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"i dont mean too bother u but"
student email and a call for netiquette

By Denise D. Knight, Noralyn Masselink / May 2008

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"Hey," the email message began, "I was just wondering what my grade on the final was because i was kind of expecting a little bit of a better grade overall. I know i did crappy on the long analytical paper, but . . . i definitely thought I did a good job on the final. also know you're big into participation and . . . im almost positive that i only had 2 absences.. so yeah. just curious, and i dont mean to bother you at all, its just i need to have the grades to student teach one of these days. . . ."

Ever since email exploded onto the scene in the early 1990s, it has become a fast, popular, and convenient medium for communication between college students and their professors. Some would argue that it has become too convenient. Students today seem to rely less on face-to-face meetings or phone calls with their instructors and more on electronic mail, which they use to challenge grades, explain absences, deliver unsolicited paper drafts, and announce their intention to "drop by" outside of office hours, assuming that we will either be available or shift our schedules to accommodate their needs. Today's students view themselves as customers in a consumer culture who are entitled to answers and information 24 hours a day. Do things really have to be this way?

The Culture of Informality

Increasingly the boundaries between those issues that professors can reasonably address via email and those they cannot have become blurred. In some instances—such as providing written feedback and answering advisement questions—the investment of time required to respond adequately is simply too great. Students who are persistent in their demands for after-hours consultation are often egocentric, which blinds them to the fact that faculty have lives outside of the academic setting.

Recently a graduate student at our institution emailed a professor to ask about an assignment, and when he hadn't responded by the next morning, she contacted her advisor to complain. When the professor still hadn't replied by that evening, she angrily phoned his home, only to be informed by his wife that he had been called out of town by the sudden death of his father.

But the demand for accessibility is only one problem. Many of those who make up today's professoriate, ourselves included, are baby boomers, who nostalgically reminisce about the cherished epistolary relationship we had with pen pals, when adherence to proper grammatical rules was as important to us as distinctive penmanship. We considered the possibility that misspellings and faulty punctuation would reflect poorly on our image, and we cared what others thought. Today's technology-savvy generation, who rely on instant messaging as a form of immediate gratification, are inevitably caught in the cultural crossfire between their routine use of colloquial expression and our often-tenacious insistence on conformity to grammatical rules.

Even those faculty members who are generous with their after-hours time are often offended by the lack of professionalism and netiquette—the network etiquette used in electronic communications—that is practiced by many student writers. The good news, according to author Mary Mitchell as quoted in The New York Times, is that "email encourages people to write"; the bad news is that "it discourages people [from writing] thoughtfully." Issues range from a sometimes startling absence of proper grammar and punctuation to an abundance of misspelled words to angry rants. Equally disturbing is students' increasing use of acronyms or phonetic spellings that may be unfamiliar to those outside of their generation (e.g.,"BTW" for "by the way" or "ur" for "you're," or 2MORO for "tomorrow.").

Many students don't see the need to show even a modicum of respect for those in positions of authority, particularly in emails. Some students omit salutations altogether; others simply begin with "Dear Professor," the equivalent of addressing someone as "Mr." or "Ms." with no last name. At the other extreme are those students who, though complete strangers, feel perfectly comfortable dispensing with titles altogether, addressing us by our first names as though we have been friends for years. Occasionally, however, students fail to observe the existence of professional boundaries completely, as in the case of a graduate student who began an email message to her professor and an administrator by writing, "hey ladies."

In a posted response to an online article published by Web magazine Inside Higher Ed, an academic shared the guidelines that he enforces in dealing with student emails. He instructs his students as follows: "When you send an email message to me this term, I will expect you to have 'proofed' it (1) for spelling, (2) for grammatical accuracy, (3) for use of vocabulary, and (4) for composition. If your message does not pass my "test" in all four respects, it will be returned to you with a message stating, 'This message is inappropriate for review. Please revise it according to the requirements set forth in your syllabus . . . and then resubmit it.' . . . Needless to say, given my criteria for email communication, you will save yourself and me a great deal of time and energy by writing intelligent messages to me in the first place." Students often seem unaware that in every written communication they send, they are creating an impression—of their intelligence, their attitude, and their professionalism.

