Unprofessional emails from students

From the email files:
To: Science Woman (science.woman@mystery.edu)
From: sillyname@yahoo.com
Subject: Hey

can u tell me how to do number 4 on the problem set. i no u went over it in class but i have had a VERY LONG week lol tests ha ha ha and i lost my notes. pleeease help

Dear Stu,

The notes are available on the class website, but you can also solve #4 by ... We'll also be working more examples in class tomorrow. Please see me during office hours if you need more help.

Dr. Science

I am *so* sick of correspondence like that - and that's from a typical student in my upper-level class. Let me vent a bit and enumerate its faults, and then I'll propose a strategy for dealing with it and ask for your suggestions.

First, the problems with emails like that (in case there are any of my students or other similarly clueless souls reading this blog):

  • The email is invariably from a non-university account with some obnoxious or cutesy address, and no indication who the sender actually is.
  • The subject line is vague. Is it spam? Is it an old friend sending an update? Oh, maybe it's from a student. Well, what do they want? Is it urgent? I don't know until I open the email.
  • no capitalization. ever.
  • No punctuation or wrong punctuation
  • Misspellings and internet slang, lol.
  • a lame excuse (totally unnecessary) is usually included (or will be in subsequent emails)
  • No taking responsibility for the course materials on their own
  • Usually sent late the night before (or the morning of) an assignment deadline

So these emails are incredibly unprofessional and even somewhat rude. I'm not trying to be on some high horse about being better than them or being an authority figure. I'm just hoping that students will treat their upper level courses like the professional training grounds that they are. Plus, I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds this sort of email hard to read and understand.

I'm tired of these unprofessional emails, but the image I have been cultivating with my upper-level students is that of a fun, informal prof. They call me Dr. Firstname and I've been making an effort to get to know about their lives and career aspirations. Many of them are looking for senior thesis and MS topics, and I'd like to convince some of them to work with me.

So how do I get them to write me grammatically correct emails with descriptive subject lines? I could stand up in front of the class and give them a lecture about appropriate communication behavior, but that would definitely come off as uptight. So here's what I am thinking of doing.The next time I get an unprofessional email from each student, I'll write back answering their question but also including the following.

"I am hoping that you will use this class to practice professional behaviors that you will use when you work in industry. One of these practices is making sure that all email communication comes from your university email address, has a descriptive subject line, is grammatically correct, and is free of slang. Thanks in advance for making sure that future emails correspond to these guidelines."

I'm also thinking that I need to stop letting it slide in my freshman level class. After all, if they get away with it early in their college careers, how will they know it's inappropriate later on?

How have you handled this sort of email ettiquette problem? Have you had success? Am I just uptight for no good reason? If you were (are) a student and got an email like that, what would your response be? Thanks for your help.


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My husband, who deals with students a great deal more than I ever did, got fed up of this quickly kind of thing quickly and just started firing back

"If you can't be bothered to spell, I can't be bothered to read. Use English if it's urgent."

But then, he was always something of a hardass when it came to enforcing quality.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink


"...this kind of thing quickly"

[need more coffee]

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

Remove the students name an post the e-mail on the class website. Maybe they can be shamed into cleaning up their act.

I would include a section on this in your syllabus and discuss in the first meeting of the class.

By afarensis (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

You could have a "professionals in the field" day. The same way your students may witness you going out into the field (a la muddy boots), you could make one class day a "professional" day. Have the students dress as they might to work in your discipline. Then go over the basics of etiquette, what types of acronyms are universal, and other suggestions all at the same time.

I think if you approach it as helpful hints that may help them land jobs, you could maintain your informal connection while prompting them to practice their formality with you - so you can provide them feedback for the "real world."

See variations on these a bit -- usually not that bad, though :) (Say, no capitalization, but the student is writing because they had a problem accessing the online notes to try to answer their question.)

My favorite is still a student who wrote me the beginning of this term - no capitalization, basically "dear professor, i need a science class to graduate. can i get into your {general field} class?" To which I replied "Dear {Student's Name}, I'm sorry, but you'll need to be more specific - I'm teaching four {general field} classes this semester." Never got a reply.

