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Getting started with the email assignment

by Steve Krause on September 21st, 2014

Peer review is underway and going along fine. Remember, comments to your peers and your answers to the end of the peer review survey are due by the end of the day Monday! In the meantime, it’s time to start the next project for the term, a fairly short one on email.

First, take a look at the assignment itself– here’s a link to it. As whatever questions you have about it in the comments.

Second, read over the readings for this unit on email. They are:

I think this email unit is an important one and a good example of how what we’re writing in this class is more complicated than it might seem at first glance.

What I mean is this: all of these readings/advice (and the ones that you too will find and share with us here, along the lines of what you did for the personal statement assignment!) are all straight-forward and might even seem to many as “obvious” and “common sense.” I am sure many/most of you send emails all the time– though I will say if some of you are at least a bit like my 17 year-old son and the kids in his school, you are a lot more likely to do more texting. But I can tell you as someone who has been teaching a long time and who has been using email for a long time (back when I started, in the very early 1990s, it was fairly unusual for non-computer programmers to have an email address), writing effective email is not nearly as obvious as you might think, and as far as I can tell, there really is no such thing as “common sense.”

So even though I know you have written lots of email messages before and even if you are thinking “what new thing could I possibly learn from this?” do look at these readings and do search for more “how to” advice on writing effective email. You might learn something new!

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52 Comments
  1. Latasha Davis permalink

    Due to the advancement of our world, communication has changed from paper-based communication to Electronic communication dramatically. I’m not amazed, Kaitlin stated that 73% of US adults connect to the internet regularly. Yes, I’m sure this is very true. People have forgotten how to use a more formal way of writing a email because of it connivence. We do tend to make things more clear when we are writing a letter or Memo. Everything changes when it via email. We as writers need to be aware of how writing effective emails and getting a valuable message across even though its less formal.
    Things that were helpful when reading the ” Email Etiquette” article were the use of subject lines. The subject line of a email is very important. When addressing a subject line it allows the recipient to know exactly what the email will address. Things that I need to remember when writing a email are avoiding errors and having straight to the point email are considered appropriate. Its not necessary to have a hole letter. The reason for email are to get straight to the point. Another part of the article that I enjoyed was where they talked about follow-up emails. I think that it also very important for the sender to know that you are engaging in the emails.
    “How to write a professor” was straight to the point. I feel like this is what should be given to first year freshmen. I’m always forgetting to write subject lines for my emails.This is something that I defiantly need to work on. The way that you communicate with a professor through email is important, especially when taking this class. Due to the fact that we usually never see each other it very important that our communication via email is communicated well. One of the ways to do that is to proofread before emails are sent. Others are being specific. These articles about effective emailing was very useful to me and trying to use these new skills to effective emails will be something I try to do to get my message across.

  2. Melanie Waller permalink

    I know I may be going back a bit, but when I read these articles the first time around, I was taken back to my secretarial classes that taught us how to write “memos” and this way of writing emails seems to be about the same format only more formal.

    By the way, in the first email assignment, it seems almost impossible to tell a professor that a test in another class is more important than the usual assignment in his/her class. Especially if that Professor has a policy for no excuses on late work. I would much rather take fewer points for a late assignment that explain why I need to spend all my time studying for something else and especially asking for a whole week extension. (just my opinion and feelings for the moment, I’ll figure out someway to write this)

    • Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

      Melanie,

      I agree with you about the first scenario. Although I understand special cases occasionally arise from emergencies, a syllabus is a contract. If I knew that a professor has a strict late work policy, I would not be inclined to challenge it. However, my first composition professor told our class that it is best to talk to professors about conflicts with upcoming assignments. A professor is much more likely to be empathetic with you if you approach him/her about the conflict prior to the due date–especially if you can show that you’ve made progress and haven’t just been procrastinating on the assignment. Therefore, I suppose it would be somewhat okay to ask for the extension if I could say, “I have about one-half of my draft completed, but…”

      • Melanie Waller permalink

        Why thank you. I have had professors give an extension on some work, but there are always some who seem to feel that their class is just as or more important than another. It is a sticky situation and I have always been taught that we should not bite off more than we can chew, so work it out. this assignment just brought back memories 🙂

    • Elyse Cawetzka permalink

      I agree Melanie, it is an awkward and difficult email to write. I actually have experience with this and had to do it in the past. The key thing I found that favored my request was the politeness and timing of the email. Emailing the professor the day before the assignment is due will not get you an extension but most professors will tell you way in advance when things are due and when your tests will be so you have plenty of time to create a respectful and polite email.