But I'm Special

Not infrequently, messages regarding attendance are accompanied by requests for special consideration, as in the following example:

"i have only missed one class. it was a tuesday, i have been there for all other classes, and i have a doctors note. i am hoping since i have honestly only one classes that the doctors note will make up for the 4 absenses i am allowed to miss. that is why i got it, so i could save the other 3 absenses, and so that i could prove that i was seriuosly ill, and could get extra help if needed. i have a friend in class who i can get the notes from, and i am determined to pass your class. please let me know what you think."

In the following message, replete with a heavy dose of drama, a student-teacher asks her supervisor to make a decision as to whether or not she should stay home:

"My weekend has been destroyed by a killer cold. I feel bronchitis coming on. What do I do? I have a runny nose, plugged ears, my head is a mess, and im coughing all over the place. Obviously i want to be in school but i dont want the kids or [my host teacher] getting sick."

Also typical are email messages with requests for additional help on course work. Occasionally, however, students appear to not understand what precisely they are asking for. One student requests that her professor "revise" her paper for her, rather than "review" it: "I was planning to write my paper tomorrow and I was curious to see if I emailed it to you if you would still be willing to revise it by telling me if I was going in the right direction or not and if it made sense. Please let me know." Another student, who had been asked to submit a tentative thesis, rather than a topic, writes with a similar request: "For my second paper I am using Wal;t Whitman's Live Oak with Moss III and Emily Dickinson's Wild nights. Can i hand this paper to ou on Thurs to revise it for me?" Unfortunately, by viewing themselves as consumers, rather than members of an intellectual community, some students actually do expect their professors to revise, edit, and proofread their essays.

Other students, while conceding that professors have full and busy schedules, feel no reluctance about asking faculty members to review their creative writing, as if doing so is a service that the professor is obliged to provide: "I realize you are busy with finals . . . but I just updated a short story that I wrote last year and would like to know if you might read it? If [you] can take a look at it and write me back it would be greatly appreciated." The faculty member had already declined to read the story once and had encouraged the student to join the college's writers' group, but the student's requests for a professional evaluation of his fiction nevertheless persisted.

Even graduate students are not immune from making a bad impression. One writes:

"Hello Professor. I am writing to you because I am having a great deal of trouble with the paper for the course. I have never written a paper of this length and magnitude and am finding that I do not know where to begin and when I believe that I am ready to begin find that I am unable. Feeling of late that my undergrad is failing me most supreme, that I have no beackground what-so-ever in this sort of critical thinking and textual analysis. . . . How do I take a thought, a glimmer of insight, and make a 20-25 paper out of it? I feel udderly incapable at present so any guidance would be greatly appreciated…."

If the message were not so tortured, one might laugh; as it is, we wonder along with the student how her undergraduate education could have failed her so "supreme." Another common trend is for students to ask professors to ignore the fact that an emailed draft has not yet been proofread: "I started writing a little of my paper. . . . I definately have not proof read this yet. Thank you for checking it over for me." Another student writes, "i was wondering if you would look over my paper. i would greatly appreciate it . Thank you. i will sned it as an attchment and as a seperate email i will copy paste the paper incase you cannot open the attachment." What such students fail to realize is that rough drafts are already laborious to read because the thoughts are often poorly conceived and organized; when the prose is also unedited or proofread, drafts become even more difficult and time consuming to read and respond to.

The Epidemic of Procrastination

Procrastination is, of course, epidemic on college campuses, leaving some students to email preliminary drafts 48 (and occasionally, even 24) hours before a paper is due. In the following message, the student seeks last-minute approval for a topic on a work that doesn't actually exist:

"I was just wondering if you could take a look at my thesis for the paper that's due on Thursday, since I struggled a little bit with coming up with a solid thesis on the last paper. . . . Anyways, here's my thesis: In literature, symbolism is often used to offer the reader deeper insight into the characters of a story, and many times displays a hidden meaning. . . . A sound example of symbolism being used in these ways is in Nathanial Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Ending.' "

Not only has the student gotten both the spelling of the author's name and the title of the novel wrong, but the eight-page "Guidelines for Writing" that were provided cautioned students to avoid weak beginnings in their paper, such as, "Oftentimes in literature," or "Symbolism is used by many authors. . . ."

