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Using Listservs, by Carolyn Jacobson


Using Course Listservs

by Carolyn Jacobson

You can use your course listserv in several different ways:


  • sending out informational posts about assignments, dates, etc.
  • having student post assignments for the rest of the class to read
  • having actual conversations on-line.

Using your listserv for informational postings

This is pretty easy to do. You should send out some test email messages early in the semester to make sure that everyone has been automatically enrolled on the listserv, and you should let them know that you will be using the list to send out important announcements. Maybe require that they check their email the night before class by a certain time.

Using your listserv for assignments

Here are several ways of using a listserv for assignments:

  • Assigning everyone to respond to your listserv questions each week
  • Assigning several students to respond to listserv questions each week:
  • Assigning several students to respond, and then other students to give feedback on their responses.

One of the prime ways in which listserv assignments can benefit your class sessions is that it can require students to finish the reading in advance, and get them to prepare in advance for classroom discussions by addressing certain topics on the list. Ideally, they will show up already having thought about the topics you will want to discuss.

Listserv assignments can be an easy way to require everyone to be involved, and although students usually expect some feedback on their assignments (which can be verbal feedback in class), your role on the listserv itself is pretty minimal. However, rarely does conversation arise from assignments like these, and since the student posts are usually static, students don't necessarily read each other's posts, or if they do, they end up posting something similar when it's their turn to post. One way to avoid this is to require each student to post something new. This requires them to read the previous posts and think of something original. It also encourages them to post early to avoid having to read or think too much.

Use deadlines. Students are on email at all hours, so I usually make 11 PM deadlines for assignments.

Using your listserv for conversations

This is harder, and requires more involvement on your part. However, it's wonderfully rewarding when it works. With few exceptions, students will need to be encouraged to have these conversations. You have to model the kind of comments you would like and set the conversational tone. It is very helpful to have a general participation grade associated with the listserv if you want conversations to occur.

Listserv conversations can grow most naturally from discussions that occur in class. You can encourage students to ask follow-up questions on the list, or you can take advantage of the list if time runs out in class when you still have more to say. Listserv conversations can also help prepare students in advance for class sessions, although it's easier to have conversational momentum afterwards. Once the students feel comfortable, you can try assigning discussion topics and letting them run with them. You can also ask each student in turn to present a topic for discussion. You do need to stay on top of discussions, and can be key in directing them to more productive areas of thought.

Try to make them feel as comfortable as possible about asking questions or making comments on the listserv. Listservs can be great for students who are less comfortable for talking in class, and they can also let students bring up ideas they have after they leave class. Having them spontaneously initiate conversations is generally ideal.

Tone of listservs/ Netiquette

Setting an appropriate tone can be difficult. If students feel that their posts need to be formal, you will probably get lower participation. On the other hand, you have to make sure that students don't flame each other or make the other students feel that their time is wasted. Here are two good on-line Netiquette Guides:

You can use Netiquette as a first listserv conversation, either presenting the issues to the students or asking them to look at these sites.


Do something at the start of the course that requires everyone to post to the listserv, so that you know they know how. If participation throughout the semester wanes, you can create assignments that require everyone to take part.

If you expect that your list will receive heavy traffic, establish some subject heading convention with your students. Maybe you will put a certain subject heading on any post they absolutely have to read right away (like "***PLEASE READ NOW***").


Students will complain about getting too much email if you use the listserv for anything beyond announcements. Many students use their email for personal correspondence, and resent having it interrupted with work. I'm not too sympathetic to this attitude, since Penn provides the email accounts for academic reasons.

Listservs can seem overwhelming at times. Try to avoid assignments that will require you to slog through nearly-identical posts.

There will be some technical difficulties. This is just the nature of electrical communication. If there are electrical failures, or if the modem pool has trouble, or if the server that runs your course listserv does down, or if any number of other things happen, you or your students will have trouble posting to the listservs.

Alternative uses of listservs

Al Filreis holds on-line group office hours using the listserv. He sets certain hours when he will be on-line, and other people can join him for essentially chat sessions using the listserv. Several people can be writing back and forth to each other right away using the list. Al doesn't require people to be on-line for these sessions, and he assumes that students who miss the session won't read through all of these messages. If you want to try something like this, you might use an agreed-upon subject heading for these posts, so people who are not involved can delete them readily if they don't want to read through them