“Can we talk about this email that the college sent out to all the students?” one of the men in my technical writing class asked me, staring at the laptop open on his desk. “I’m pretty sure you’d have given it an F if one of us had written it.”
I was a couple of minutes late and eager to get started on the work of the day, which was to begin the unit on technical and progress reports. I’d assigned an end-of-semester report as a final project, complete with charts and tables, and I wanted to make sure we covered that material before my students had to start writing. Still, what teacher passes up an opportunity to discuss a real-world application of classroom material, especially when that discussion is initiated by the students themselves? “Sure,” I said, “but did this email go only to students, or do I have in my inbox as well?”
“It’s the ‘Crime Alert’ that went out a couple of hours ago, so I assume you have it too.”
I did. In fact, I’d glanced at it in my office not an hour earlier, but I hadn’t actually read it. I sat down at my desk and pulled the Alert up on my iPad:
A male student reports to Public Safety that on Monday, November 18th, 2013 at approximately 5:30 pm, he was approached on Duncan Avenue, in front of the bookstore, by two males who proceeded to knock him to the ground and take $10.00 from his pocket. The victim was walking by the bookstore when a light brown Nissan Maxima pulled up to him and a male, black exited the vehicle and started walking toward the victim. The victim started running and was chased by the male, black. The driver of the vehicle also exited and caught the victim and both assailants knocked the victim to the ground taking the $10.00.
The assailants are described as a light-skinned, male, black wearing a black hoodie with black pants; and a dark-skinned male, black wearing a black hoodie and light beige cargo pants. The vehicle was last seen heading south on Duncan Avenue. The victim was treated for a bruise to his left hand.
Please report any information on these individuals or any other suspicious behavior immediately to Public Safety.
My student was right. I would have given it an F. Not only had the writer not bothered to proofread–just look at the missing commas after each instance of male, black–but her or she had also not bothered to do any editing for organization or clarity. The needless convolution of the first sentence, the confusing repetition of the word victim in the second sentence, and the superfluous repetition of male, black in the second to last sentence are perhaps the three most egregious examples. Still, I did not want to pre-empt whatever insights my students might have had on their own, so I asked them, “What problems do you see with it?”
The student with the laptop began. “Well, to start, the writer uses the present tense in the first sentence, even though the incident took place yesterday. Shouldn’t it be student reported?”
I wrote the sentence up on the board with reported in the past tense and we talked for a few minutes about whether that would have been better. Then, the student said, “But that’s a minor point. What about repeating male, black four times? That seems really unnecessary.”
“Yeah,” another student, joined in. “It’s racist. This is a racist email.”
“Why do you think so?” I asked
“I don’t think it’s racist,” another student responded.
“Okay,” I said, “but let’s hear from the person who thinks it’s racist first; then I will give you a chance to respond.”
What followed was a fascinating discussion about how most of my students heard the phrase male, black—and I will ask you to set aside the missing comma after the word black as it appears in the text. The word order, they argued–though they did not do so as precisely and succinctly as I am doing here—made it sound like black was a noun modified by male and so placed an emphasis on race that went beyond the need to use black as a descriptor. The phrasing black male felt to them far less problematic, though some thought that repeating black male four times would have the same effect.1
“I’m sorry,” the student who didn’t think the email was racist decided it was time for him to speak, “but this is a Crime Alert and if the person reporting the crime says that the people who attacked him were Black, then whoever writes the alert has to call them Black. How is that racist?”
At this point, students started looking up old Crime Alerts on their laptops and phones to see if race and ethnicity were identified the same way. “I’ve changed my mind,” the student who didn’t think the Alert was racist announced. “I found a couple of old Alerts in which the alleged perpetrators were white, and the writer did not repeat their racial identification four times. Now I think this is probably racist.”
“Listen,” one of my Black male students chimed in, “given my experience with law enforcement…”–I could see other students of color nodding their heads in agreement; they knew where he was going—”there is no way I can read this Crime Alert as anything other than racist.”
