Getting stuff done: Institutional requests in UK higher education e-mail

Andrew John Merrison, Bethan L. Davies

York St John University, UK, University of Leeds, UK


In this paper we present an analysis of a corpus of student e-mail requests sent to one of the authors in their institutional roles as educator and head of programme. These were collected at a university in Northern England over a one-year period.

Rather than consider requests as context-free head (main) acts, we recognise – and indeed value – the fundamental importance of the situated nature of their production. Specifically, analysis of the data has led us to focus on linguistic material which supports and/or modifies these head acts. This appears to manifest itself in two distinct ways: support may occur both externally to the request as well as internally.

Internal modification often takes the form of conventionalised lexis – for example that which functions as minimisers (just, quick, a little), conditionality (wondering, if), issues of deontic/ epistemic modality (possible, perhaps, may) as well as lexis relating to ingratiation and gratitude (please, thanks).

It is, however, the nature of external support for the requests in our data which is the main focus for our analyses. This includes the use of accounts, preparators and the provision of additional information. Perhaps more interestingly, though, what we very often find is manipulation of (and/or appeal to) common ground.

The concepts of equity and equilibrium are used to explicate this usage: such support appears to be employed to decrease the social distance between student and staff member within this institutional relationship and thereby minimise the potential adverse affects of making a (face-threatening) request. Strategies focusing on various types of self-disclosure allow the student opportunities to construct their identity as an equal rather than being constrained by their (more unmarked) institutional role of student.

The overall story of this paper, then, is that the situated nature of student e-mail requests can have a great bearing on the discursive construction of student identities within academic institutions and this, in turn, has a bearing on how things get done!

Session: POSTERS:Focus on language policy, literacy, education, identity
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:00-15:45
room: foyer