      • Melanie Waller permalink

        Yes and I thank you too. I too have had professors who have absolutely refused to give extensions and then I have had to turn in work that I wasn’t completely satisfied with and then I have had some who understand and had no problem with late work. I just wish that some of those Professors would just cut back on points or something for late work. It at least shows that one is trying. Ok, I will get off my soapbox

  3. Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

    Each of the links left me with at least one piece of advice for composing emails that I had not thought of before. In the “A Beginner’s Guide to Effective Email,” I took note of the buzzwords to use in subject lines–especially the “REQ” to request an action. One buzzword I question (due to the original publish date) is “Urgent.” While I think this is still somewhat useful, I believe it could easily be replaced by “starring” a message as important.

    Interestingly, the point which drew my attention in the last two resources differ in opinion. OWL Purdue states that it is perfectly acceptable to begin an email with “Ms. Smith:”. However, in “How to e-mail a professor,” the author states that leaving our “hi” or “hello” before a person’s name makes the tone of the email sound too “brusque.” I struggle with this element sometimes. I tend to begin emails with this general format:

    Professor McCloskey:

    I do so to sound as professional as possible, since I want my faculty to take me seriously. As I get to know professors, I’m more inclined to include a hello because I feel like our relationship has elements of friendship, and not strictly professionalism.

    Thoughts on that matter?

    • Elyse Cawetzka permalink

      Natasha,

      I too noticed the conflicting opinions on how to start out the email with a hi or hello. I am like you and start my emails out as

      Professor Blank,

      If I do not know the person I am contacting, for example, applying for a job posting, I have in the past headed the email with

      To Whom It May Concern,

      What are you thoughts about that heading? I have written in because I do not know the name or title of the person I am contacting, but want to be respectful and professional and not say the “hi/hello” that “How to email your professor” said not to do.

      • Steve Krause permalink

        These are subtle kinds of things that I think you have to assess on a case by case basis in your writing. But generally, I think “to whom it may concern” isn’t right because it’s not like you’re trying to email “the universe;” you should have a particular audience in mind.

        Personally, I think any greeting is better than none. So I’m okay with “Hi Professor Krause” or even “Hi Steve,” but I think it’s kind of rude to just launch into the email itself.

    • Melanie Waller permalink

      I was always taught that if they earned the title then we call them by the title. Be it Dr., or Professor or anything else. I was taught that we call our elders Mr. or Mrs. or Ms., Madam or Sir and I still get flack for addressing someone as this. I’m not trying to insult anyone or being flip, this is just the way I was taught.

      • Steve Krause permalink

        A lot of people who have PhDs can be sensitive about the Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. thing because they feel they’ve earned the title “Dr.” Calling them “Mr.” is sort of like assuming they’re like your middle school teacher.

        Personally, I don’t care that much, though I do prefer Professor or Doctor over Mister.

        • Melanie Waller permalink

          I will use Dr. or Professor if I know the right title to use. I meant Mr. Mrs. or Ms. as use toward general public, my boss, my old teachers from way back when, etc.
          Question, is Doctor or Professor interchangeable?

          • Steve Krause permalink

            I don’t think it’s interchangeable exactly. I guess I would say that if you have to write an email to a professor you don’t know at all (that is, you haven’t met her yet, you’re asking for some kind of favor, etc., etc.) and you are torn between the two, I’d go with Professor.

  4. Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

    I also want to leave you all with this link I found last week. A math professor critiques the writing in an email he receives from a student. Not only does the video provide a nice chuckle, but I think it is really interesting that it is a math professor who is doing the critiquing! We often think of our English/writing professors as the ones most likely to chew us out for bad writing… but that simply isn’t true. Every professional will recognize bad writing and judge a person for it.