As I said above, I had not actually read the email when I first saw it in my inbox, and so I had been letting this conversation take its own course, more or less, while I processed my own reading of the text. Now, though, I knew I had to take control. It was entirely appropriate for my Black male students to talk about how their negative experiences with law enforcement shaped their reading of this alert. I wanted that idea to be part of the discussion, especially since audience awareness is something we had been talking about all semester; but I did not want the stories of those encounters to overwhelm the discussion and turn it into something that was not focused on the course content.2 “Let’s take a step back,” I said. “Right now, all we’re doing is reacting to this text. Those reactions are important, but in order to have an informed opinion about this, we need to figure out what we know and don’t know about this specific Crime Alert, and also about the writing of Crime Alerts on this campus in general—and perhaps on other campuses as well.”
I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow of the discussion that followed, which ended with my students deciding they wanted to write to Public Safety and asking if they could make it a class assignment, since it was so clearly related to the issues we’d been talking about all semester. (I should add here that the course may be called Technical Writing, but that is an artifact of when the course was first created, long before I started working at the college. In fact, it is a class in workplace writing, covering everything from specifications and procedures to memos, proposals, and reports.) How could I say no?
I am in the process of designing this assignment. I have looked at a series of previous crime alerts, and this one is definitely an outlier, both in terms of the carelessness of the writing and in how race is identified within it. I’m not going to say that race is not a problem with Public Safety on my campus—too many of my students talked about experiences that suggest otherwise—but I don’t think that problem is manifest in the crime alerts. The problem with the crime alerts is that they are inconsistent across any number of criteria, including how race and ethnicity are identified, the order in which information is delivered, the kind of information that is emphasized, formatting, and style. My hope is that my students will see this for themselves as they do their research and that this will shape the nature of their response accordingly. What follows is the overview of the discussion that I sent to my students:
In discussing the “Crime Alert” that was sent out by Public Safety on November 19th, we agreed on several points:
- In general, the document is badly written
- The phrasing male, black and its repetition gives the document racist overtones
- This appearance of racism on the part of Public Safety is egregious enough that it demands a response
- This response is particularly important given that the email was sent to the more than 20,000 people who make up our campus community
Regarding the third and fourth points, I asked you to consider that while the primary purpose of a Crime Alert is to help the community stay safe, Crime Alerts also function as a kind of internal public relations, communicating the level and quality of care that Public Safety has for us. As a result, Public Safety’s interest here is, or ought to be, not just about the issue of racism raised by this specific Crime Alert, but also about whether Crime Alerts in general further the department’s mission.
Given this larger perspective, it is very important that our response be informed and meaningful, rooted in but not defined by the primarily emotional reaction that characterized our class discussion last week. As such, we need to figure out what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know not only about this particular Crime Alert, but also about Crime Alerts in general both here and at other campuses across the nation. Then we can start to do the research that will inform our response.
What follows is my summary of what we came up with in our discussion last class. It is likely that I’ve misremembered or left something out, so please feel free to offer revisions, corrections and—in the event that you have something new to offer—additions.
What We Know
- Independently of the issue of race, the November 19th Crime Alert is poorly written and was almost certainly neither proofread nor edited—all of which contributes to, but does not wholly create the racial overtones people see in it.
- Crime Alerts are sent from Chief ________’s email account. As the head of Public Safety, he is ultimately responsible for the quality and content of all Crime Alerts, whether he writes them himself or not.
- Because the email was sent out on November 19th, a day after the incident it describes, whoever wrote the email should have had ample time to edit and proofread it.
What We Don’t Know
- Who wrote the email.
- The procedures for producing Crime Alerts.
- Whether or not Public Safety officers have received training in writing Crime Alerts
- The degree to which the phrasing male, black, represents the conventions of crime reporting in law enforcement and/or conventions that have been adopted here for the writing of Crime Alerts
- The degree to which the style of Crime Alerts on this campus reflects an industry standard and/or the practice at other college campuses around the country.
What We Need to Know
How does the November 19th Crime Alert compare to previous Crime Alerts?
- Is there a consistent style for identifying race/ethnicity?
Is there a “style guide” for Crime Alerts which details any or all of the following:
- The information should a Crime Alert contain
- The order in which that information should be given
- The style of writing that should be used
Is there a document template used in the writing of Crime Alerts?
How do our Crime Alerts compare to similar documents on other campuses across the nation?
What are the conventions of crime reporting in law enforcement, especially when it comes to identifying things like the race and ethnicity of alleged perpetrators?
