I have a confession to make: I hate the exclamation point. This is, of course, an entirely inappropriate disclosure for an English professor, and I sincerely apologize for denigrating the archetype, but it’s true. I dislike it for all the same reasons I love It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s rude, indiscreet, unsophisticated, and a bit pushy. As Peter Griffin would say, “It insists upon itself.” Or, to quote a more traditional literary figure:
And like all good bigots, I’m passing my intolerance on to young people. Include an exclamation point in your English 101 essay and you’ll likely earn this comment in the margin: “Avoid exclamation points. If the writing is strong, the reader will recognize the emphasis without being instructed.” Burn, right? Call me a pedant if you like, but unless we’re in a Monty Python skit, we don’t go around shouting at one another in casual conversation, and so why should we do it in our writing? A screamer-free piece of prose is a civilized piece of prose. It exudes grace, speaks eloquently, and requests attention. It does not simply hand everything to you, crying in its best subaltern voice:
but rather engages you in polite and meaningful conversation.
Perhaps I’ve gone too far.
Regardless, the point I’m trying to make (emphatically as I can –if only there was some way that I could indicate how strongly I feel in a concise way, maybe even with a single mark. . .) is that I do not like exclamation points. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.
And yet, I use them. I use them in a very specific way and for a very specific purpose.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know that I strongly encourage enthusiasm in the classroom. After all, if I’m not excited and interested in the material, how can I expect my students to be? Thus, when at the front of the room, I speak louder and with emphasis. I move around. I gesticulate. I smile –all the opposites of Old Man Stein. Enthusiasm is more than just good modeling though. At its best, it’s charismatic and inspiring. Do you remember Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter?
As his '80s predecessor first taught us, there are a number of khaki-clad Australian men happy to wrestle reptiles for a camera crew, but what earned Irwin worldwide fame was a level of boyish enthusiasm that was obvious and attractive. He loved what he did and that love inspired others.
I’m not entirely saying that we should all adopt this Trix Rabbit personae in the classroom, but if we can show excitement and energy to our students we are far more likely to garner their interest and engage them in the material. In other words, know your stuff but don’t be afraid to be a fool for the subject.
That's all well and good in the classroom, but how do we accomplish this online? One solution is simply to create videos, and I highly recommend this approach. However, it’s not practical or even best practice to film everything, and so one must resort to, sigh, distasteful measures. One must resort to exclamation points. Though I loathe them in serious or professional prose, I use them dozens of times daily when interacting with online students, and it makes a difference. Because I cannot be physically there to smile at them, welcome them into my space with body language, and create a comfortable atmosphere with my demeanor, I compose emails like this:
"Good morning, Sally. I received your assignment this morning and can’t believe how much improvement you’ve shown! Some work still needs to be done on the analysis portion, but you are headed in the right direction. Keep it up! Next week we will be looking more at punctuation, so feel free to get a jumpstart on that reading if you can. Until then, good luck and have a great week!"
Those three exclamation points are more than I would use in three years in my personal writing, but here they do good work. They convey positivity, congeniality, and encouragement. As human beings we often overanalyze written communications borne of a power differential:
“Does my boss really think it’s okay that I come in late on Monday?”
“She seems to be excited for our date, but I really don’t know for sure.”
However, there is little chance of misinterpreting my example above. The exact nature that makes exclamation points boorish in serious writing equips them perfectly for interacting with students online; they are overly clear and a bit Pollyanna-ish, and this pair of traits perfectly suits them for teaching.
If enthusiasm evinces happiness and interest in the classroom, then the roots of the exclamation point express how the excited little glyph accomplishes this in writing. The best origin theory states that punctuation derives from the Latin exclamation of joy (io), written with the i above the o, and when the mark first appeared in English printing in the 15th century, it was known as the “note of admiration.” Though some serious students may find my liberal use of the punctuation a little over-the-top, I’m happy to err on the side of joy and admiration, and I think that's something worth shouting about!