    Here is the link:
    http://laughingsquid.com/battle-creek-michigan-math-professor-critiques-an-email-sent-to-him-from-a-student-who-missed-class/

    What do you think? I’d love to hear your reactions!

    • Steve Krause permalink

      I actually was going to share that with everyone, probably on Wednesday. 😉

      The key observation for me here, Natasha, is we are judged by our writing in all kinds of settings and certainly professional ones. A lot of times, students don’t think of what we’re doing in this setting as “professional,” but I would disagree with that.

      • Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

        I’m sorry for stealing your thunder by posting this video early!

        But I do agree about students not thinking about what they are writing when trying to communicate with professors. I know that I’ve always stressed out about sending emails to my faculty. It used to take me 30+ minutes to create a brief email just because I would revise over again until I found a respectable draft.

        • Carly permalink

          I do the same thing. I’ve agonized over titles and proper grammar and spelling because I felt like I represented myself through my words.

          The most awkward times are when you do this and then you get a response like “okay, thanks :-)” from a teacher no less! Please tell me I’m not the only one who has been dumbfounded when a teacher or professor is super casual when I’m stressing about being all uptight. It’s never been an English teacher who has done that, which makes sense, but it still makes me laugh.

    • Jessica Kane permalink

      Haha! “Hey! Uh..’hey’, yourself.”

      Excellent reactions throughout! I would have been blown away by an email like that too. Thanks for sharing!

      • Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

        I also loved his comment about only watching kitten videos on YouTube as well. I can’t even imagine receiving an email like this from a student. Though, it probably happens all the time, which is rather scary. I think he responded appropriately by deleting her email.

        • Jessica Kane permalink

          “…I think he responded appropriately by deleting her email.”

          Agreed! That video might as well have been spam or a practical joke.

    • Nijea Wilson permalink

      Oh my goodness why would anyone ever leave an email like this to their professor. The punctuation and word abbreviations were absolutely horrible. If I was the professor I would’ve wanted to immediately drop her from the class. That was one of the most unprofessional emails I have ever seen.

      (The professor could’ve blocked out her email address though lol)

      • Steve Krause permalink

        I have to say that I receive emails from students similar to this all the time, and that includes emails I’ve received quite recently. I don’t think these students have bad intentions; I just don’t think they’re really thinking a whole lot about the impression that they’re making.

        Also, I can’t drop students or otherwise “kick students out” of a class; that’s just not the way it works. I can suggest to students that they drop, but that’s about it.

  5. Elyse Cawetzka permalink

    To me, when you write an email to someone of authority or seniority it should be professional and respectful. I agree with the article “How to email a professor” says and not put “hi/hello” in front of the name. I usually start my emails out with Professor (Blank), but once I get to know them more, it may change. One thing I tend to do too, whether it is good or bad, is look and see how the professor responds to me. If he/she responds with

    Elyse,
    …….

    and not with

    Hi Elyse,
    ….

    I take the Hi Elyse, as less formal and would respond next with a Hi (blank) back.

    I thought that the Beginners Guide article was interesting. I couldn’t help but think of writing a memo when they were talking about how to write the subject line. I’m sure it is because of my lack of experience in such an email, but I never thought of or knew about writing the ‘urgent’ or ‘request’ in the subject line. It does make sense so that the receiver knows the importance level on when to effectively get back to the sender, but I found it interesting and informative.

    • Kourtney Lovett permalink

      I structure my e-mails similarly to you, Elyse. I most often start them off by simply saying Professor (Blank). But, like you, after the 1st exchange of e-mails, I often respond to my professor the way that they respond to me. Essentially, whether or not I add hi or hello to my e-mails, depends on the style of my professor that I am communicating with.

    • Jessica Kane permalink

      When replying to a professor, I have a moment of anxiety every time. I, also, tend to err on the side of (apparently brutish) formality, even after receiving an informal reply. I feel a little relief that I can legally follow the professor’s lead, even if it will feel extremely foreign for a while…

      • Nijea Wilson permalink

        Hey Jessica, I always have a great deal of anxiety to lol. I always have to check a thousand times to make sure I appropriately addressed them with their correct tittle and spelled their name correctly. No misspelled words etc.

      • Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

        I do the same exact thing! I’d rather be too professional and have the professor set the example to be more casual, than to overestimate my casualness and offend someone.

      • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

        Yes! Those moments when you spend an hour composing a two line email to a professor, and he emails back almost immediately with a completely informal response….

        • Steve Krause permalink

          Part of it is that some professors are more into the authority role than others, and people in authority often have very short emails. But a lot of it is professors are people too.

          Personally, I try to be relatively informal and friendly but still “complete” and professional.

    • Nijea Wilson permalink

      I always write my email to my professors very professional, wait to see how they respond and just go with whatever type of tone I get from how they address me back

      • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

        This is probably a good rule of thumb for every professional situation.

      • Leah permalink

        I agree. I always email professors, professionally. After I see how they reply to my email is usually when I get the feel and reply as needed.

    • Chelsea Idzior permalink

      I like that you brought up how you address emails to professors might change as you get to know them more. This is very true not only for professors, but other professionals who you might get to know better and develop a more informal relationship with.

      Also, I sometimes encounter professors who request that you call them by their first name. This always feels so strange to me the first time that I email them! I feel like I’m breaking some sort of code and I get paranoid that they will get mad even though I know that they have requested to be called by their first name. This is probably just because it is so engrained in my head to address professors by formal titles.

    • Latasha Davis permalink

      Yes Elyse I email should be professional and respectful. It even need to be specific. With the world we live in today were always getting emails and spam. If you email is not professional or meant for a particular person as professional they may not want to read it or even respond to it. Its important to show a level of respect and effectiveness with a clear response email .

  6. Jessica Kane permalink

    I’m a little confused regarding line length. I get that word wrap isn’t available in all email programs but I am confused on how to fix this. Is Mrs. Sherwood suggesting hitting ENTER after sixty-ish characters and/or “blocking” the text? For example, would this:

    I received the feed for the rabbits on Tuesday but was hopingENTER
    there would be more included per package. I need seventy-fiveENTER
    pounds for the annual rabbit society gathering and have onlyENTER
    sixty-two. Is there a way I could pick up the remaining thirteenENTER
    tomorrow at your location?

    be better than this:

    I received the feed for the rabbits on Tuesday but was hoping there would be more included per package. I need seventy-five pounds for the annual rabbit society gathering and have only sixty-two. Is there a way I could pick up the remaining thirteen tomorrow at your location?

    • Steve Krause permalink

      I’m glad you pointed this out, Jessica. I’m not sure I personally agree with this advice– or at least, I don’t think it’s really necessary now. Back in “the day,” I could see her point because of the way older email programs worked. Nowadays, with think adding those hard returns at the end of lines like that might actually make it harder to read. Anyone have any thoughts on that?

      One thing is for sure: don’t send emails that have some kind of fancy font, some weird “stationary” background, etc., etc.

      • Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

        I think the extra returns at the end of each line make the message more difficult to read. I also highly doubt that most people are so anal as to prefer that structure over the default line length of an email program.

      • Jessica Kane permalink

        Even when I was editing this comment, the format had changed in the little text box where you make changes. Also, as I am looking at this currently on my tablet, the auto formatting makes it look even worse. I don’t feel like this advice is relevant anymore. I would think the few that would have this formatting problem would know they are in the minority and not have issue with the lack of manual word word wrap.

  7. Kourtney Lovett permalink

    “Email also does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations.” (A Beginner’s Guide to Effective Email)

    I find this point to be very relevant because the tone of my e-mails (as well as texts) has been misinterpreted many times in the past. While I might have been sarcastic or attempting to make a joke, the person that I was corresponding with took me seriously. Often times, this has led to arguments or debates where I have to clarify what I intended to say. It just turns into a big mess. I can appreciate her advice on avoiding jokes and sarcasm via e-mail based on my own experiences.

    • Chelsea Idzior permalink

      I talked about the same point in my comment. I have also encountered situations in both emails and texts where what I read or what I sent was misinterpreted, and things can get messy quickly. I think it’s best to put yourself in the other person’s shoes when writing a text or email, and try to imagine how they might interpret it.