Wow, I can't believe someone would write an email like that! I guess I'm getting old.

I agree that going over it at the beginning of the year seems like a good idea. You could also mention it in class now, just say something like you have been getting unprofessional emails and expect emails to x,y,z.

I would say, however, if people are fulfilling all the other requirements (in particular a clear subject line) that I do understand wanting to have only one email address (and since these students probably had one long before they got to school I can understand it not being the school one). In a perfect world they would understand how to send emails from their yahoo/gmail/whatever account that look like they are coming from the school one, and forward school mail to the account they want to use. Perhaps explaining that instead of just saying they need to use the school email would be better. Or explaining that getting a clear email address with their name from yahoo/gmail/whatever will serve them well in the future, I know I have been getting more and more mail from other scientists from gmail accounts instead of work ones as the web interface is much better than the typical university one.

afarensis nailed it. You can't expect them to respond as you would like, unless they know what to expect.

It is DEFINITELY not right to excoriate the kids - even if they are upper level - in the middle of the term, unless you bring this up in class, or communicate your expectations to all of them. If you email your expectations, I recommend getting at least an electronic response that they have received the email.

Although - (snarky comment here)if you are indeed training them for The Real World, you could blast them for NOT doing it right in the middle of the term, and act like you DID tell them, even if you did not.

This prepares them perfectly for all the asshole bosses that they WILL run into throughout their professional careers.

And they would get all that free extra-credit learning - AT NO EXTRA CHARGE!

Heck of a deal...

Oh, this sickens me. I cannot fathom why, in a million years, a student would find this to be appropriate. I understand that my level of formality with professors is above that of most, but TO A PROFESSOR? I couldn't even send an email like that to friends, and frankly, if a friend of mine sent an email like that to me, I wouldn't even reply. You are much more forgiving than I am; I wouldn't tolerate such emails at all. My mother beat proper grammar/punctuation/proper writing skills into me as a child, and I loathe people who can't do the same. If you can't be bothered to take the time to type out "know" instead of "no", I'm pretty sure I couldn't be bothered to take the time to help you!

I think your suggestion of including a message in your emails is a good one. I think I would also bring it up in class. It is not being uptight, but necessary ground rules for communication and if they don't already know them, they need to learn now. I also tend to establish a relaxed relationship with students, and while establishing a more formal and hierarchical atmosphere might help a bit, I also think it is just general cluelessness or their part. My new masters student (who is actually older than I am and otherwise seems like a perfectly well behaved person) titles all her emails "hey"/ "hey there" or similar. It drives me nuts, because now I have loads of emails from her all with the same title, and it is impossible to go back and find a specific email about anything. I seriously think she is not doing this to piss me off, but because she isn't aware of how impractical it is. I on the other hand find it weird and uncomfortable to sit down and explain email etiquette to a grown woman.

Good luck with solving the problem. Let uis know how the email message works if you decide to go with it.

Funny, it's almost like my students read this blog post before it was even published. They are supposed to email me a paper summary before each class discussion and the round of emails I got last night was actually pretty decent. Most of them had the subject line "paper" and were written with decent English. I'm thinking that they are aware of how an email is supposed to read *when it's an assignment,* but they aren't translating it into the practice that all emails should read that way.

In future semesters, I will definitely be putting some sort of email guidelines on the syllabus. I like the idea of a "professional day" - maybe I could bring in a grad student who has worked in industry and get him/her to talk about professional behavior.

Oh, and in defense of my students, I should probably say that the email at the top of the post was a combination of all of the worst things I've gotten this semester. I've never seen them all at once (pretty close though).

First, don't complain to them that you can't read the email. Honestly. Of course you can. You don't like the style and you find it unprofessional and inappropriate, but you can read it. If you say you can't, half of them will mark you down as a liar and the other half will refuse to consider you as a "fun, informal prof".

The thing to do is explain on day one and in the syllabus that you cannot possibly read every email you get from unknown addresses, and that subject lines like "Hey" get shunted into your junk folder. Tell them you expect to get addresses you recognize (either university accounts or mapped - yahoo has perfectly clear instructions on how to do that) with subject lines that let you, as someone who gets way too much email, identify and sort properly.

