, too!

There is one conversation in which the question of slavery is more explicitly addressed.  Violet’s Union soldier explains he is fighting to end a great wrong.  Violet halfheartedly gives a few sentences about slavery being necessary to the economy (like she would really care), Abraham owning slaves in the Bible, and her kind treatment to her slaves.  Ultimately, however, the sense is that Violet just really hasn’t thought about slavery that much and simply accepts it.  Perhaps that’s the scariest depiction one could give of the insidiousness of the evil of slavery, but the book doesn’t follow this up except to have Violet suddenly have an equally half-hearted repentance.  She apologizes to Laney for having Laney as a slave.  Laney, perhaps realizing that she is still a slave, that the apology doesn’t mean much as a result, and that as a slave she cannot be honest about her emotions with her masters, seems to forgive Violet like it’s all no big deal.

Add to this the inclusion of a Black man who attempts rape and the stereotypical stronger-than-average Black man and the book gets increasingly more troubling.  Yes, Black characters should be able to be presented in a wide range of ways, should get to be the good guys or the villains or the people in-between.  However, when you add these two depictions to everything else going on in the book, it really seems like the books perhaps just is not aware of the implications of some of the characterizations.  I can only conclude that there is a lack of knowledge because the explanation for the presence of the voodoo practitioners in Mississippi is that they voluntarily moved there as free people because they thought they would blend in.  They could have moved to anywhere in the world and they chose to move to a place where they would be hated and despised and would not have legal freedoms?  It makes no sense, but the underlying implication is that slavery must not be such a big deal if free Africans would purposely move to the Civil War South!

Probably this story should have been written as a standard romance without the addition of the voodoo practitioners.  And probably if Nickerson wanted Violet to be sympathetic, she should have made Violet a secret Union sympathizer and non-slave owner from the start.  There are complex questions that could have been addressed, such as Violet’s blithe ignorance of the evils of slavery and what that tells us about how seemingly ordinary people can do something so wrong, but, if they are not going to be addressed, it’s going to make the book an extremely troubling read.

College Advice from Our Readers

College Advice

We asked our readers to share some of the things they wish they had known before they went to college. Here is what they said!


Everyone is just as scared as you are! No one knows anyone, so you’ll all be trying to make friends (even if it seems like other people are more confident than you). You aren’t alone, so don’t worry, you’ll make friends and learn about how your classes work just like everyone else around you is.

–Victoria from Doodles and Scraps

If you want to take a class, take it. Don’t wait until “next semester” to take it. Don’t stick to the classes in your college department. Even if you have a small interest in some other department, take a class as your elective or “fun” class that semester. It might confirm your major, or encourage you to seek other avenues. There are a million classes I wish I would have taken/interests I would have pursued if I could have.

–Kaeley Scruggs from Spoilers May Apply

The only thing I’d say is- study hard but don’t forget to enjoy these years and have fun with friends. And always remember when lazy- you’re doing this for you. Not for the teachers/professors, not for your parents or society’s norms. You’re doing this for you!

–Liz from Cover to Cover

Be active on your campus but don’t get so busy that you neglect your studies. Get to know other students, advisers, professors, colleagues, and employers. Join as many clubs and organizations that fit into your schedule. Build your network now, so that you will have strong connections for life after college!

–Pinkspen from Ladyhood Journey

It’s not like school. This is something I was told before I went, but damn if it isn’t good advice- because there will be things you loved in school and hate in uni and vice versa. So try different things, because you might find something new to love (and back up plans are useful too!).

Okay, so before I went I was told “uni will be the best time of your life”- but what I really could have done with hearing is that uni isn’t the be all and end all. If it doesn’t work out exactly as you planned or you find yourself boxed in, there is the whole big wide world out there for you. Just keep a cool head and think of the bigger picture.