  8. Nijea Wilson permalink

    Kaitlin Sherwood made some great points when it comes to appropriately tailoring your email to fit who you’re communicating with. Writing an email with slang terms, foul language, miss spelled words and etc is okay when its being sent to your best friend, however not so smart when its being sent to your boss. She also talks about how you have to be careful to fully understand how someone may interpret your email differently than what you intended. Using sarcasm or structuring your sentences wrongly may make someone think something differently that what you meant. When face-to-face with someone you’re able to listen to their tones, body language and facial expressions however with an email you don’t have the chance to perceive that extra information. I personally love email because of how quickly you can relay information to somebody.
    The Purdue article states information such as how to appropriately leave a subject line and how to start off your emails with an appropriate greeting. It was also great to read about things you shouldn’t send in email such as passwords, usernames and account information. While reading about attaching things to an email, I remember getting an important email from someone but because it had an attachment to it I automatically considered email and deleted it.
    Writing an email to your Professor was actually very informative for someone who hasn’t had experience with emailing their professors. Professors usually put on their syllabus how to address an email to them so I’ve actually done the majority of what this article has said to do. You have to think about the fact that your Professor may be teaching 4 different classes and have a boat load of students so in order for your email to not get lost or pushed to the side its best to send from your school account with your class in the subject line and what you’re emailing about. I will say that when I first started college I was bad about putting reasons as to why I missed classed and now I can only imagine how irritating it was to receive emails like that.

    • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

      Kinda’ random (and off topic), I know, but I love that you called it “foul language.” Even though I’ve only taken one class in linguistics, I’m very intrigued by the way people speak, and why they choose the words they do. I don’t hear “foul language” often, and that’s probably the sole reason it tickles me so.

      Also, great point regarding the professor email. They have a handful of other classes, with roughly 20-30 people in each (not including lecture halls of course), but we just assume the professor know everything about us. It’s silly, and I’m glad the article brings this to our attention.

  9. Justin Trudell permalink

    I read all three articles and I thought the Beginner’s guide by Kaitlin Sherwood was pretty useless. Some of the points brought up are common sense to people that have ever used email. Mentioning the difference between writing an email and talking to someone face to face is pretty obvious. I found none of this information helpful.

    The article on Purdue OWL was rather helpful with the information but also had some rather obvious information on it, such as not sending usernames and passwords or credit card information. The tips on how to address someone you don’t know are important for most people to understand. I also agree with the idea of making email short and to the point. I think it should always be know that emails are a two way street. Sending an email to someone, you should consider not wasting their time with a request just as much as you wanting to fulfill that request.

    The article about how to email a professor was helpful as well. I had never thought of including all the details of what class I am enrolled within the subject line. It would indeed streamline the process for getting a proper response and like what I mentioned before it takes into consideration your needs as well as the professors time.

    • Steve Krause permalink

      The Sherwood piece is dated for sure, but I think it’s still useful because of the points that both Chelsea and Carly make in their comments, that we often forget that it is difficult to convey emotions in email and that it quite different than speaking with someone in person. And again, in my experience over the years, “common sense” is neither: that is, it is not as common as you might think and it is isn’t even agreed on what is “sensible.”

      • Justin Trudell permalink

        I guess it being dated was my biggest point. Most students entering college have had extensive experience with writing communication, via email or text messaging. I suppose it is true about common sense not being the same for everyone, as I was unaware of the convenience of identifying yourself and the class you are enrolled withing a subject line. Something that seems probably obvious to many other students.

  10. Chelsea Idzior permalink

    I think that this paragraph from Sherwood’s piece is critically important:

    “Email also does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric. Sarcasm is particularly dangerous to use in email.”

    This is very true and I have experienced it in my own life. I have definitely received emails where I perceive the sender as being condescending or rude when they haven’t meant to. I have also had to write, rewrite, and then rewrite emails again because I am not sure how I will come off to the reader.

    I like that Purdue OWL talked about not using all caps. It seems obvious that this would be a bad choice, but this happens to me all the time at work. I work at a nurse staffing agency and our vendors often send us emails for open job postings where all of the information is capitalized. It is extremely obnoxious! I also agree that jokes should also be avoided to those you don’t know/in professional emails. Some of our nurses try to joke with me through email, and it oftentimes just comes off as strange.