As for register? Well, you can try to explain to them the difference between informal, between-friends, chat-style register and formal, asking-the-professor-something register, and you can probably succeed. But you have to decide whether you want to be the "fun" prof or the "formal" one.

Oh dear lord. I get the same emails and they drive me batshit. In all of our syllabi here we tell them that they are expected to use and check their school email, because it's more businesslike.

The problem, though, is that all of our school email addresses (unless the student has had the foresight to give themselves an alias) look like this dk40568@schoolname.edu or fk24950@schoolname.edu, and I will get emails that just say

"hey I am sick and couldnt make lab today can i pass in the hw next week and my last quiz grade didnt show up online did u correct it yet


And I have to write back something very formal and grammatically correct that basically says "I have no idea who you are, or which class you're in - please let me know who you are and then I can assist you."

When really I want to write back "U r a dumbass if u have NE idea if u think i know who u r, and ur hw is due 2day, lol, ttys ok thx bye"

This semester I went through a whole "Tell me who you are in your email!" at the beginning of class, and that's helped somewhat. Next year I think I'll be more specific, and tell them from day 1 that emails to professors are considered business communication, and as such, they should be relatively formal (i.e. include a salutation, a coherent subject/theme/request, and a proper closing). And that in the business world, emails with text message speak and poor grammar are simply laughed at and discarded and not worth responding to, because the writer obviously did not take the time to show that they respect the intelligence of the recipient.

High handed, maybe, but I am seriously sick of emails that make no sense and show total disrespect for someone that they should be trying to impress and sound SMART in front of.

By another female… (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

It is DEFINITELY not right to excoriate the kids - even if they are upper level - in the middle of the term, unless you bring this up in class, or communicate your expectations to all of them. If you email your expectations, I recommend getting at least an electronic response that they have received the email.

It most certainly is right. They are sending an email asking for assistance, not discussing the latest episode in the Britney Spears saga on Facebook. There are basic standards in communication and if you aren't aware of this by your early 20s, then you should be made aware in the most strident terms. Standards seem to be slipping, not just in relatively informal contexts such as email, but also in essays. We've had students use the word "innit"* in essays in recent years - this is by far the worst offence, but not the only one.

* http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=innit

I think discussing it will help- just putting it in the syllabus, however, will ensure that most kids ignore it. I personally put very detailed lab-report guidelines in a syllabus only to have them ignored until the first time I returned bled-upon lab reports.

I think it's perfectly possible to be firm and professional without being excoriating. The thing about not having brought it up at the beginning is, it's one of those things one assumes upper-level college students should know. Like turning things in on time.

I like to send my students to this site. I usually do it at the beginning of the semester, but maybe you can come up with a way to do it now -- maybe say a friend at another college was telling you about bad emails & you just wanted to remind your class before they slipped, implying that none of them had done it and you expected they wouldn't, but just in case they were tired, etc. (I'd bet you can come up with a better story.)


When I was in high school, I had to miss class for a newspaper deadline, so I went to the teacher and told him I wouldn't e in class that day. He said "No. Sit down, you're not missing class". I asked why I couldn't go, and he said "You're a student - you don't TELL me what you will do, you ASK me if you MAY do something".

For some reason, that was a HUGE lesson to me in dealing with bosses. Without that, I probably would have "told" my first boss I was going on vacation instead of asked. It was a big help to me to have that lesson, and I'm grateful, not angry at the man.

One way you could do this tactfully is delete the name, and bring the topic up for discussion in class. Put it on an overhead and say this is typical of SOME of the emails you get from students. What do other students think? What are some guidelines for emailing professors/professional contacts?

Wow, and I thought *my* students were silly, just because they often start their e-mails with "Dear mister Eric" or "Hello".

Make a copy of the "Craft Effective Messages" hack from the Control Your Email chapter of the Lifehacker book. It explains the very things you're talking about: useful subject lines, and being clear and concise.