We did not reach any firm conclusions about what our goals might be in contacting Public Safety about this issue. Some people suggested that we ought to be demanding an apology; others, that the goal should be to make sure this kind of thing is unlikely to happen again. Still others were angry enough that they wanted to demand a formal investigation into who wrote the Crime Alert. I would like to suggest that we don’t need to define our precise goals just yet, since what we learn through our research could end up changing how we think and feel about this issue. For now, based on our class conversation, I would offer the following:
- I think it’s reasonable to ask that Public Safety acknowledge the problems with the November 19th Crime Alert and make some kind of commitment to do better in the future.
- Without predetermining the final form our response will take, I think our goal should be to present the chief of Public Safety with a constructive proposal, rather than a critique that does nothing more than point out what went wrong.
This second point means we will be proceeding from the assumption that Chief _________ is a person of good will who will care about the issues we want to raise. This assumption is important for at least two reasons. First, especially since we have no prior history with Chief __________, we owe him that basic level of respect and professionalism. (He might prove us wrong, but that is an issue to deal with if the need arises.) Second, in keeping with one of the characteristics of workplace writing that we talked about at the beginning of the semester, since we have no idea who else might end up reading the document(s) we send, we want those other potential readers to know that we approached this issue respectfully and professionally.
As I said in class, producing this response to Public Safety will replace whatever assignments remain on your syllabus, including the end-of-semester report. This means, though, that I will be creating the assignment more or less on-the-fly, which will require of all of us a willingness to be flexible as we proceed. Obviously, we cannot submit to Chief __________ twenty some odd documents—the total number of students in both sections. So we will need to figure out how to boil down all the work you will do in both classes into a single document to submit. As well, I will need to figure out how I am going to grade you. This is something I will be giving thought to over the Thanksgiving break and I will discuss it with you when we get back in the beginning of December.
In terms of the work you will need to do, we will discuss this on Monday and Tuesday. Because it is so close to the end of the semester, I have done some of the preliminary research I would otherwise have asked you to do on your own, and I have come up with an initial breakdown of the work into segments that you should be able to tackle in groups. We can revisit and revise this as needed. A couple of other things to keep in mind:
- The material from our text that will be most relevant to this work can be found in chapters 8 and 9. However, chapters 5 and 6 will also be useful as you think about how to present the information you want Chief ___________ to consider.
- In thinking about how to analyze the November 19th Crime Alert—and any other Crime Alerts you consider—you should review chapters 2 and 3, which talk about audience and ethical considerations.
- Remember that you need to document your research properly and to guard against plagiarism, not just because of my classroom policies, but because you will actually be submitting this document “in the real world.”
Finally, I would like to remind you that, while we will be treating this project as a class assignment, it is also a real-world example of workplace communication. You will be writing to Public Safety in the context of your professional relationship with this college, defined by the fact that you are a student in my class, that you make use of campus facilities (from parking spaces and classrooms to the bookstore and the library), and that you are paying customers of this institution. If you want to produce a proposal that will be taken seriously by professionals, then you need to take yourselves seriously in writing that proposal. Given my experience with you all so far, I am confident that you will.
- As a side note: some of these students wondered why the writer couldn’t have used a term like African-American, the repetition of which would not have bothered them at all. When I pointed out that not all Black men are African-American, you could tell by their reaction that this was something they had never consciously thought before. [↩]
- Telling those stories, of course, and discussing them, is also an important thing to do, and there are times when it is appropriate to set course content aside and allow that kind of discussion to happen. Especially because we could get at the subject of racism by focusing on the email itself, I did not think this was such an occasion. [↩]
Now this is teaching. Kudos to you.
And, also, to your students.
I’m wondering about the lack of further description– wouldn’t it have been plausible for the victim to have noticed something about the height and build of his assailants? I’m not expecting accuracy to the inch or within five pounds, but just something along the lines of tall/short/average, and thin/muscular/fat.
I have copies of some old crime alerts from two different universities ( both urban, one in a middle to upper class mostly white area and one in a less affluent, majority-minority neighborhood) if you would like some examples from other schools. I admit I don’t know the exact etiquette here; they were mass emails to the whole university sent when I was a member of the community.
Out of curiosity, how old are they?
“When I pointed out that not all Black men are African-American, you could tell by their reaction that this was something they had never consciously thought before.”