–The Orangutan Librarian

Don’t ever let your ambition outweigh your passion and/or your health and happiness. There are many paths to what you want, but taking one that punishes you physically and/or emotionally doesn’t do any good for anyone. Do what you love, regardless of others’ expectations and what they say will “make you go far in life.” After all, if you don’t like something, you won’t be good at it and that won’t get you very far at all and on top of that, you’ll be unhappy. Follow your heart, it knows the way.

Also, in the end, hard work *way* outweighs natural talent. It’s like the tortoise and the hare–the one who puts in the work gets ahead.

–Lila from Hardcover Haven and The Bookkeepers’ Secrets

Set aside time to pursue your hobbies as they can be great stressbusters. What with the academic pressure and socialising, it’s easy to forget about the things you used to love doing in your spare time. Try to find groups that share the same interests so you can build meaningful relationships as well as make time for your hobbies.

–Nandini from Pages That Rustle and Unputdownable Books

Watch which catalog you are operating under. I have seen too many people get screwed over because an adviser updated them to a different catalog, because they missed a deadline they were unaware of, or because there was an argument about requirements based on a transition from one catalog to another. It is very easy to find yourself working on your major for an extra semester all because you did not keep close track of your requirements and because you did not use the catalog to help you figure out requirements. Particularly on the idea of a paper trail, the catalog determines your requirements and when you can graduate. You need to know the information about your degrees from the catalog inside out and use that information if there is a dispute about what your actual requirements are. Get your hands on a copy of the catalog and keep careful track of your requirements and deadlines. If you have the problem that I do where the catalog is only online, print it out and store it somewhere safe. If a dispute arises, you have proof that you are following the appropriate requirements. Here is one more piece of advice that ties with this one: do not always trust your adviser.

–Carrie from Cat on the Bookshelf

Get out of your comfort zone.

When I first left for college, I was scared and anxious. College life seemed so foreign to me; I grew up as an only child, and was used to having everything my way. I never had to share a bedroom or bathroom, and home life was always peaceful and quiet.

Moving into a college dorm was like a culture shock to me. I shared a tiny room with a total stranger, had to share a communal bathroom with ten other girls, and was away from my friends and family for the first time. I was so afraid of living in an on-campus dorm that I contemplated going to community college so that I could stay at home, in my comfort zone.

Moving away to college was one of the best decisions of my life.

Going away to college pretty much forces you to get out of your comfort zone. You are put into a dorm with dozens of people that are experiencing the same changes as you are. Most colleges have a welcome weekend, which is a great way to meet your peers (I’m still great friends from some of the people I met during welcome weekend). You will only be in college once, so I think its good to step out of your shell and experience things. Never been to a party? Try going to a few (just don’t be that freshman that blacks out in the middle of the quad in a puddle of their own vomit). Join a club or team- your college probably offers tons of on-campus groups, like a choir or team sports. This is a great way to meet people, and get yourself out there.

Introduce yourself, invite people to your dorm room, go out with new friends and explore the local town or city. College is a social experience and you shouldn’t hide in your dorm just because you’re shy or feel awkward around new people. I am BEYOND happy that I went out of my comfort zone during my freshman year. I made tons of friends, was involved on-campus, and even got a boyfriend that I am still with 3 years later. So my best advice to any upcoming freshman is to get involved, get yourself out there, and meet tons of people. Run away from that comfort zone and you will have an unforgettable college experience.

Also, don’t forget to pack your shower shoes.

–Kerry from The Petite Wanderer


Thank you so much to everyone who participated and offered advice for college students for the upcoming school year!  I agree with so much of this: find a balance between academics and social engagements, be open to new experiences, and don’t put things off. College is a great time to experiment with low risk.  (Seriously, the world will not end because you tried that statistics/creative writing/marketing class and didn’t get an A.  Rather, you’ll have learned something new that’s better than a perfect 4.0 GPA).  Also, yes! No one cares about your graduation requirements more than you; many advisors are good for very general advising but don’t actually know by memory exactly what courses you need to graduate on time.  Trust only yourself with tracking this!