Wow, lots of comments; I have to admit that I didn't read them all, so this may already have been said. What I did to circumvent this problem was to put a statement in the course syllabi of all classes I have taught. It basically said something to the effect that even though I wanted to have an informal and fun class atmosphere, that I was still their teacher and expected to be treated as such. That includes the students sending e-mails that are grammatically correct, respectful in language, and thoughtfully written (i.e., they had to proof-read it a couple of times before hitting 'send'). It worked pretty well. And if it didn't, I could always refer them back to the syllabus.

You can't expect students to be formal, professional, or businesslike in just one tiny area -- it has to be pervasive, or else they'll be confused about which cases do and do not require formality.

If they dress like they just rolled out of bed and you interact with them just fine, they think, "Why shouldn't this pattern hold for email?" Same with using your first name (for undergrads). Hell, they have pretty good role models in your colleagues, who I know (even without having seen them) dress very casually.

Frankly, if one of my profs made a big deal out of email formality (not that I write to them informally), I'd think, "So does this mean I get to complain about their dress and grooming?" There should be consistency.

Remember that you're dealing with people whose hormones still have settled down -- that doesn't start until 24-25. Until then, treat them like the potential hellraisers they are. One rule that elementary school teachers have is "Don't smile before Christmas," so they fear and respect you, but then you can gradually warm up to them.

I prefer Luna-The-Cat's husband's response.

Stu does not appear to need help. If he really needed help he wouldn't make you decode his email.

I shudder to think that a note about this sort of thing needs to be added to a syllabus. It is horrifying that this person has so little respect for his education (and for those who are providing his education) that he would send that abomination of an email to a Professor!

I'd recommend including it in your syllabus under your contact information and officer hours listing - something along the lines of, "Proper grammar and spelling in emails with appropriate subject lines greatly increase the chances of getting a prompt response from me." Then you can point to it at your introductory lecture in whatever fashion works for you - in a dry comment about spam filters, for example.

I try to cultivate an approachable persona when dealing with my high school debaters too, but I also hold them to high standards in written communication or public presentations, so I don't see them as being incompatible. I explain from the beginning that I have a responsibility to get them ready for college-level work, and proper grammar and formatting is part of that. Sure, I've had to throw back a few papers, but they learned quickly after one or two examples of my ire.

I really like RedPanda's approach. Why don't you craft a fake e-mail that has all of the elements you want to eliminate, and then put it up for the students at the beginning of class? Ask them, "What do you think is wrong with this e-mail?" or even remove value judgment and ask, "What do you think about this e-mail?" Have them discuss it amongst themselves for a few minutes, then open the floor up for a brief class discussion. I bet you wouldn't even have to say a word and they could figure out for themselves what was wrong with the e-mail. You could probably do all of this in less than 15 minutes.

Hm. I like that. I think I'll have to use it.

They call me Dr. Firstname

Might just be a case of transatlantic culture shock, but I'd get cognitive dissonance from this combination.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

Next year I think I'll be more specific, and tell them from day 1 that emails to professors are considered business communication, and as such, they should be relatively formal (i.e. include a salutation, a coherent subject/theme/request, and a proper closing). And that in the business world, emails with text message speak and poor grammar are simply laughed at and discarded ...

This is how I approach it in my classes. It's not that I'm on a power trip, they need to learn to consider their audience. There is a place for informal email--when they are communicating with friends. But they need to learn professional communication as well. If they don't practice it now, it will be very difficult to start doing it when they have a job.

I also share an anecdote from when I worked at Radio Shack--we had a District Manager who wrote memos with abysmal grammar. We would correct it in red ink and post it in the back room. You can bet that we didn't have much respect for him as a manager.

I like the idea of crafting a fake email as well. I would consider putting up a slang version and a well-crafted version, and ask them what each one seems to say about the author. Which one would they tend to take more seriously? In which one does the student come off as more responsible? Even if they come up with "the wrong answer," it would open a chance for you to explain the generational differences in perceptions of the different writing styles.

It's interesting how most people don't seem to address the fact that people get through high school without having a clue how to write a business letter. And no, it's not just undergrads. I routinely get emails from all levels of people, who can't even put "Hi" or "Dear" in front of my name. Or be polite. I happen to be a foreigner and since I have not really seen this in my own country or with other foreigners (and I am not that old) I am left to conclude that this is an American cultural phenomenon, perhaps a combination of poor schooling and overly informal culture.

