Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reading Student E-Mails

Now that my long sabbatical is effectively over (sigh), it’s time to start thinking about school again and about issues that haven’t crossed my mind in a while. As I was putting together my syllabi, one of them struck me: the issue of how to write a proper email to a professor. Perhaps it’s just me, but I get the distinct impression that with respect to emails the writing skills of many of my students has degraded to an almost embarrassing level. The problem is so bad at times that I keep reminding myself to put some policy about it into my syllabus, but I never get around to doing it (which is why I thought of it while crafting a syllabus). The main reason it never makes it into the syllabus is that I’m not convinced yet that this is just a personal problem that I have with email correspondence, or if this is really a problem that lots of people see and think needs to be addressed. Moreover, I’m not sure it’s my job to combat it.

If you are a professor, you know what I’m talking about. Over the years I have received more and more emails that look like this:

——-#1 ———-


Where’s the assignment for this week



—–#2 ———–


Where’s the assignment?



—— #3 ———-

i prolly wont’ be ther today im sick



—–#4 ———–

send me the paper assignment i wasn’t in class


I could go on and on, as there are endless versions of these things. I’m sure many of you have favorite versions or pet peeves. Some of the emails I get are just careless, and some are just rude. Overall, I think, the main problems that I see boil down to:

1. The addressee is not addressed at all, or is not properly addressed. If I’m addressed, it might be as “hey” or as “Panza”. Just to be clear: I don’t want to be called “Dr. Panza” – that’s not my beef. Actually I ask students to call me “CP” so that will do. My main issue here is that “hey” is far too informal (I’m your professor not your buddy) and “Panza” is rude (only my best friends call me that).

Although I’m not a stickler for hierarchy, this _is_ a student/teacher relationship, and a properly composed email really should have an addressee. This doesn’t mean that our relationship can’t be somewhat informal, because it can be (mine often are). However, “hey” or “Panza” come off as rude (though I don’t think it is intended to come off this way most times). Ways of composing an email to a friend don’t immediately carry over to the ways you can speak to a professor, even one you know well or one that you goof around with to some degree.

2. The email is not signed. Why not?

3. The email uses no proper capitalization and is full of spelling errors or IM speak. Again, this is not an email to your friend, so “prolly” and “coulpa” and other such words should actually be spelled out. Frankly, a badly composed email at this level gives off a very bad impression about you, your intelligence level, and your character (it says that you are disrespectful, lazy, etc.). Why would you do that?

4. The email demands things without the required softening language. “I need X” or “Get me X” is not appropriate way to talk in a student to teacher email. Something like “Could you send me X?” is perfectly appropriate, sends the same message, and maintains a respectful tone.

5. There is no subject line in the email at all. This is a basic courtesy. People get lots of emails, and often need to prioritize which ones get read when. Besides, I like to know what it’s about before I open it.

6. The email has an attachment inside with no subject line and with no writing in it at all. Something like “CP, here’s my paper. Thanks, Poindexter” will do.

It all boils down to a few things for me.

a) If you don’t know the person well on a friendly non-formal level, then you should write an email the same way you would actually type a letter that you would print and send in the mail (not that this happens anymore!). Moreover, you should type that letter remembering that this is a form of communication like any other – and so it says something about you. It leaves an impression. If you were talking to your boss at work, you wouldn’t slur your words or use IM speak or say “hey” or call your boss by her last name only or say “get me X”.

b) A teacher-student relationship requires _some_ level of respect going up and down. Much as it offends sensitive ears raised in the “consumer model” culture, the teacher/student relationship _is_ a hierarchical relationship – I know more than you do about this subject, and I’m going to teach you that material. But for that relationship to work right requires respect on both sides, even if that respect has different rituals depending on the role you are in (student or teacher). I will always be respectful to you, so be respectful to me. Communication (in class, in office, and email) counts.

I’m also worried, to be honest, that these students will graduate thinking that this way of conducting a virtual email exchange is okay, and then will be embarrassed in the workplace (or worse yet, never know that they’ve created a sloppy impression of who they are for others to take away from such exchanges).

Do we instructors have a responsibility to stop students from writing emails like this – to at least make it clear that it is unacceptable? If so, how do we put that into practice?

Of course, it is also very possible that I shouldn’t be worked up about this at all. It could be that bosses come from the IM culture too, so they don’t care. Soon enough, professors will email students and other people the same way. So it could be that the offense I take from these emails is an artifact of me being brought up in a non-internet world when I was their age. As a consequence, acceptable written communication, for me, has a different set of rituals. Is that right?