How to Make the Most of Office Hours for an Essay Draft

College Advice

Office hours are a great way to get to know your professor better and to get individualized feedback on your work. Here are some suggestions to get the most out of office hours if you want advice on improving an essay draft.

Come Prepared with Specific Questions

Many instructors agree that the single most unhelpful way a student can approach a meeting about an essay draft is to show up at office hours, hand over a paper, say “How do I make this better?” (or “Will this get me an ‘A?'”), and then stare  fixedly at the instructor.  Some instructors might actually take the paper and read it, ignoring the awkwardness of the student staring them down for ten minutes as they peruse and comment.  Many are going to simply hand the draft back and ask politely, “What specific areas do you want to talk about?  What specific questions do you have?”

Asking “How do I improve this paper?” is, obviously, rather vague.  It doesn’t give the instructor much to work with, and it does give the impression you don’t know much about your own writing, what your own strengths and weaknesses are.  The most helpful approach is to arrive to office hours with prepared questions and specific areas of the paper you want to look at together with your instructor.  You might ask questions, “Does my thesis seem argumentative enough?” or “Do you think I have enough evidence to support my point in the third paragraph?”  instead.  This tells your instructor what you’re trying to achieve with your writing and lets them help determine if it’s working the way you want.

Arriving with these questions written down is useful, as well. The last thing you want to do is sit down, then realize you had questions you wanted to ask, but now you can’t remember a single one.

Write Down Your Professor’s Advice

A surprising number of students do not take notes while meeting one-on-one with professors in office hours, and this can be a waste of good advice.  If the advice you receive is particularly general, then it may be easy enough to remember without notes.  However, if you don’t plan on revising the paper immediately, or if the professor says something that’s a bit complex, or if they drop something really specific like a great way to reword your thesis, you will want to have their suggestions written down.  Don’t assume you’ll be able to memorize everything said in the meeting.  Take detailed notes so you can revisit them later, and don’t be afraid to ask the instructor to repeat something you didn’t quite get jotted down the first time.

Remember that One Meeting Does Not Guarantee an ‘A’

Pedagogical studies for writing suggest that instructors give students about three areas to work on revising their writing at once: anymore that that, and a student can quickly become overwhelmed.  Chances are that when your instructor gives you feedback, he or she is going to mention the most pressing areas to fix–and not everything he or she thinks can be improved in your draft.  If the most pressing problem is particularly large (say, you really need a more focused topic and thesis), the instructor is not going to bother commenting on your transitions or conclusion paragraph at this time because, theoretically, you’ll be writing completely new transitions and a new conclusion to fit your revised topic anyway.  If you are very grade-focused, keep in mind that the professor is not mentioning every possible area of improvement in a single meeting, and that your best bet will be making the suggested revisions and coming back to office hours later with your new draft.  At that point the instructor might say, “Great. I love the new topic.  Now we can talk about the way you incorporate sources.”

Take the Advice Seriously

If a professor gives you advice in a one-on-one meeting, they are most likely going to remember they did so.  If you have the time (I know, everyone has lot of classes and commitments!), try to revise as thoroughly as possible.  If the instructor said, “I think you need to explain concept X more,” that may actually mean “You should write another paragraph addressing this or you should integrate it more thoroughly throughout the entire paper” and not “Add one sentence.”  And, unless you have a compelling reason for ignoring their advice, try to integrate as much of it as possible in your revisions.  If the professor said something like “This topic is too broad for the prompt” or “Your conclusion contradicts the rest of your argument,” he or she will notice if these things are not revised and may be left wondering why you didn’t change them after specifically being told that you should.
Briana

The Worst Writing Advice People Received in High School

College Advice
For several semesters I taught a college first-year composition (FYC) course, where the students were required to write a variety of assignments focused on their own literary development.  Write about someone who influenced your writing/reading/language development, for instance. Or write about a problem you encountered with your literary development.  As a result, I’ve seen a lot of student perspectives on what makes a good or bad literary education.  Here are some of the worst things my students’ high school English teachers told them about writing.

