52

I have a student who wants me to reply to his emails as soon as he sends them! For example:

I already provided you with .... form in our first meeting. Can you fill the necessary boxes and sign .... to confirm my project? ... It has already been a day, and you have not replied.

My reply:

Thank you for sharing this information. Please find attached the document.

However, it is important to note that even if you already provided me with the documents. You should give me at least 3 to 4 working days to reply to your email. It is important that you understand that there are other issues an academic has to deal with, and patience would be really appreciated.

Is there anything wrong with this response? If so, could you please help me understand how to reply to such emails?

6
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Apr 26 at 19:31
  • 7
    "Listen here you little..."
    – Ken Zein
    Apr 27 at 19:49
  • 3
    @KenZein : The only correct answer, +1.
    – MPW
    Apr 28 at 2:43
  • I would remove „important“ and instead question the tone directly, but that’s just me.
    – eckes
    Apr 28 at 9:07
  • There is nothing unique to academia to being busy - your students have a lot on their plates too. I would replace "an academic has" with "I have".
    – Umberto P.
    Apr 28 at 20:43

12 Answers 12

109

Two words: "Office hours."

I say to students that, if they need immediate feedback, then they should come to my office hours, everything else will be processed as its turn arises.

[During the pandemic, of course, the office hours would be virtual]

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  • 2
    Well, that's ok in general, but office hours are typically, say, once a week; and the student in OP's question is asking for something to happen by the next day. So the two words don't quite cover it.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 27 at 18:32
  • @einpoklum Exceptions and emergency treatment should always be an option, that goes without saying. But it is the burden of the requester to request it and to formulate a reasonable justification. There was no mentioning or justification for the urgency in above students' mail, so I do not see a reason to change my response. OP's response is perfectly polite, but my answer suggests a practicable replacement that caters for by far most cases and, additionally, without needing to comment on their manners or being unnecessarily obstructive, defanging the commandeering edge of their demand. Apr 27 at 20:13
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    I used to have a colleague with a sign on his wall that said "lack of preparation on your part doesn't constitute an emergency on my part"; I can't help but wonder if the student is largely the architect of the need for speed, here, because if (s)he is, then I see no reason at all their "needs" should be accommodated.
    – MadHatter
    Apr 28 at 6:31
  • 1
    @MadHatter "If you dug yourself into a hole, stop digging" - "Don't compound a blunder by being rude about it." - "Sometimes rudeness conceals weakness. More often, however, it reveals a history of getting away without ever having to pay the true cost of it." Apr 28 at 10:08
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    @usr1234567 Yes, I would. If it is so quick that they expect an immediate turnaround, then it can be done there. If not, they cannot expect an immediate turnaround. It has the additional side effect that they learn to appreciate the time it takes. Furthermore, everyone of my students knows that I will give them their due and absolutely undivided attention and doing my very best to address whatever problem they have during my office hours and they are thus happy to wait patiently for their turn. Apr 28 at 20:14
55

I see nothing wrong with your reply, it's courteous and points out what rubbed you (rightly) the wrong way. It's a good approach if you want to be professional.

In your shoes, I'd have taken twice as long as it usually takes me to finish whatever job the pushy student wants from me, while ignoring any emails during that time (except for - maybe - 'Working on it."). What the professional reply doesn't address - and it would be hard to address in such a reply - is that the formulation of the student's email is arrogant and self-centered. "It has already been a day..." Really? All things considered and the current climate of the educational system taken into account, you did just right. But someone should teach your student that the world doesn't revolve around them.

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    "In your shoes, I'd have taken twice as long as it usually takes me to finish whatever job the pushy student wants from me"... that's unprofessional, childish, and kinda passive aggressive, no?
    – JeffC
    Apr 25 at 23:59
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    @JeffC it's teaching the lesson that the student is not in charge of educational resources and that there is a varying amount of time things can take and it's typically not for them to determine the priority of certain tasks; they also need to learn that pushy behaviour does not even miss to have the desired effect but has negative effects for them, so trying to be pushy and checking when and with whom it works is not something that is worth doing. I might have given him a single warning beforehand, but sometimes you need to clearly signal that misbehaviour has a cost. Apr 26 at 0:38
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    @FrankHopkins I 100% agree that the student is wrong and needs to be taught that they are not the center of the universe. This is just not the way to do that. See pretty much every other answer on how to do that properly and professionally.
    – JeffC
    Apr 26 at 1:57
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    I agree with @JeffC here. Replying deliberately slowly doesn't teach any lesson at all, it just escalates the situation to no benefit.
    – Jeff
    Apr 26 at 4:02
  • 11
    Yeah, this is pointless. It's not like the student is going to know that you did all this extra stuff to deliberately respond slowly.
    – trlkly
    Apr 26 at 9:38
42

I feel like you're doing the student a disservice by being so polite in response to an unprofessional email.

