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I have a PhD in statistics and teach statistics for humanities students in a university. One week before the start of the semester I posted all the required information regarding the course textbook, as well as guidelines for how to access it (it is available online). I also explained all of this to the students verbally on the first day.

It is now the third week of teaching. At the beginning of the week I posted the first online homework. Three hours before the deadline, one of my students sent me an informal email, without a subject line or her name. She said in her email that she needed a help with accessing the book in order to do her homework.

I requested that she let me know her name and section number. She replied at 8pm with the information. I politely responded to help her with the problem. At 10pm, she sent me another email with another problem, that I also helped her with.

Then she sent me a final email a few minutes before the deadline. Her email was really informal and disrespectful. I replied saying that it is not acceptable to request help on the same day as the homework is due and that it is her responsibility to be ready for everything as we are at week 3. Then, I helped her and told her that if she needed any more help with the course book she should contact the bookstore and not me.

Then she replied with some sentences in full capital letters. For example, 'SORRY', 'THERE IS NO ACCESS CODES IN THE UNI BOOKSTORE'. Then, 'the uni must save CODES'. Then she said "you try to challenge me".

I replied that I did not want to argue and that she should be careful about what she said.

Was she disrespectful in her emails? Is it acceptable to send an email in all caps? Am I wrong to deal with this point?

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    Could you provide the stident's cultural background (and your country)? Shouting in emails is definitely not normal in Western countries, but based on sometimes strange SE posts we have here, I believe it might be so in other countries (maybe those where Internet is not so common among the avrage person?) Similar are the posts where users call everyone on the Internet "Sir". Definitely not common in Western countries, but seems to be a thing. – user111388 Sep 16 at 11:51
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    What does "you try to challenge me" even mean here? Obviously, the student's command of English seems poor, but that's particularly unclear. Is it a statement? An imperative? A question? – Noldorin Sep 16 at 19:36
  • Is it possible to consider asking gently in-person? To understand the intent? It might not be right now in the Health Crisis. – Mikey Sep 17 at 2:17
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Comments should be used to request clarification from the asker or to suggest improvements to the question; please see this FAQ. – cag51 Sep 19 at 18:49

11 Answers 11

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For a one-off or short-term rudeness, my policy is to respond with pure facts, served chilled. If you have a good instinct for delivering comebacks at just the right level, a hint (but just a hint) of sarcasm might work wonders.

Manners are important, but it's not our job to teach the students manners - and they are rarely grateful for it, especially those who would need such a lesson the most. Most certainly, I generally ignore capitalized letters as they signal inadequate acquaintance with netiquette or a really immature person.

That being said, your student is probably more in total panic and loss of control of the situation than expressly rude; this probably deserves more of your compassion than your anger. This does not preclude you to use aforementioned strategies for response and to decide how much time you are willing to allocate to help them and to enforce your decisions strictly. How they decide to communicate is their business - understanding why they do that, and what to respond are your businesses; and two separate ones, at that.

Do not use language that can be interpreted as a threat ("she should be careful about what she said"), a better response to a challenge ("you challenge me") is to just ignore it or to ask - without any emotion -what they mean if you really cannot ignore it. Think of Spock's raised eyebrow when you do it, it will put you in the right attitude for this.

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    IMO, passive-aggressive behavior is never an appropriate (or professional) response. To "serve something chilled", "use sarcasm", or "respond coldly" are just terrible ways to communicate the same thing to the person - "I'm a person too, and I didn't appreciate your tone". Why not just say this outright, instead of playing all these games? I think most people would prefer direct communication, as opposed to receiving a passive-aggressive response. Did you consider what this student might think if their professor responds coldly/with sarcasm? My guess is they will think they don't like them. – java-addict301 Sep 17 at 18:52
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    @java-addict301 I do not like the term "passive-aggressive". It is one of these "passive-aggressive" words that somehow implies that one does something wrong. My experience is that really rude people on being openly addressed will not admit to being rude, they will deny it, and turn the table back on you and claim you are. Think of a certain politician who employs precisely this tactic to great (and infuriating) effect to see a live version of that. I think a lecturer should have better things to do than to open an argument who is rude to whom. But they should enact rudeness having a cost. – Captain Emacs Sep 17 at 19:03
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    @lighthousekeeper To get it just right, I would need the right setting and occasion, but Rivers McForge had an example (now moved to chat) that may illustrate the idea: "I apologize for not being able to see and usefully respond to every email sent to me five minutes before deadline." – Captain Emacs Sep 18 at 7:30
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    "Think of Spock's raised eyebrow" is incredibly valuable life-advice, imho. – Jan Nash Sep 18 at 8:30
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    Given the bits of the email we've seen here, I have some significant questions about the student's language, communication, and/or "email emotional intelligence" skills to the point that I'd be concerned "a hint of sarcasm" or raised eyebrows aren't likely to be understood with the intended message. Someone who writes emails like "the uni must save CODES" may not be receptive to hints, subtleties, and sarcasm. – Zach Lipton Sep 18 at 20:24
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No, "shouting" in an email isn't "normal". And, yes, it might imply disrespect. But I think that, given everything else you say, it is more likely that it indicates extreme PANIC on the part of the student (sorry for shouting there).