Facts Don’t Matter

I am 95% certain this advice is meant primarily for standardized tests like the writing section of the SAT.  I assume the teachers meant to convey something like, “If you want to write about the American Civil War to make a point, don’t agonize over remembering exactly how many people died at Gettysburg. Estimate the number and move on because the test is timed, and you’re not being graded on your knowledge of history.”  Due to the way most standardized tests are graded, I can’t say this is wrong.  However, many high schools teachers were very unclear that they meant this only as a standardized test taking tip, and that it is not actually a good approach to writing or argumentation in general.  A surprising number of my first year college students were convinced that the content of their essays did not matter and that there was no need to be factually accurate, as long as their prose and overall structure were good.  Honestly, I wish high school teachers would skip the “facts don’t matter” line completely.  The harm it does to some students’ writing in the long-term isn’t worth the potential minor SAT score bump.

There Is No Writing Formula

On the surface, this is actually great advice: it’s true there is no single correct way to write a “good” essay.  Unfortunately, a number of high school teachers apparently took this as a cop out to say, “I can’t explain to you why you received the grade you did. There’s nothing particular you can do to get an ‘A.'”  Perhaps there is no exact way that every single person in the class can get an ‘A,’ but surely there is something each particular student can work on to improve his or her own writing.  There’s no formula, but last time I checked, individualized feedback certainly existed.  Acting hand-wavy and implying writing is a mystical art does a huge disservice to students, when generally there are concrete steps they can take to at least get closer to an ‘A.’  Good writing is not an inherited talent; it’s something students can learn from teachers who actually want to teach them.

There Is a Formula: The Five-Paragraph Essay

Five-paragraph essays are the bane of college instructors’ existence.  I admit I see something to teaching students this as a basic structure (though I should acknowledge many professors don’t like it even as a baby step).  Having an introduction, at least three points to support your argument, and a conclusion are all good things in an essay.  However, some high school teachers teach this form as a rigid fill-in-the blank exercise.  Every essay looks the same.  Nothing can deviate.  I got a number of college first years (and even upper division literature students) who were very, very good at five-paragraph essays.  But these students were often the hardest to teach because they struggled to unlearn this one form.  The structure is limiting and often doesn’t fit the type of complex arguments one should be learning to make in college.  Writing a solid five-paragraph essay certainly is better than writing something completely unformed and confusing, but it keeps a lot of students capped at B+ grades at the college level.

Grammar Is Worth Nothing/Everything

The problem with grammar is that everyone thinks it was someone else’s job to teach it.  High school teachers think students ought to have mastered it in middle school.  College instructors think students ought to have mastered it in high school.  No one wants to teach it because they have other material they’re supposed to be teaching .  However, failing to review grammar in high school does a disservice to students who didn’t fully cover it previously or don’t fully understand it.  Poor grammar will negatively affect them in all sorts of places, from standardized tests to college personal statements to actual college classes.  And, yes, most college instructors won’t cover it because it is distinctly not college-level material.  At this point, professors might just say “Go review commas” and expect a confused student to handle it on his or her own.

Alternatively, some high school teachers seem to value grammar far too much.  Every single mistake is circled or underlined in red.  Or one mistake means you automatically lose ten points on the paper.  This tactic might scare students into learning grammar, but it can be paralyzing.  Students might not experiment with new styles and sentence structures because they don’t want to mess them up.  Additionally, it keeps students focused on minor issues and not global issues like whether their argument is logical and their supporting points are the right order.  Grammar should be reviewed in high school, but it shouldn’t be the focus of composition education.

Did you ever receive horrible writing advice from a teacher? What was it?