At this point people like ScienceWoman then become obliged to teach adults what a 14 year old should know. "Class, here's a sample email to your supervisor or professor. Why is it wrong to use LOL?" LOL indeed.

Maybe ScienceWoman should write a letter to her local high school(s) asking them to address this topic. It might pay off bigger in the long run.

By crazystuff (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

My policy is to ignore all substantive questions concerning the subject matter of the course that are sent to me via e-mail. If students have questions about the content of the course, they can raise their hands in class or come see me in my office. The activation energy for firing off a "Hey proffie" e-mail is way too low.

I luck out on this issue by having a slightly unusual spelling of my name (one vowel off from the standard spelling). To preempt claims that emails were sent in a timely matter but to a misspelled address, I emphasize the need to pay attention to this when sending an email. This forms a natural segue into "and I get a lot of emails, so if you want a response I'd better see a university email in the From line and at least the class number in the Subject".

Still, I did have one student ignore instructions that homework could not be sent via email, and send me an assignment to list 3 references as a link to the ScienceDirect pages for them instead. With no subject at all (not even "hey"), no salutation, no signature. I decided it was spam, only realizing a day or so later what it must have been. I left it as spam, too, even after I figured it out.

I teach my department's writing class/prep for senior research class, and we spend part of one class talking explicitly about professional e-mails (and letters and memos). I tell them what happens to e-mails without clear subject headings (spam folder, because I get too many Nigerian scams and Viagra ads, even spoofed from campus addresses), and I warn them about non-professional-sounding e-mail addresses. And then I have them send me some class-related work via e-mail.

I don't know what I would do in a course that had to cover a lot of science content, though. I don't think I would want to spend precious class time teaching etiquette.

As it is, the upper level students quickly learn to use e-mail with me as an opportunity to practice for the professional world. And I like having them think about it as "practice" - I'm not generally a stickler for etiquette, but I give the students a lot of frank advice about dealing with people who are.

(Intro students are another matter. I figure it's good that they're engaged, even if they're unprofessional about it, and I can calmly respond in complete sentences until they decide to imitate me.)

I had an email from a nice and smart student once who used "hey," as the salutation. When I saw him I told him that this was not appropriate for an email to a professor. He was very apologetic and taken aback a little and never did it again. A word to the wise...

College students have tons to learn about life in the 18-22 year range, and we tend to forget that. They are (usually) not stupid but they are DUMB often, and little reminders do help (some of) them. (Some of them just shouldn't be in college at all).

I also don't like the "Dr. Firstname" thing. (Is that like Dr. Laura or Dr. Phil?) There's something juvenilizing and too "fun" about that--sets the wrong tone. I would either go with just your first name or Ms. or Dr. Lastname, but my preference is Professor Lastname. It is clear, it sets the role well for who you are, it is respectful. You've earned that title, and that's what you are: the professor.

Generally, over three years teaching I found I was happier if I didn't try to be anything like the students' friend but just a fair, clear, and good teacher. This doesn't mean being inhuman--you can and should be pleasant--but I did try to maintain a certain professional aloofness, and I feel it was good for me and for them.

This prepares them perfectly for all the asshole bosses that they WILL run into throughout their professional careers.

Do note that at some point, a significant percentage of these youngsters will go to business school and will be other people's asshole bosses.

In which role they will continue to communicate in the same slovenly fashion.

I had one such boss at one point who could have been the older brother to the student whose email was originally quoted. And who would send me, at all hours, requests to fix things at the last minute which I had never been formally assigned. Doing so in language which was so ineptly composed that it in many cases was impossible to parse the actual substance of the matter which had to be addressed.

Eventually, I submitted an excruciatingly correct letter of resignation, including without comment under the same cover a sample of my former boss's interoffice correspondence.

It turned out that I had been the last pillar holding up a department which he had rendered increasingly inept and inoperative, and it collapsed into complete chaos within about six weeks of my departure, causing great difficulty in other quarters of the firm.