It's not necessarily your job (unless you're a business professor maybe?) to teach email etiquette, but sending an arrogant-sounding email like that demanding faster attention may absolutely harm that student in the future. If you reply politely, will they send a similar email to a professor who won't behave professionally in response to an email like that? To an interviewer for a job after graduation? To a co-worker, or someone they hope to collaborate with? To their boss after they have a job?

I would probably word my reply a bit more sternly:

"Thank you for sharing this information. Please find attached the document.

Also, please note that the tone of your follow-up email was highly inappropriate. Keep in mind for the future that professional etiquette requires patience, and follow-up message should be worded politely."

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  • 11
    I do not like to chastise people for manners. A one-off may be attributable to excitement or nervousness. A repeat occurrence (or a seriously rude first message) may encounter a more sardonic response, and usually people pick up on that and become polite. When they don't, castigating them for bad manners can invite them to turn the argument around and accuse you of bad manners in turn (yes, indeed! Serially rude people can be completely oblivious). You definitely do not want to go there. This attack is not easy to counter effectively, most certainly not by the tempting "appeal to authority". Apr 26 at 11:08
  • 5
    @Anush That's why I suggest a one-off can be overlooked. However, mental health issues are not an excuse to treat other people rudely - this is often mentioned in discussions about people on the spectrum. There are very polite and pleasant people on the spectrum; some need to learn it, fair enough, and in this case, Jeff's response is to the point. Apr 26 at 11:34
  • 3
    @Anush The suggested response is a polite (though stern) notification that the students message was inappropriate, and I would stand by such a message myself. The mere fact that you fear repercussions for correcting a students misbehavior is deeply concerning, and I'd get out of such an environment ASAP. If one cannot point out mistakes to ones students, then what is left for a teacher to do?
    – Servaes
    Apr 26 at 13:17
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    @Servaes We live in a world that takes "democracy" to the extreme. To some extent that is quite a good development. The downside is that people (especially those without benefit of education in manners themselves) are very quick to turn the argument around. One needs to be more sophisticated than merely pointing out bad manners - it really doesn't work anymore when people do not have a common ground what good manners actually are. "Good manners", for some, is "treating them well, while they can afford to treat others badly". The educational process to change that I feel is beyond our remit. Apr 26 at 13:33
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    @NeilG Well, yes, "aside from academia" because we're talking about academia. Response times are slow in academia because there are far more students who need things than professors teaching their classes.
    – Jeff
    Apr 27 at 12:55
22

In the future, you could tell the students at the start of term that it may take several days to reply to emails, and that if there is something urgent they should speak to you right after class or during office hours. This should still work during the pandemic when all is online.

1
18

It's funny because I just dealt with this last week (student complaining they don't see a grade listed online 38 minutes after the due date for a week-long project). I fired off a response somewhat peeved and off-kilter (and also one-handed with my cat on me), and a few minutes later somewhat regretted that I'd let my emotion show a bit.

The best thing in these cases is to be super cool, give minimal information, and don't let it be visible that they got to you. (That can possibly be used against you later in future interactions.) What I should have said was:

Note that the syllabus (p. 1) says, "Contact by email is preferred; replies are usually sent in one day."

Adjust to taste, of course. But I don't mind having an average expectation like that documented on my syllabus.

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  • 5
    +1, but check if there is an institutional or department policy saying what response time a student should expect, and if so state that (if not, consider asking for one to be made). Also, better to write "working day" instead of "day", to avoid giving the impression that you will also answer emails on weekends and holidays.
    – kaya3
    Apr 26 at 11:36
  • 1
    @kaya3: Good note for others. In my case, I do answer on weekends & holidays. Apr 26 at 12:38
18

I think your original reply is much better than what some others have suggested here.

  • You responded with the information requested with a cool head.

  • You explained that the student's tone came off as rude, and why.