Should I lighten up, or is this really a growing problem that needs to be addressed?


  1. It should totally be addressed. I find those emails to be inconsiderate and disrespectful. If you don't teach them proper student-teacher etiquette, who will? I find this to be a reflection of their character, the character they are when nobody is watching. "Netiquette" is just as important as public etiquette. Accept it show their true colors. People often feel they can get away with rudeness in emails because their is not immediate reaction or consequence. It needs to be addressed and corrected. In these emails they are ultimately telling you what to do rather then asking you politely. They need to learn some common courtesy and show some formal respect to you. A friendly non-formal personal level relationship can still be maintained, but only if they also show you the respect you deserve as their mentor.

  2. Greetings Honorable Professor Sir,

    I would say that the crucial issue here is to help you students become more articulate writers. What is the point of worrying about etiquette, when they are not even able to write cogently? Teach them to write and you can teach them how to be respectful. The problem is too many teachers don’t spend enough time working with students on things and instead just want to whine about how bad things are getting.

    Philosopher’s Mess

    P.S. I have written very thorough, polite e-mails to teachers, on subject, and have been completely ignored. What about the apathy coming from the faculty?

  3. Travis,

    I agree. However, I don't get the impression that students (well, the large majority of them) intend to be rude. I think it's more ignorance (and perhaps some laziness), likely due to being raised in an electronic culture that is immersed (truly awash) in communication, just about all of it very, very informal (think of Facebook).

    Still, it's a bad habit to get into, one that will eventually affect them in their own careers. Communication is a vital part of just about any career, and virtual communication will make up a large percentage of that communication.

    So in the end, I agree -- we all need to deal with the problem. Otherwise I suppose we become part of the problem ourselves.

    Philosopher's Mess,

    I already do teach them how to write, regularly -- that's a normal part of my job. So it's not an "either-or" situation where we can't focus on both.

    As well, you may have missed the worry I stated that students will eventually run into trouble in their professional lives if they do not learn how to properly communicate via electronic media. Although I do in fact think it is harmful to the student-teacher relationship to be too informal or rude, and as a teacher I care about that, I think the detrimental effects of this behavior go far beyond that.

    I'm sorry you've been ignored my some faculty members. Apathy is not acceptable behavior on the part of faculty, though it has little bearing on the issue at hand here, I think.

  4. Chris, I'm sympathetic to these worries. The "what's the assignment" kind of e-mails really annoy me. Nearly always this info is available on the syllabus, via the CMS, etc.

    At the root of much of this is that students often lack any idea of audience when they write. I think we see it not only in their e-mails, but also in their papers. Students have a very tough time imagining how they come across on the other side. And regrettably, the failures are sometimes ethical -- students feel entitled to get what they want with no understanding of the means of acquiring it. It's not, therefore, strictly, a writing problem. It's a writing problem that flows from a communication problem.

    So I don't think you should lighten up. But I wonder what can be done.

  5. Now that we live in a world in which some courses can be completed entirely online, there are courses in which this is a very essential part of the syllabus.

    I would try to find professors who teach online classes (or Google for some sample syllabi for their online classes) and compare how they craft this part of their syllabi. I think most of them will cover many of the points you raise about professionalism, etc.

  6. When I discuss this in my classes, I couch it in terms of "how you interact with people shapes how they perceive you." I think for many young adults this is a step in intellectual or emotional development that they haven't taken. Once I point out to them how a professor (or anyone they may want to think them smart and competent) may interpret an email without a greeting, any indication of who sent it, all lower case, poor spelling, etc., they usually get it.

    I think that for most of them (and this is probably age-appropriate) they don't understand all that writing (behavior, attire, etc.) communicates beyond the raw information they intend to communicate.

    So, all this is to say that I think it's appropriate and important for us to address this in class - though I'm inclined to address it not only through the syllabus.

  7. Kevin,

    That's a good point. I hadn't thought of that. I'll Google that and see what I find. Clearly online instructors have to deal with this issue front and center.

    Jm (and Michael):

    I agree completely. For a few of them, I think they are aware of the impression it puts off, or that it is rude, but they don't care.

    For the larger majority, though, I do think it's just ignorance. I really do believe this is a result of the electronic communication culture students are deeply immersed in nowadays.

    When the vast majority of your almost constant communication is done through Facebook, IM, and texting, and all of these media emphasize "getting the point across quickly" (especially texting), the other dimensions of what are expected in appropriate communication can be left behind.

    As a consequence, you don't realize that you may be behaving in a rude way or that you may be creating a negative impression of yourself for others.