But fear can cause people to act badly. Don't overreact without more evidence.

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    Yes. Best plan of action in such situations is to put the screamer on a 24 hours cool down and answer the next day or not at all. Why even bother dealing with this childish behaviour or collecting evidence. – TheoreticalMinimum Sep 16 at 20:28
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    I'm still wondering if the "you try to challenge me" part is offensive, though. I guess it could depend on language barriers. I'm still not sure if it's an instruction or a declaration. – Mikey Sep 17 at 2:16
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    @Mikey the student is rude at the class time and lazy. She opens her camera and speaks with her family members all the time. Then, she wants me to give her an extra time for homework. All other 20 students did the job perfectly without any problem. She said to me "you try to challenge me" because I did not extend the homework for her. She just try to buy the code and register 3 hours before the deadline. – Alice Sep 17 at 8:12
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    @Alice: a university is supposed to be challenging, isn't it? It's not just you, all your colleagues will be challenging her too. Most students rise to the challenge, some don't. That is not your fault. – MSalters Sep 17 at 15:38
  • +1 for this. I'd also add "Never attribute to malice what can easily be explained by...inexperience/naivety/desperation". Email tone can be difficult to read. "You try to challenge me" could be said aggressively by the black knight defending his bridge. But it could also be said at the end of a desperate sigh. And intermittent caps might just be a fumbling thumb on a phone. – Pam Sep 18 at 14:14
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Very weak students are likely to have a comorbidity of poor language skills (possibly just starting to learn English as a second language), poor computer and keyboard literacy (e.g., not even having awareness or control over case-sensitivity), and poor email etiquette knowledge. These students are likely to face a cascade of system failures, not being able to interface with coursework for these as well as other reasons. (Teaching at U.S. community colleges for about two decades, roughly half of our students are in this category.)

I would highly recommend that you pay this no heed whatsoever. Do not take offense, and do not try to "correct" the perceived slights. It's hard enough for these students and they almost surely mean no offense. Try to focus and communicate on the immediate task-based issues. Succeeding at this communication will be challenging enough for both of you!

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    "...likely to face a cascade of system failures..." - Extremely well phrased and, unfortunately, often incredibly accurate. – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Sep 18 at 4:05
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    Quite liked "... a comorbidity of poor language skills..." too! – Paul Sep 19 at 9:44
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Does...the student...show disrespect?

Maybe.

Does using a full sentence with capital letter acceptable as a normal communication?

All-caps emails aren't normal.

Am I wrong to deal with this point?

You needn't deal with this, just let it go. If the student repeats this behaviour, then you might want to take it further.

(You needn't respond to student email out-of-hours.)

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    "You needn't respond to student email out-of-hours." - You never need to respond to rude or annoying emails. We are not customer service. – TheoreticalMinimum Sep 16 at 20:33
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    @TheoreticalMinimum actually we are very much, as you say, "customer service". In particular, we don't get to ignore emails just because we don't like their tone. The student may respond even more irate or she may follow up with the dean or department chair. Ignoring issues isn't going to make them go away. – G. Allen Sep 17 at 3:45
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    "You needn't respond to student email out-of-hours.", many people do on the nights before assignments are due or nights before exams. I did when I was teaching as a grad student, and it was a general practice in our university. I think it is a nice thing to do. – Akavall Sep 17 at 6:10
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    @G.Allen This very much depends on the country whether we are "customer service". In the US that is definitely the case where higher education can be described as a service the students buy. In Germany I wouldn't subscribe to that notion. – ljrk Sep 17 at 6:11
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    @Akavall if students want help, they will have to adapt to the timetable of the person who helps. Like we all do in every other aspect of life. It is a good lesson anyway. – wimi Sep 17 at 9:09
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"you try to challenge me"

When people are stressed, they sometimes revert to phrases used by their parents.

"you try to challenge me" sounds exactly like what a parent would say to an unruly teenager.

I suggest you reply with instruction rather than censure.

You could say for example:

"One of the purposes of higher education is for students to take responsibility for their own studies and deadlines. Please do your best to plan ahead for your assignments. This is an important skill that will serve you well."