Briana

How to Communicate with Your Instructor Without Being Accidentally Offensive

College Advice

Introduction

Communicating with instructors can be a challenge for colleges students, even seniors.  Below we break down some of the common mistakes students make when emailing, and how they can be avoided.

YOu ARe Explaining Why You will MIss All or Part of Class.

Scenario One: The Other COMMITMENT

You write: I scheduled an interview over it.  I double booked myself and have an internship that overlaps with your class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class. I value these other things more.

The solution: You already know you are not free during specific times during the week.  Don’t schedule other commitments over them.

SCENARIO Two: THE “Mandatory” Event

You write: I have a mandatory club event.  I have a mandatory meeting for another class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class. I value these other things more.

The solution: Most club events are not mandatory.  If your sorority or fraternity is requiring you to miss class to stay a member, they are wrong and you should bring this matter to the attention of your school.  Your education comes first.  You go to class before you go to extra-curriculars.  And if another instructor schedules another meeting over your class, the correct course of action is to inform them that you are already in class at that time and need to reschedule.  Almost no instructor will say no.  If they do, tell your other instructor, who will likely write an email asking why someone else is telling their students not to attend class.

Scenario Three: Illness

You write: I am sick.  I have the flu and strep and constant vomiting and diarrhea.  I can barely get out of bed and the amount of bodily fluids I am expelling is astounding, I tell you!  Astounding!

Your instructor hears: You trying too hard.  You don’t have to convince them that you are really sick and they don’t want to know the gory details.  (Privacy laws in the U.S. mean they cannot even ask.)

The solution: Bring a doctor’s note if you need your absences to be excused.  If not, just take they day off and try to recover.  You can email your instructor that you are ill and would like to know what you missed in class, but you aren’t required to provide any more information than that.  They don’t need to be convinced of your physical inability to get out of bed.  They want you to rest and to get better–and to keep the flu to yourself instead of spreading it throughout the class.

Scenario Four: You Have Reasons

You write: It’s my birthday.  I want to go on a date.  The bus arrives late so I will be late every day for class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class and I am not even trying.

The solution: If you have free absences, take them and don’t explain it’s because you’re blowing off class for fun.  If you know the bus arrives too late for you to get to class, take a different bus and arrive earlier on campus.  You knew your schedule for months.  You were expected to work out a valid timeline to make sure you arrived on time for all your classes–and stayed there for the duration.  School is a professional environment.  If you wouldn’t show up ten minutes late to work every day, don’t arrive ten minutes late to class every day.

You Want to Schedule a Meeting.

Scenario One: You need a meeting Right now.

You write: Can I meet with you in 20 minutes?  I’ll be there in five minutes.  Can you come in to campus just for  me?  What about Saturday?  Are you free?

Your instructor hears: You not realizing that they are not always on their email waiting for meeting requests.  You  not realizing they have other commitments and might not be able to squeeze you in last minute.  You not realizing they have a personal life, too, and maybe a family.

The solution: Plan your meetings ahead of time.  Attend office hours if possible.  If not, give your instructor a few days’ notice about wanting to meet at different times.  That way they know to clear their schedule for you.  The nicest instructor in the world is not going to be able to meet in five minutes if they live an hour away or at weird times if they don’t have a babysitter for their children.

Scenario Two: You Need Lots of Help

You write: Can we meet from 1:00-2:00?  Can we meet Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week?

Your instructor hears: You not realizing they have other commitments and other students.

The solution: Ask for a 20-minute meeting.  Don’t ask the instructor to keep adding office hours several times  a week to accommodate only you.  Give them time to meet with and help their other students.  If you have other resources such as a TA, classmate, tutor, or Writing Center, use those options, too, so you can allow other classmates access to the instructor.  If the instructor offers additional help, that’s different and you may accept their very generous offer.  Remember they don’t typically get paid for mentoring/tutoring and they don’t typically receive professional acknowledgment or advancement for it, either.

You Need Details About the Assignment

Scenario One: You Don’t KNow what the Work Should Look Like

You write: When is the assignment due?  How many words should it be?  Did you want it in MLA or APA?