Of course, it is an unvoiced central precept of the contemporary American business culture that managerial ineptitude must never actually be identified with an actual manager, nor must any managerial malfeasance actually result in punishment of a manager.

For the entire lucrative MBA racket, which has filled every level of every company with highly compensated and lavishly titled drones, would collapse if managerial accountability were to become normative.

Instead, they blamed the remaining subordinate worker bees, fired them all, handed the operation over to piratical consultants (who ran things even more badly at greatly augmented cost), and promoted the manager in question.

Who is to this day, I can say with certainty, continuing to harass his underlings with ungrammatical and incomprehensible orders.

I would say that it would be for the best if you were to simply fail kids like this, before they graduate and grow up and reach positions of responsibility, but I am also keenly aware that the modern academic setting does not admit of such. Crappy work *must* be tolerated, or else. There is an entire system whose viability is predicated upon it.


If you do the "in the syllabus" route, please, please make sure you mention to them that official communications from the university regarding such items as overdue payments, changes to courses such as room #, time/date of meeting, etc., cancellation of school due to weather, invitations to perform online professor evaluations, or urgent notices of gunmen shooting up classes are sent to the student's official email address assigned to them by the university. I work in university IT, and the number of students we encounter who get huffy about not receiving information in a timely basis is frustrating. You would be doing IT and university admin folks a big, big favor by mentioning that at the first session of every course.


I think the intro class discussion would be seen as much less "stuff professor"-ish than a direct response to each unprofessional email. The one is seen as more impersonal; I think the other would come across like "you idiot, can't you write clear English?!"

Like many others, I'd recommend putting something in the syllabus about email communication. I would also recommend cultivating a contact who is currently working in industry, to come as a guest speaker to your class and have them talk about Professional Communication in the Workplace. Email communication would be one part of that talk. I did a talk like this for engineering students when I was fresh out of industry. The feedback from the prof was that the students responded very positively, because the message was seen as coming from the workplace.

I wuld be _sorely_ tempted to respond to any such e-mails by pasting in the following:

This is an automated reply. I'm sorry, this is the e-mail filtering daemon of Dr. X, and I have identified your recent e-mail as PROBABLE SPAM and rejected it. It has not been received and read by Dr. X.

For more than a year now, Dr. X has been beta-testing a sophisticated spam-filtering algorithm for a friend in the IT industry, with great success. Without giving away the entire filtering algorithm, I can tell you that your e-mail has been scanned and rejected as PROBABLE SPAM because it contained one or more of the following traits:

1) The domain indicates that it is not a university account. That is, instead of having the format NAME@NAMEOFUNIVERSITY.edu, it was sent from yahoo.com or hotmail.com or some other non-trusted origin.

2) The subject line consists only of "hello" or "hi" or "hey" or "stuff" or has simply been left blank. These practices have been identified as having a high correlation with spam. Please be sure to be specific as to the subject of your e-mail.

3) It has been scanned and found to be in all caps.

4) It has been scanned and found that most sentences do not begin with capital letters, or that there is more than one instance of the word "i" appearing without capitalization. These are indications that the sender has not bothered with standard capitalization and is therefore most likely a spammer.

5) It has been scanned and found to contain at least one instance of the word "LOL" or "lol." More than 90% of e-mails containing this slang have been identified as spam.

6) It has been scanned and found to contain "U" or "u" as a stand-alone word -- spammers frequently employ this illiterate net-slang instead of typing out the word "you."

7) It has been scanned and found to not include "Dear Dr. X" anywhere it in -- indicated that the sender does not actually have any personal connection to me, and therefore the e-mail is likely to be mass-mailed spam.

If your e-mail was NOT intended to be spam, but contained one or more of these give-away defects, please revise it accordingly and resend it.

Standard English capitalization and punctuation is much more likely to make it through my spam filter. Also, please be sure to include your full name somewhere in your e-mail so I can know who you are.

Thank you.

E-Mail Filter Daemon, for Dr. X.

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

I also can't stand those emails. The syllabus for my freshman class actually tells them to put the class in the subject line and sign their names, but they don't always do it. I like your idea- I may steal it!