You might also point out that not all African-Americans are black. There are plenty of Caucasians who have been born and raised in Africa – many for generations. Any of them moving to America and taking up citizenship would be quite accurately called African-Americans.
Seems like this will turn out quite interesting from multiple viewpoints – not just in influencing the campus law enforcement into writing better and clearer public safety alerts, but in how to actually work with such a group to get something useful done.
2013, in both cases (two from Sept for the case of the school in the white neighborhood; I actually deleted all the ones from the other school, but the last 5 years’ worth are online).
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Thanks. I will be in touch.
What an opportunity, for your students! Good job, seizing it, and also with emphasizing to your students that this will be a public acid-test of their abilities not just to write well, but to interact professionally.
That Crime Alert was definitely written by a cop. Not all cops write like that, but if you do write like that, you’re a cop. The easiest telltale is “exited the vehicle”. People are forever exiting from vehicles, in many police reports. Subtler telltales: “male” for “men”; “male, black” instead of “black male”; “proceeded to” when it adds nothing to the narrative; and a wanton lack of commas.
(I understand your students’ point about “male, black”, and I try to get my officers not to use that sort of notation in expository writing. Ironically, it’s quite possible that the writer thought that his choice would come across as LESS racist, by foregrounding “male” over “black”.)
As a police supervisor, I have spent a certain amount of effort on trying to raise the level of my subordinates’ writing, with not much result. Many things have factored into my inability to move that dial much:
o In my department, we are not arranged in teams. On any given day, I may have any of about twenty people working under me.
o I am not always in charge of the shift.
o I do not review all cases, and on those I do review, I have to stay within shouting distance of the standards of other supervisors, or else sow confusions and/or be ignored as a crackpot.
o Beyond a bare minimum ability to get the job done, good writing is not much esteemed in policework. Arrests, confessions, winning chases and fights; these are esteemed. The balance shifts as you go up the ranks, but getting your average officer’s attention on improving his writing is dicey, at best. It helps to have object lessons to focus their attention on why it matters, but those don’t come along often, and they only work when they’re glaringly obvious.
We (I and my fellow supervisors) have a hard enough time getting them to hit “Spell Check”, and wee awl no wot hover-reliance one “Spell Check” kin dew.
So that’s some of what you may be up against.
You will get the best results if you focus on how that bad writing is interfering with them accomplishing their mission. Paint it in stark terms. Explain how this alert pissed people off. Explain how it created or reinforced the impression that cops are racist. Point out that it doesn’t have to be that way, if it’s just written differently. They’re not going to care about writing until they understand how it will lose them something valuable to them.
You’re likely to have the most luck with a high-ranking supervisor. They have the perspective and experience to appreciate how perceptions can win and lose you community support, and they’re better-positioned to enforce standards.
I’m a police supervisor, and I would not approve that Crime Alert without a re-write, which I’d probably end up doing myself, possibly with the original writer at my elbow. If I saw those descriptions in a log write-up, I’d be asking the investigating officer for additional details. If he didn’t have them, I’d probably treat it as an impromptu training issue and tell him to re-contact witnesses and get them. (Note, however, that sometimes witnesses don’t get a lot of detail, and that’s just something investigators have to cope with. It ain’t like the movies.) During the day of the crime, clothing is important. Afterward, clothing is less important, because it often changes. The best descriptors are the ones which don’t change, and are easily observed.
Here is a good description with made-up additional details:
This description works well because it gets the unchanging basics out very quickly, then adds a bit more detail, and finishes with a specific detail to help it all stick in the memory. That’s how I was taught in the academy, and it still works. I don’t know what your local officers are taught, on that topic. It may not be covered at all. (The writer may have no academy training at all; in many locations, campus security officers have no arrest powers and don’t carry weapons.)
Depending on how much time I had, I might or might not tell the officer to re-write it as a chronological narrative. To help explain why we care, I might point out that an undereducated local yokel needs to absorb that information on one reading, so it needs to be short, simple and direct.
Be aware that training time is scarce, and momentum falls away with time. Cops already don’t get enough training and review in such life-saving skills as defensive tactics, emergency vehicle operations, and firearms. Your attempt to improve their writing will probably bear more fruit as an ongoing effort to which you contribute, rather than a one-time contact.