  8. When I discuss this in my classes, I couch it in terms of "how you interact with people shapes how they perceive you."

    This is what I do as well. I don't put it into the syllabus, but I try to minimize how much policing happens there. However, within the first two weeks of the semester, I have a talk with the class.

    I point out that they need to learn how to address different audiences. There is nothing wrong with how they interact with their friends, but they need to learn to have a formal voice as well. I point out how they sound when they send terse emails, or ones in text speak. While they might not think anything about it, it annoys me and gives me a bad impression of them. That's never helpful when you are asking someone for something. They need to practice for writing emails and memos on the job.

    I request that there is a salutation of some sort, that the body of the email is vaguely grammatical, and that they sign it. I tell them that I won't respond to emails otherwise.

    I have had pretty good success with this. I really do believe that they just don't understand the importance of how we communicate.

  9. I guess what I find a little ironic is that these same young people want to *be treated* with respect and courtesy, so woe betide you if you answered one of those emails with "Brown -- its yr prbolem."

    Maybe a good way to handle it is to give examples of two emails asking for assistance and require them to analyze which one they'd be more likely to respond positively to, and why. Of course, if they say that the polite one makes the person look subservient and low-status, you're in trouble. ;-)

    ...because on the other hand, how many emails have I received from deans that say, "Az, I need X" ...nice.

  10. I think apathy has everything to do with it, maybe not in your instance, but how many teachers did you students go through before they got to you?

    I have been a student for something like two decades now and the structure and participants in education, for the most part, have been pretty abysmal in regards to levels of engagement,including withen the University environment.

    To the individual who claimed an ethical issue, I feel that perspective waters down the potency of ethical issues in general, if accept it would render them nonsensical. There is no ethical crime committed in a poorly written email, except maybe for an attack on the teacher's ego, which is probably good for the pompous teacher.

  11. Hi there,

    I address this matter during the first week, using lots of humor, and it has been very effective.

    I open discussing the topic with: "How about I share with you an amazing tip, something that will get you in good with all your professors for the rest of your days here at the college...are you interested?" Something along those lines.

    "Yes!" they shout.

    "Okay," I say, "Make your emails stand out from the crowd. We get a lot of emails that say 'Hey' or 'What'd I miss?' and that's all. How about a 'Hello professor, how is your day? Here is my assignment, thanks for your time.' Simple little flourishes like that will make your instructors so happy, that they might even let you skip the next test! Okay, I'm just kidding, but you get the point, right?"

    And they do get the point. I ask them to raise their hand if they've ever sent an email like that before, a lot of hands go up, everyone laughs, and everyone understands. Then, I always get carefully composed emails the very next day, suggesting they got my point. When they slack, and revert back to their wicked ways, I respond with "Yoohoo? No 'Hello Prof, how are you this fine day'?!"

    Sometimes I throw this topic into a conversation about pet peeves. I tell them my pet peeves, and then I ask them their pet peeves when it comes to instructors. They love sharing those!

    While humor works well for me, it might not be everyone's style. My first career was tending bar, though, so I'm comfortable offering humor, while still demanding respect (I wasn't always good at this, and even now I'm always getting better; it's been a simple matter of gaining experience).

    Anyway, I guess my final point is that I don't think it's enough to simply tack yet another policy on, into the syllabus, without addressing it in class, face to face (or in an announcement in an online class).


  12. I can completely commiserate with these sentiments. Especially as a young (and young-looking) teacher, I get this constantly. One e-mail I got last semester started out:

    Hey Kim (I hope is ok that I'm calling you Kim!! hehehehehe)

    I wanted to reply, "well, it was ok, but it's not anymore!"

    Besides the etiquette, which I agree is a very important aspect of e-mail writing, I have a problem with students who send me e-mails asking mind-numbing questions which they could certainly answer themselves if they put forth the tiniest bit of effort. (No, I will not tell you when my office hours are AGAIN. You've been to them. Twice.)

    I recently learned about a policy that I am going to try to adopt. The policy states that if you can phrase your e-mail in a "yes" or "no" format, I will answer it. The huge benefit of this system is that it shifts the burden of the e-mail content to the student. Now, I will not get e-mails asking me to "explain concept X" (which are stressful to reply to, and often lead to lengthy e-mails that end with the sentence, "please come to my office hours"). But if the student can pose the question in a way that I can either confirm or deny your understanding of concept X, I get to spend less time writing e-mails, and the student had to do the mental work.

  13. I think that this is a fairly widespread issue, probably compounded by the prevalence of IM and texting but also by a consumerist approach to education that's gotten quite out of hand.