Dear Professors and Advanced Academic Type People:

I am a professional software support analyst in the IT department of a major multinational energy company. I rose to this position in two years from the position of a temporary administrative assistant. I do not have a college degree at all.

What am I to think of you, his teachers, when I receive e-mails like the following one from a degreed mechanical engineer who graduated with good grades from a major university?

To: underpaid IT flunky
From: too-busy-to-be-bothered engineer
Subject: 746450


Well, at least he said thanks....

By speedwell (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

When I was an undergrad, we had to take a Scientific Presentations class. It was hard. Anyway, near the end our Prof talked to me in particular about slang (I was from The Valley) and how, even though it shouldn't matter, using professional voice did matter in how people perceived you. And since that talk I worked *hard* to drop the 'totally' from my speach (it still creeps in, but never in professional talks :-)).

What I'm saying is that I think you will be doing your students a world of good to point out to them that their communication style *is* important and will have a direct relevance as to how they are perceived and evaluated.

If you don't like last minute emails, don't check your university email from home, or until after you've delivered your morning lecture...

Julie wrote: My mother beat proper grammar/punctuation/proper writing skills into me as a child, and I loathe people who can't do the same.

I do hope this was hyperbole, both on the subject of corporal punishment and on feeling actual loathing for young people too comfortable with cellphone texting (or perhaps their mothers, Julie's sentence isn't clear *smack*).

Were I ever put in the position of answering such email, I agree it'd be best to first try to educate the miscreants on what is and isn't acceptable in communicating with one's authority figures before angrily jumping to (possibly classist) conclusions; for repeat offenders, the responses could be made in shorthand, Morse code, or an obscure foreign language.

I don't get emails like that from students but I have from my chair (no caps, misspellings, etc.). She's busy and wanted to communicate with me. I understood what she was saying and I'm not bothered by it (although I would never do it myself). Do you expect people to speak in purely grammatical sentences? Email is like speaking for this generation.. I think this is much ado about nothing.

Regarding the requirement that student emails have "myuniversity.edu" as the domain -- I suggest checking your school policy about student email addresses first. My current university allows students to set their official student email to whatever they like - they can choose to use university email or they can use a outside account (yahoo, hotmail, gmail, whatever). That email is the one that appears in any official university database (WebCT, the Exchange system, etc.)

What I'd like to see, though, is a suggestion to students that they consider NOT using email names like "hottie745@yahoo" and "ima_stud485@hotmail" for their university account. Yuck.

I would imagine the problem is that these students came of age during the period before secondary schools taught more than just basic word processing, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint when it came to technology.

I teach middle school English, and much of my students' work is submitted electronically, via email or our online discussion board. Teaching proper online communication is part of my (self designed) curriculum. Perhaps when these 12 and 13 year old make it to college, they will be able to write their professors intelligent and professional emails.

Wow, SW - clearly you hit a nerve here. My favourite emails last semester came with no attribution, and began as though I of course knew what they were talking about. Eg:

"I'm working on problem 4 and I can't find the constant."

Okay, problem 4. Is that on the practice test from 2006 or 2005? or on the assignment due next week? or the online module? or one of the lab tasks? Give me a hand folks. I need a little context - the assignment you're working on, maybe even the page number.

RE the casual names: on day 1 of my big first year class, my co-instructor and I listed a whole bunch of names we'd been called, including names our spouses call us, or our kids (in my colleague's case), or college nicknames. We then highlighted the "Professor Pawley" and "Doctor Pawley" ones, and said they should focus on these ones. And next year, I'm going to teach them how to write emails to their professors.

I think requiring students to send an e-mail from their campus address is a little too much. Many campuses have horrible, virtually unusable webmail-based systems that nobody in their right mind would use more than necessary (and having it forward to your regular account sometimes means you miss messages). However, I *do* think it's reasonable to require that students sign their names, and perhaps even put (From Firstname Lastname) in the subject line of their first few e-mails or something. (As for relevant subject lines, hardly anyone seems to have mastered that--there's a reason that's discussed extensively in business etiquette books these days.)