EDIT

Having read the comments below by @Captain Emacs, I agree that this should be advice given ahead of the main course. In future I would perhaps modify my above suggestion slightly and make it part of the course material, e.g.

"One of the purposes of higher education is for students to take responsibility for their own studies and deadlines. It is your responsibility to make sure you have the right books and study materials in good time. Please plan ahead for your assignments by making and adhering to a realistic timetable. These are important skills that will serve you well."

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    While in principle I agree with you and your message, the "instruction" part transports a tinge of condescension; especially if the student is under stress. You may not get the response you hope to get if you use this strategy as advertised. – Captain Emacs Sep 16 at 22:56
  • @Captain Emacs - If you have a better wording then I'm interested. Different people say the same thing in different ways. – chasly - supports Monica Sep 16 at 22:59
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    In the moment the student panics, it is not a good timing to give them advice on high level perspectives. I would give them this type of instruction at the beginning of the course or enough weeks ahead of the deadline. Or else, if they start accusing the lecturer after the fact, then you could respond with: "As I told you you are expected to ...". If they unload accusations upon the lecturer, they have brought any condescending tone upon themselves. But shortly before the deadline, all I would do is to focus on what precisely can be done to solve the particular problem they are facing. – Captain Emacs Sep 16 at 23:11
  • In short, your suggestion is good much ahead of the deadline. A terser version, after the deadline if the student complains. A response completely focused on solving the problem at hand (if at all feasible) shortly before the deadline. – Captain Emacs Sep 16 at 23:13
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    Yes, I did do that one week before the starting of the semester and I posted it on their moodle. – Alice Sep 17 at 8:44
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In your syllabus, write down the times when you are available to answer questions. If you accept questions by email rather than during office hours (reasonable during lockdown), also explain how long it usually takes before the students can expect an answer. If students have multiple questions, advise them to schedule a videoconference or phone call so they can get your answers in real time.

She replied at 8pm with the information. I politely responded to help her with the problem. At 10pm, she sent me another email with another problem, that I also helped her with.

With the arrangment above in place, don't answer emails after hours, which, I presume, includes 8pm.

I replied saying that it is not acceptable to request help on the same day as the homework is due and that it is her responsibility to be ready for everything as we are at week 3.

Indeed. You went out of your way to help, but being on time for the deadline is your student's responsibility. It seems like you need to manage expectations. See first paragraph above.

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From the quotes you provided, it seems possible that the student may have been using all-caps for emphasis, as opposed to 'shouting.' She may also come from a culture where all-caps words are not considered shouting. If she is normally calm and respectful in class, I'd give her the benefit of the doubt; however, I would also advise her that many people consider all-caps to be shouting and she would do well to avoid doing that in future.

Kudos to you for offering assistance that late in the evening, because you certainly didn't have to. As others have pointed out, it is the student's responsibility to manage their time and have assignments ready on time. I find it hard to believe that she wouldn't know this. It was made clear to me well before I finished high school.

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Was she disrespectful in her emails? Is it acceptable to send an email in all caps? Am I wrong to deal with this point?

Writing in all caps is not proper etiquette, and shouldn't be considered "acceptable". At the same time, your student seems to have little to no idea. So I would ignore the issue and consider that computers are challenging for the student. Thus why they're unable to access it on their own, their multiple issues, and the nonsensical reply about "codes". Writing all caps would be just another consequence of the poor technical knowledge of the user (plus, maybe made worse by the stress of not being able to meet the deadline). It may be that the student intended to be disrespectful, but there's no benefit for you in getting offended, either. Simply ignore it, or politely point out that writing in caps is interpreted as shouting.

You may be surprised that in 2020 some people have trouble at such length, but there are. Plus, we don't know about the age of the student (not that certain people from digitally native generations are better than their grandparents). The course being for humanities students might also help explain that they didn't need to use such a system until now (or maybe managed to forget).

Since you already had the step-by-step instructions prepared, it might have been useful to have sent back a pdf with those same instructions. They are published and they should have known about them, but if the user is not able to properly find their way on the internet, something like that could be immensely helpful for them (while requiring nearly zero-cost for you).

I suspect this student will continue struggling with their computer for the rest of the course.

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    Thank you for your answer. The student is 22 years old. Also, since last year all the university departments used online homework due to COVID-19. Also, there is an option to get the code for free (for 14 days). I have already told them about this point, about 3 weeks before the due date. 15 out of 22 students already bought the code and done their homework. 6 students use temporary code. Only this student has the problem!! Simply she does not want to buy the code because she does not want to spend money. For writing in caps, the major of the student is Academic English. – Alice Sep 18 at 8:53
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    @Alice, this could be relevant information to edit into your original question above. – J W Sep 18 at 9:42
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To add to what everyone said, be aware that such students could be troublemakers in a wider sense. Such as rallying other students to disrespect you/expect immediate responses/etc, and reflect badly on you in the course evaluation.