Even with "Guidelines for Writing" in hand, which offers multiple examples of viable theses, some of our students still demand additional advice at the eleventh hour: "HI, I was wondering if a good topic for my second paper would be a comparison between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. If this could work I would liek to know what the best way to go about it would be." Another student whose paper was due just two days later, writes, "I was wondering if you could help me out with my thesis statement real quick. I have been knocking ideas around for a couple of hours now and was wondering if this seems like a solid thesis statement. . . ." And yet another writes, "I was wondering if you could do me a favor and confirm the poem that I am using for the critical questions. . . ." The latter request might be reasonable were it not for the fact that the student was supposed to have been working on the poem in question for the previous ten weeks of the semester, and the answers to the critical questions were due the next day.

Other students unabashedly shift responsibility for printing their final drafts to their course instructor. Often, such requests come as the result of students forgetting to bring hard copies of their completed assignment to class but still wanting to receive credit for their work. Sometimes, however, as in the following example, the student clearly seems to be trying to avoid the responsibility of printing the paper on her own:

"attatched to this email is my analytical paper. I am emailing it to you because i do not have a printer, and i misplaced my ID card at some point today. I did not know of any other way to print out my paper, but did want you to have it by class time thursday morning. Please, if when you recive this it is not acceptable in an email format let me know, so i can make arrangments somehow to print it out."

In this case, the student provides a multitude of reasons for her sending the paper electronically and at least considers the possibility that her professor might be unwilling to print the essay. Frequently, however, students simply miss class on the day an assignment is due, and then send their papers electronically with no explanation, assuming that they have thereby fulfilled their duty and met the deadline. There is no consideration of the fact that the professor is then expected to spend time—not to mention the cost of paper and ink if the email is received at home—to print the students' work.

Sometimes, the problem with email lies not so much in what students are asking as with their tone. The following message was sent by a student-teacher to her supervisor (who, incidentally, had never agreed to observe the student on the date in question):

"i was quite upset that you did not come in on friday. you said you would be in. if you cant make it some days you tell me youre coming in i wish you would email me during the day. i have access to computers and emails and would like to know these things."

While the above message sounds merely petulant, occasionally, students use email in a manner that is openly hostile. The following message is from a graduate student who was advised that he could find answers to all of his emailed questions, with the exception of what he should do about forgetting his password, in an advisement manual that was developed for that very purpose:

"I'm sorry that I am apparently an inconvenience to your precious time, but you are my advisor and I'm pretty sure it is your job to clarify any misunderstandings that I might have, since I am a full paying student. If you have such a problem dealing with your students this way, maybe you should reconsider your role as an advisor. . . . I thought communicating with an actual person might be more helpful than trying to search for one particular answer in twenty pages of information."

Although this "full paying student," who cites his consumer status as the ticket that entitles him to demand answers from "an actual person," rather than online or in hard copy, later apologized, there was no acknowledgment on his part that the tone he had used in his earlier message was inappropriate. On the contrary, he cited the need for future assistance as his reason for apologizing.

What to Do? Some Practical Advice

So what is a beleaguered professor to do about the barrage of poorly written, sometimes incomprehensible, and often "urgent" emails that assault her daily? We suggest that faculty members provide students with a primer on email etiquette at the beginning of the semester. Make it a separate handout both to highlight its importance and to ensure that it doesn't end up buried in the course syllabus.

Numerous netiquette guides can be found online, but two specifically geared toward academia are particularly helpful. The following suggestions are drawn from "Email Etiquette-Adapted for Academia," provided by Herb Mattord at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and from "Email Etiquette (Netiquette)," compiled by David Tuffley at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. We have supplemented their lists with some additional pointers of our own and encourage instructors to provide students with these guidelines at the beginning of the semester:

  • Don't email your professor to ask whether they will excuse a particular absence. Most professors allow a certain number of absences without expecting an explanation. Beyond that, bringing unnecessary attention to your absence only wastes your and your professor's time. We don't want to hear about stomach bugs (or how many trips you made to the bathroom during the night), fights with roommates, or court appearances. We do, however, want to know about serious illnesses, deaths in the family, and other events in your life that cause hardship and affect your performance in our classes.
  • Don't email your professor asking for notes or handouts that you have misplaced. If you miss class or lose your notes, contact your peers. Instead of emailing the professor, inform a friend in the class that you will need her to pick up any handouts and to note any changes to the syllabus that you will miss because of your absence.
  • Don't email your professor asking (or complaining) about your grades. If you want to discuss the grade you have received on an assignment, make an appointment with your professor or stop by during office hours. Also, don't email your professors asking if they have finished grading a particular assignment. Instructors will return papers as soon as they are graded. The same goes for final grades. Professors should not be expected to inform individual students of their final grades via email, nor should they be expected to explain how a final grade was calculated. That's the purpose of providing grading policies on syllabi.
  • Think about what you are asking for before emailing. Your professors are busy people too. Make sure that the answer to your question isn't readily available elsewhere or that you can't wait until you see your professor in class to ask your question.
  • Treat your faculty (and fellow students) with respect, even in email. Always use your professors' proper title: Dr. or Professor. Unless you are specifically invited to do so, don't refer to them by first name.
  • Don't email a draft of your assignment to your professor for review. Your professors make assignments to assess your learning. Asking them to evaluate an assignment twice is unfair to them and to your peers. If you want guidance on completing an assignment, make an appointment or stop by during office hours. Emailing your assignments to your professor asking for an informal review is a way of saying "My time is more valuable than yours; tell me exactly what I need to do to get a good grade."
  • Don't expect an immediate response to your email. Emailing your professors at 2 a.m. is fine, but don't expect an answer by 8 a.m. Each professor has a different work schedule and a personal life as well. Email is a great way to get your question to your professor, but realize that she may not be able to answer immediately. In some cases, your professors may not have access to information about your question, unless they are in the office. Twenty-four or even 48 hours is a standard window for an email response during the business week.
  • Don't wait until a day or two before a semester—long project is due to ask for feedback or advice on the project. Doing so reflects poorly on you. At such a late date, you no longer have time to seriously take any advice a professor might be able to give you even if he or she had the time to provide you with it in the first place.
  • You are what you email. Your email messages to your professor help shape their professional opinion about you. In some settings, email is the primary means by which the professor will be able to form an opinion about you. Remember that you may find yourself asking a professor to write a letter of recommendation for employment, graduate school, or a scholarship. Every communication that you have with your professors will contribute to the impression that they form of you. Make sure that it's a positive one. Read each email twice before sending.
  • And closely related to the previous tip—consider your audience. The persona you use when you are instant messaging friends is usually inappropriate for your professors, where a higher degree of formality is expected.
  • Check your syllabus before asking unnecessary questions. Don't ask about information that is readily available on your syllabus. Professors, who have to balance an enormously demanding schedule -including course preparations, paper grading, committee meetings, and other types of appointments-may take umbrage at being asked to provide information that has already been made available.
  • Use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Whatever professional field you enter, adherence to basic writing skills will serve you well. By ignoring such basics, you risk making a negative impression, which will be extremely hard to erase.
  • Include a detailed subject line. Never leave the subject line blank, and if you are responding to an old message with an outdated subject line, replace it with the current subject.
  • Keep your message concise and precise. If you find yourself writing more than two or three brief paragraphs, consider making an appointment with your professor.
  • Don't shout your message. Don't use all CAPITAL LETTERS or overdo punctuation!!!!! This common practice is the online equivalent of yelling and is considered by many people to be very rude.
  • Avoid angry outbursts. Do not send or reply to a message when you are angry. Wait until you have calmed down, and then compose the email.
  • Lay out your message for readability. Use spaces and breaks between paragraphs and long sentences to make your message easier to read.
  • Provide your full name at the end of every email. Your professors may very well have multiple "Jennifers" in any given semester. Also, your nickname may be familiar to your friends, but your instructor may have no idea who "Sticky Buns" is.

Finally, remind students from time to time that you will not respond to messages that haven't been checked for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. And then stick to your guns.


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