    In the Michael Leddy reading, he mentions to identify in the email message what course you are in and what specific assignment you had a question about. There is no doubt in my mind that students fail to do this. I have gotten emails from fellow classmates that do not say who the sender is or what class they are from, but then they request to be sent notes/what we did in class that day. Those emails immediately get deleted.

  11. Carly permalink

    This is slightly out of the direction we’re talking about, but when reading over the Beginners Guide to Effective email, I read this sentence:

    “Email also does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment.”

    and thought about how it seems to be the opposite of that today. I think when you’re typing an email, you present your most professional face-forward, one that you possibly couldn’t muster up in front of your boss or professor. It seems to me it can bring about more confidence in a person, and maybe lacking emotion in the tone of the email is what makes it that way. That’s why people call for in-person interviews, right? Because you can sound a way through email or in your resume, and present yourself totally different.

    I also thought about how we’ve created ways of adding emotion through words and characters. It seems so small, but isn’t it kind of revolutionary that we’ve found a way to give our tones to a voiceless way of speech?
    With emoji’s and sms language, you begin to view the phrases as meaning and not the actual words.

    Like for example:
    1. I couldn’t believe John Doe did that.
    2. I couldn’t believe John Doe did that, lol.

    We don’t even read the “lol” anymore, or take it literally for what it means. It just acts as a figure of your tone. And it changes the sentence mood drastically.

    This is just my two cents on the idea.

    • Latasha Davis permalink

      Yes, so true. People sometime write more in depth when writing emails but with technology today sometime we forget and write as if we are texting. I think the article showed a perfect example of that.
      I can admit to that I am now so text savvy that I don’t event read the LOL or OMG/. It important to get the message across especially when you are conveying a message without a face. You gave a great example of that.

    • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

      Do you ever think about how many arguments or hurt feelings could be avoided if people just didn’t say critical things via text? It’s amazing how often comments are misconstrued. If you can, wait to say something important until you can say it in person.

  12. Ashleigh Swinehart permalink

    After reading “A Beginner’s Guide to Effective Email” I found myself remembering a previous professor that would flip out if a student wrote him an email incorrectly… And yes, I was guilty of this mistake upon my first encounter with said professor. Needless to say I got my ass chewed out by him in electronic form AND verbally. After my lovely discussion with that professor, I immediately fixed my mistakes (they weren’t THAT bad, nor was there too many) and now I write better emails. I agreed with a lot of the paper’s points about format, layout, and context, and I actually learned a few new things about email! Who would have thought!?

    As for the subject line -I have never heard of using this- and both OWL and Sherwood discussed this in their article/papers. Is this a common thing people expect to see in an email? As I mentioned, I have never heard of this, nor have I ever seen anyone, including professors, use this. Does anyone here use this?

  13. LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

    Wow, guys! I’m sorry I forgot to comment about these articles. I read them, and then, doo doo doo, I went about my day. What was I thinking?! Ugh!

    To be honest, I didn’t take much away from the readings. Being in the professional field for years now, the classic email etiquette was a no-brainer.

    I WILL admit, however, that the article about emailing a professor was helpful. I knew (and do) most of the things advised, but I think it’s a great article, regardless. At the beginning of college, I struggled with contacting professors, so I can see how these tips would do wonders for a freshman.

  14. Leah permalink

    Ditto to what LeeAnne said above my comment.

    These articles were great to read over, but I as well did not take anything from them. I was always taught to write an email to a professor, professionally. Now, according to how that particular professor replays usually gives me some leisure of how to reply back.

    I was never the student that thought it was ok to email a professor, elder, or company in my everyday way of speaking.

    I did find the link that Natasha posted very humorous, typical, yet sad. I say humorous because although I can’t believe someone would write a professor in this manner on the behalf of missing class for two weeks, I still can believe it in some sense. I say typical because the younger generations entering college are very connected to this shortening words texting style, if you will. Lastly, it’s sad because some students don’t have as much knowledge or may even a disorder that could have something to do with their writing skills. Overall, this example of writing a professor in a email looks as though it did come from a freshman.

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