To protect yourself:

  • be helpful
  • do not engage in any heated exchanges
  • respond timely and politely to all emails (next workday responses are completely ok)
  • address the questions, ask for clarifications
  • let students know what to expect in terms of communication (typical response time, preferred medium etc.)
  • let students know that you expect them to be functional adults and adhere to cultural norms. Point them to relevant resources if needed. Norms may vary across cultures.
  • appreciate the students work (even if it is sh*t, you can tell that you see clear signs of hard work)

This way you can keep a paper trail and protect yourself if the student escalates the issue.

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  • Thank you so much for all point. It is really helpful. I tried everything with them. I told them via emails, giving them all the information 3 weeks on advance. I just found that the dean of the humanities at my university stand up with the students for whatever they did. She told them, that your statistic doctor is here to serves you !! – Alice Sep 18 at 8:45
  • @Alice: No wonder they behave like entitled brats... – user21820 Sep 18 at 16:10
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An alternative interpretation

Another consideration is that the use of caps is being used for another purpose. In gaming discussion groups, for example, capitalisation of individual words (like 'CODES') or a specific sentence can be used for emphasis or to draw attention to a specific word, especially when there is no formatting (like bold) or an absence of any form of mark-up.

In some very rare cases, it can even be used to indicate satire or parody, especially when it's hard to distinguish normal, serious text from the thing being parodied (especially if it repeats someone else's words in a mocking context).

This approach is often used by less experienced online users who aren't familiar with using asterisks or dashes to emphasise specific words, or feel that such emphasis is being ignored or somehow insufficient. This might occur if a person feels their point is being ignored or missed somehow.

Caps is used more to stress a point or highlight a problem, especially on individual words or specific sentences. So the email appears to be trying to highlight they cannot complete their task because there is something wrong with the codes specifically.

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TL;DR

You're a teacher. This is a great opportunity to teach

If you're it sure if someone has been rude to you or not, your best bet is to assume innocence. If you do otherwise, you risk punishing your student for something they didn't intend, and that would make you the bad guy.

At ths same time, you rightly feel that this isn't something you should ignore. Even if the "shouting" was unintentional, others who are less understanding than you may assune the worst, and this will inevitability cause problems for both your student and others.

I fact, in the situation you described, your student has made a several mistakes that, if repeated, will cost them a great as both a student and in life in general. This gives you a golden opportunity to help your student get better at life not "just" at your subject.

Some of your student's mistakes include:

  • Leaving work to the last minute
  • Not following instructions / poor computer skills
  • Not respecting yout personal time
  • Communicating ineffectively in email

The first step in learning anything is to recognise your ignorance. Dealing with your own ignorance can be hard, however. When someone points out my faults I feel ashamed (because I should know better), and fearful (that I can't learn to be better). I sometimes fight the "acccusations" of people who are trying to help me rather than receiving what they say as good advice.

On this basis, I suggest that you gently but firmly offer your student the help they need. In your response, you need to make it clear that (1) you want to help them, (2) you and others make mistakes, too, (3) that the help is on your terms, (3) what your students mistakes are, (4) what the consequences of those mistakes can be, (5) what one thing the student should focus on, (6) what the student needs to do next, (7) what help you can offer, (8) that you have faith in the student.

Unfortunately, you also need to do all this rather consicely and very clearly: poor students tend to struggle with a "wall of words". Good formatting of your response might help. It also might be helpful to say the same thing in several ways: in an email to this student, as a general statement ti the whole class, in a one-to-one meeting, etc.

As one of the other posters has pointed out, you may also want to think about your own behaviour, and what it inadvertently reinforced in your student. I appreciate that your account of events is necessarily incomplete, and that you may already have addressed this, but it is possible that when you responded late in the evening to your student's request for help, you set the expectation that (1) it is OK to start homework late, and (2) you - and others - are avaliable to drop everything at all hours to help. I'm certainly not suggesting that you shouldn't have tried to help, but you do need to set expectations that this isn't normal.

This leads me to my final suggestion: that you make this an opportunity for you to learn something. Are there things that you could have done differently that could have reduced the likelihood of this kind of situation occurring in future? Are there expectations that you could have set differently? Could you improve your communication?

After all, this is learning experience of all of us.

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  • Thank you so much for your kind advices. I am very polite with my students and try to notify them about everything very early. The problem is that this student want me to give a special treatment. She try to be rude all the time and want her suggestion or idea to be the rule in the class. Such as the type of the questions, how we can take the exam or homework as so on. If I do not help her, then I will be in a big trouble also. – Alice Sep 19 at 9:42

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