Actually, to my police-professional eye, it shows signs of proofreading and/or editing, but of UNSKILLED or CARELESS proofreading and/or editing. It’s very likely that someone looked at a shorter draft and said, “Add more detail about how it happened”, whereupon the writer added more detail, without integrating it into what he had already written.
I would consider very carefully how you make this point, if you want to make it at all. It implies that the writer had nothing else to do than sit and ponder the best way to put out a Crime Alert. In actual fact, they could have been dealing with any number of other crises, and this Crime Alert could have been the lowest-priority item of the day, the result of a member of the command staff saying over her shoulder, “Hey, don’t forget to put out that Crime Alert [before you finish your double overtime shift]”. You will lose your audience and look silly if it turns out that the entire shift focused on looking for someone who was missing and reported kidnapped and raped, or a combination of calls which amount to the same intensity.
It doesn’t matter if they DID have a shift like that. What matters is that in your approach, you acknowledge that they COULD have had a shift like that, and you’re not going to judge without knowing WHETHER they had a shift like that. Cops can’t take a breath without someone, somewhere, telling us that we did it wrong. It is a matter of psychological survival to become expert at discounting negative opinions. One way to discount an opinion with confidence is to be able to point to something and say, “This asshole doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Don’t let them paint you or your students as ignorant assholes. Don’t give them that tool to dismiss you with.
[edited for clarity/grammar]
Thanks for this very useful and informative response. I will be sending whatever it is my students come up with—assuming it is worth sending—to the chief of Public Safety.
I appreciate your confirming for me that the phrasing “male, black” is cop-speak. I am wondering if there are any documents I might find online that I could point my students to in helping them understand that part of what is going here is someone who has been trained/instructed to write for one audience is now writing for a different audience and just hasn’t made the appropriate/necessary adjustments.
Also, my approach—though this is not entirely clear from the overview I sent my students (it is much more clear in the assignment sheet)—will be to get my students to see this in terms of systems, not individuals. So, for example, the comment about whoever wrote the alert having certainly had the time to edit and proofread has already become a question about whether or not Public Safety has a system for producing these alerts that would make it less likely that such poorly written alerts get sent out. (My guess, based on my own reading of other alerts, is that this is not the case. I am not so interested in having my students ask this question in the document they send to public safety—see below—as much as I am interested in getting them to see how documents like this are produced within a system and that, in part, the quality and effectiveness of such a document will usually be directly related to the quality and efficiency of the system that produces it.)
One of the things I am very aware of is the problem of offering too much unasked-for advice, and so part of what I am balancing in designing this assignment is wanting my students to understand that these alerts exist within a system of law enforcement/public safety on campus that is more complex than they can possibly be aware of—including the question of just how busy our public safety officers are—while at the same time getting them to see how their positioning in relation to Public Safety (not just as students, but as outsiders) puts constraints on what it makes sense to say.
To that end, I am having them do a lot of research first, and I am telling them not to worry about how that research will or will not figure into the document we send to public safety. Rather, I am framing this research as what they need to do to educate themselves so that whatever they send will sound informed. The research, so far, is covering four areas: The Clery Act (which is the law that mandates these Crime Alerts, among other kinds of reporting), an analysis of the alerts that have been sent out on my campus over the past two years, a survey of how other campuses handle crime alerts and a comparison/contrast to ours, and (from the point of view of thinking about the alerts as internal PR) a comparison/contrast of our Public Safety website and other such websites around the nation.
I am in the process of doing this research myself, and while I can already see some of what it will reveal, I have no idea where it will ultimately lead, and I have no idea yet what sense my students will make of it. But they are excited by this and they are learning something important, and that is, finally, what matters.
Sure. Remember that in the United States, law enforcement draws heavily from the population of former military. Look up a part list in any military manual. You won’t find “crescent wrench”, you’ll find “wrench, crescent”; you won’t find “3/4-inch machine-thread square-head bolt”, you’ll find, “bolt, machine-thread, square head, 3/4-inch”.
This may seem dehumanizing, but remember that it’s how they’ve been taught to make lists which contain list members distinguished by category. What kind of human? Male. What kind of male? Black. And so on.
Look at a list of five suspects from a team robbery and you can start to see how it kind of makes sense. However, in my opinion, any utility of that method is outweighed by the obfuscation which it effects when someone NOT trained in that method tries to understand it. Which is why I try to get my officers to write in something closer to plain, conversational English.