The instructor hears: You didn’t read the assignment prompt or the syllabus and you weren’t paying attention in class.

The solution: Read the syllabus and the assignment prompt.  Email a classmate with your question. Then email the instructor as a last resort if you still can’t find the answer.  One of the most important things you can learn in a professional environment is always to initially assume that YOU made the mistake, instead of someone else.  That way, you won’t accidentally write an email saying that the instructor didn’t do what they were supposed to, when in fact they did.

Scenario Two: You Are Struggling with the Work

You write: I am having trouble with the assignment so can I not do it at all/provide a shorter essay than my peers/ forget the research?

Your instructor hears: I do not like hard work and so I give up.

The solution: Frame your email as a question.  As in, “I am having trouble finding research for X reasons.  How can I change my methods so I can complete the assignment?” Or, “I am having trouble meeting the word count.  Do you have any strategies I can try to add content to my paper?”  Present yourself as trying to find a solution rather than trying to get out of the work. Again, school is a professional environment.  If you wouldn’t tell your boss you don’t feel like completing an assignment, don’t tell your instructor that, either.

You are Trying to Use Your Rhetoric Effectively in Your Email.

Scenario One: It’s urgent.

You write: URGENT in the subject line of the email.

Your instructor hears: You being overly dramatic about the assignment–it’s actually not urgent for you to know if assignment 2 is due in one week or two.  “Urgent” implies some sort of personal emergency.

The solution: Just title your email what it’s about.  Don’t add adjectives.

Scenario Two: You Need an Answer Now

You write: Please respond ASAP.  I hope to hear from you soon/promptly/quickly.

Your instructor hears: You being rude and demanding about how and when they should respond.

The solution: Sign off with a polite thank you or a wish for a good day/weekend/whatever.  Your instructor will answer your email when they have time.  They are busy with professional and personal commitments, too.  If they don’t answer after a few days, it is then appropriate to send a polite reminder email.  However, most instructors understand that professional email etiquette requires a response the same day or the next, so in most cases you won’t be waiting long.

Scenario Three: You Know You Asked for Something that Goes Against Course Policy

You write: Thanks for being understanding.

The instructor hears: You trying to convince them that they are a warm-hearted individual who will bend the rules for you because you were very polite about it and told them how to respond emotionally.

The solution: Don’t try to ask for special exemptions.  If you have an emergency or personal crisis, that’s one thing and almost all instructors will work with you to make sure you complete the work.  If you are trying to get out of the attendance policy because you just prefer to do other things that day, it’s best not to bother.  Your instructor fields these requests all the time and, unfortunately, your desire to get a Shamrock Shake on the last possible day it’s available isn’t likely to melt their heart with understanding.  In fact, in that case, you should, if you must, quietly take one of your free absences and let your instructor assume it was a mental health day/for an illness/something else.

Conclusion

I write these examples somewhat playfully.  However, it is true that many students do not quite realize how they may be coming across when they write.  So just keep some key concepts in mind.  Be polite.  Don’t expect your instructor to treat you as the special exemption–all their students are busy and struggling but they have to be fair and try apply the same rules to all.  And remember that your instructor is only human and has other commitments.  It’s that simple.

One final note:  College is hard.  Instructors really do understand that and sympathize!  Hence why many give out free absences or don’t require documentation for absences.  If you really need a day off for some reason and don’t want to tell them why because it’s personal or embarrassing or you just don’t feel comfortable talking to that particular instructor, you can!  A helpful hint, though: It is hard for instructors to work with you if they don’t know that you have an ongoing issue.  In this case, one or two absences may not be enough.  You may need repeated extensions because you are secretly pregnant, are struggling with a mental health issue, or just feel sad because of a family or personal situation.  Even if you are just feeling blue because you had a fight with your best friend, you might want to bring this up and see what your instructor can do to help.