  • You encouraged empathy.

  • You gave a concrete rule of thumb of how many days to expect from professors in the future.

Maybe the student was rude due to entitlement and impudence, maybe it was poor social skills, maybe it was a disability as suggested elsewhere. Either way, there's no need to get aggressive about it to "teach them a lesson." That is bad advice. It is better to simply be corrective, especially if this is not an ongoing issue.

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    I agree with you that there's no need to get aggressive about it to "teach them a lesson." Apr 27 at 6:39
15

I don't think you even owe him an apology. The students must be aware that delays of days in answers are perfectly acceptable. If you feel guilty for such an answer I'd suggest Cal Newport's book A World Without Email, where he argues that people should not be "enslaved" by having to answer emails all day long.

10

What worked for me was ignoring the inappropriate parts. Check the student's name to be sure you didn't promise to get back to them ASAP, check there's no new information in the email that needs to be jotted down with your other notes or where-ever. Then go back to work.

The time it takes to write back that you aren't going to write back isn't worth it. I also have no special expertise in teaching communication skills. And I've found that often students are embarrassed at what they wrote. They get nervous and spiral-out about a project and write a demanding email just to be doing something.

Alternately, if you have time, go ahead and do it. If MaryBeth is really excited about starting the project this weekend, why not help her? It won't take any more of your time to do it now than when you were planning on doing it. But, again, not worth it to comment on the crazy/rude parts.

6

As well as the other answers, I think a sentence along the lines of "If there is a specific deadline for requests, include that deadline in both the subject matter and body of the email so that I can see it immediately"

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    I suggest wording like "if your request is time-sensitive, ..." rather than saying "deadline". Students do not get to set deadlines for their lecturers, and it would be better not to give them the impression that they are allowed to set a deadline for you. The difference is that if something is "time-sensitive" for the student, then the consequences of not receiving a response in time are bad for them, not bad for you.
    – kaya3
    Apr 26 at 11:27
5

I receive such e-mails, too. Of course if there is a deadline the students have to observe themselves, I try to answer as soon as possible.

But if there is no such deadline, this behavior is simply childish. Similar to a three-year-old who thows tantrums because they want an ice-cream NOW. In this case, I treat them like a mother would treat a stubborn three-year-old: I keep calm and just ignore their complaints. I send them what they want within a few days, at a time when it is ok for me, with a short, polite e-mail, but I do not apologize or refer to their complaints in any other way.

I think it is important to consider the learning effect: If students are successful when they put you under pressure, they will do it again and again. If they learn that they get what they have asked for, but it is you who sets the pace, they will stop sooner or later.

Besides, think of your role at university. The university expects you to teach all students and to do some research work. This means that your time is limited, and you have to set priorities. The university is your boss, not the students, so do not allow them to be bossy with you.

4

In general, it's best to set a clear expectation for stuff like how quickly you'll reply to emails and what the best way to get in touch with you is in advance. For example, if you have the student in question in a course, this could be stated in the syllabus and/or on the first day of class. This is particularly the case if you have a heavy teaching or research schedule, or if it's a large class. (This applies both to academia and industry by the way).

If you don't set that expectation up front, people will likely expect whatever they're used to getting from other professors (or what you've done in the past). The student in question may simply be used to other professors replying the same day (or you may have replied to their previous emails the same day, in which case they'd expect you to continue this).

-5

If I was the teacher, I would not be judgemental to the student.

I would try to understand with curiosity, why that student is hurrying so much.

Maybe the student having a hard time. Maybe the student having an invisible anxiety issue due to ADHD or OCD or Autism.

If it is possible for me to provide a short instant reply, I would. I would write that I will write further detail when I will get time.

If I am too busy to reply; I would write I cannot response right now, please remind me in the XYz (specific) hours.

I think not trying to understand the student's perspective is a disability rights issue and a human rights iussue. According to the social model of disability, this is an attitudinal barrier.

Invisible barriers exist. Ineffective behaviours solved better with curiosity than judgement.

Is there anything wrong with this response?

I don't think anything wrong has been written. However in the next time you may use notice like "please have patience, reply may have take several days" or something like that adds some predictability.

I appreciate that you cared to ask if you have hurt the student. Thats great. The professional world especially academia is much ableist, you can make a difference.

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once.
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    Apr 28 at 12:01

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