    I suspect that we're fighting a losing battle on this one. So, I feel that accepting the fact that students will just do this regardless of what you say in class or write on the syllabus is a step toward at least less irritation.

    That having been said, I have a section on responsibilities, student and instructor, in my syllabi. Mid-semester I circulate an anonymous form so that they can air any problems they may have with my adherence to my stated responsibilities and so that they may raise any issues they have in general. This is so that students like Philosoper's Mess can raise issues, general and specific, is a safe forum.

    I make it a point, in the syllabus and in class, to let them know that my rights and responsibilities arise from the same student-teacher relationship that theirs do.

    When a student first shoots me an email of the sort that I feel is inappropriate, I answer what the email asks, I let him or her know lightly that they've been inappropriate, that it's no big deal, and that in the future I will only respond to emails that are appropriate.

    That usually takes care of most of these problems. But, I think there's no way to prevent them from happening in the first place. It helps to walk away from your computer when you get these emails and do something else before responding or, at least, it helps me.

    Philosopher's Mess, whatever your experiences may have been, the issue of mutual respect in the classroom is not necessarily related to inflating anyone's ego. I imagine from your posts that your ability to learn is affected by the treatment you get at the hands of your instructors.

    It works both ways.

    In order for me to teach, I need to have you show up, participate, and treat me as well as your classmates as human beings worthy of respect.

    If your teachers have failed to act appropriately, that sucks. It's our job to respond to appropriate emails. Their failure doesn't, however, authorize you to treat me like your servant.

  14. I fear I've come too late to the party!

    I tend to think that many (if not most) students simply haven't come across a situation that requires carefully and respectfully written emails before college. In which case I think that instructors do have a responsibility to address the issue. However, I'm not sure that a syllabus is the proper place for such a policy, in part because I don't think it is particularly effective and, in part, because it reads overly legalistic.

    PurpleBikeCafe's method strikes me as best.

    While I agree with the points others have made about etiquette and respect, I would instead explain that properly crafted emails are simply more effective for getting whatever the student requires, and then explain that following etiquette and showing respect are part of properly crafting emails.

    My own troubles are (1) emails requesting x without telling me which class the student is in, (2) emails where IM speak, etc. essentially distracts me or make it difficult for me to understand the content of the message, and (3) emails with a 'hard' request. 1 and 2 are pretty self-explanatory for students (once they have been told), but I think many simply don't understand 3.

    For me, I just don't think it is my responsibility to give students missed assignments or information if they have missed class. They can gather such information from classmates. Of course, if a student politely asks for such things, I would be more than happy to help.

    These are life lessons students should learn, and we do them harm by not teaching them.

  15. I'm late to the rude-email party, too, but I have one more lesson that might be worth imparting to students: If your email address is something like, you should consider getting a "professional" email address, too.

    Also, while we're on the topic of overly brief emails, you might look at yesterday's Dilbert comic strip.

  16. Amen! This is definitely a problem with my students, and needs to be addressed.

  17. i am a student and this "slang mail" does aggrivate me

  18. I am a high school student and this is a big pet-pieve of mine. Whats worse is that they sometimes talk like that too. "TTYL girl" "BRB" "GTG" "OMG". I feel as though my generation would not be able to survive without technology

  19. This really isn't one sided.
    I am a high school student as well, but I recently contacted a retired professor. Not knowing him personally, I extended every courtesy, i.e. calling him Prof. ---- explaining who I am, why I am writing, a subject line &c.. I even went so far as to say that I understood students were returning if he didn't have time to answer. I did though bullet point my main questions

    Then I get back an e-mail that has no heading, just brief, curt answers to my bulleted questions. No heading, no signature, no address, just the questions, than the answers. Some were barely sentences.

    I was a little peeved. Sure, students are coming back, but he is retired too. And surely, if he was going to respond, it wouldn't have taken much more time to put a signature. Nor did he answer the questions (admittedly less important, since they pertained to my blog) in the main body of my e-mail. And in one response he just sent me back to the page I was asking clarification on.

    So maybe the problem isn't texting and such, but the nature of e-mail. It is cheaper and faster than any regular mail (assuming you live in an accessible location). Maybe the problem is that e-mail is seen as less formal. Both sides need to fix this problem.

    This is just what Philosopher's Mess was saying about apathy, it goes both ways (unless I miss read the P.S. entirely, in that case, please excuse my comment),
    Prof. Panza (or CP if you prefer):
    Philosopher's Mess' point is perfectly suited to this discussion. The informality goes both ways.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!