I think a brief session on "How to Get Professors to Respond to Your E-mail" would be great. My field is ESL/EFL, and many international students use writing strategies when they contact their professors that actually backfire despite students' efforts to be polite. For example, instead of suggesting specific times when they could meet with the professor, they are more circumspect. This means the professor has to write back more times in order to finally set an appointment--critically delaying the help the student needs. (If you do some googling, there are some actual studies on this.) They often have problems distinguishing between casual language (phrases like "Is this okay?" are acceptable with all but the most tweedy profs) and slang ("ok wit u"). Other students don't seem to have such an excuse but still do it, and it drives me crazy.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that these are real academic coping skills as well as real life skills, and students really need to be clued into that. They *should* have learned these skills before, but I don't think anyone's explicitly addressing e-mail etiquette in high school (at least not in any useful way). So I do think it's worth bringing up if you can find a way to get the idea across.

In the meantime, hang in there and try not to let your head explode!

By wintersweet (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

Yikes. I don't know what infuriates me more... the poor writing ("u" to a professor?!? WTF!) or the "you have to do my homework for me". I had lots of the second one when I was teaching rich spoiled undergrads... thankfully (perhaps, although at the time it annoyed me even more) they would always call and not email... which I guess saved me from the "u" part. I absolutely hate people that treat email as sms!

In undergrad, one of my professors sent an email to all of his courses detailing how to write professional yet casual emails. The prof also included screenshot images of how to set-up an alias using the institutional mail program. Correspondence improved a lot after that, but he still had problems from the worst offenders - likely because they don't read their institutional email to begin with.

By AnonFuturePhD (not verified) on 22 Feb 2008 #permalink

I like the idea of including pointers on how to write a polite/professional/effective email in your course handbook or syllabus at the start of each course.

Regarding the email address: I actually can't send mail from my institutional account unless I'm on campus using a campus computer because of the way the IMAP server is configured. But when I send mail from my personal email address, I put an indication of the course I'm emailing about in the subject line, and I would always sign with my full name (and I would put my institutional email address in the "reply to" field so that the prof in question will see that I am a student. For example, if I was emailing with a query about lecture notes for Engineering 101, I would maybe use "Engineering 101 -- lecture note query" or something more specific as my subject line.

Regarding spelling/punctuation: I think it's fair to expect people to make an effort to write their emails with some attention to spelling, but it's important to be aware that some spelling/punctuation errors may be due to dyslexia/dyspraxia or similar issues.


I like your approach ScienceWoman, but it is awkward to go from nice, fun to strict, business without warning. I think putting that line (or the one suggested by the first commenter) in your syllabus is the best approach to take. That way, when you have to reiterate the point when you get those messages, and you will, the student will have no excuse.

Speaking as a current student, I say by all means, go ahead and tell the student it's not acceptable form for contacting a professor.

Mine are casual but they still write clearly. It boggles the mind when I see on our class message boards "i dint reed the sillibus! wat's on the exam!LOL!" ( I can't make this stuff up. I wish I were.)

I always want to reply to these people: don't waste the instructor's time, they have better things to do than break out a decoder ring and handhold someone who can't be bothered to write coherently, read the course syllabus, or make an effort.

This phenomenon is why I had to take a mandatory for all students writing class. People are being tossed out of high school with the literacy skills of a chimp.

I just had a few thoughts after reading through the comments:
1. "Text-speak" originated because the system for entering text on a cellphone was not efficient for correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. With T9 (predictive text), it's actually easier to spell normally. There is absolutely no reason to use it in instant messaging, email, or any other computer-based text.
2. Students will almost always have a "permanent" email address in addition to their college/school/work email addresses. If the email is something I need to keep a record of indefinitely, it will come from my GMail address. Of course, the signature will have my name, and an alternate email address, if necessary so the recipient can easily tell who it's from.
3. Finally, I'd have no regrets in deleting (without reading) any email that doesn't have a sensible subject line. Even in our school district, we receive school-wide emails from teachers with "hey", or "today" in the subject line. I teach at all 6 buildings, so I don't have time to decipher what "today" is supposed to mean, or whether or not it's pertinent to me.

Good luck with this! Email is already being phased out in some institutions and workplaces, so who knows what's next!