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I am responsible for the exercises for a graduate course. The students submit their solutions via email and all of them send a normal email: greeting me and telling that the solutions file is attached then (most of them) wishing me a good weekend as the due dates are Fridays.

One group sends me an empty email: just an attachment without any word! I believe that this behaviour is odd, should I take an action or it is not my business?

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    Greetings and saying that a file is attached doesn't convey any relevant information. – Count Iblis Jun 21 '15 at 21:10
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    Yeah Mr. White... Yeah Science! Here's my homework (bi_ch) Just kidding – user41235 Jun 21 '15 at 21:56
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    I don't understand the question... you are upset that they don't write you a personalized love letter with every assignment? It's a graduate course, you are both adults, be professional and stop complaining over non-issues. – CaptainCodeman Jun 22 '15 at 0:39
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    I thought professors would actually prefer to have as few things to read in an e-mail as possible... I can't imagine anything worse than having to read 40 wallsoftext per week. – devoured elysium Jun 22 '15 at 1:16
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    Important question would be - is there sufficient information to know whose it is, and what module? Everything else is secondary. I tended to just put in a title with my student ID, Name and module/assignment as a title, so the lecturer would know at a glance, but I'd hardly consider that a cover letter. – Journeyman Geek Jun 22 '15 at 2:57

12 Answers 12

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I don't really think this is odd: they have been asked to send the assignment by email and they did. There isn't really a need to say anything further and they didn't. Maybe it would be slightly more courteous if they were to add a couple of words of greeting, but your job is not to be Emily Post.

If the assignments were submitted on paper, and they left their assignment in your mailbox, would you insist that they include a note wishing you a nice day? No, that would be silly.

There isn't anything you need to do about this.

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    Cover letters used to be considered the norm. People still often use post it nots on things left in a mail box. That said, it should not matter. – StrongBad Jun 21 '15 at 18:45
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    @StrongBad: "People still often use post it nots on things left in a mail box." True, but in my experience at least, students far more often do not. – Mark Meckes Jun 21 '15 at 18:48
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    @StrongBad Horses & Buggies, type writers and pagers used to be the norm as well... Times change, and as long as it's clear who it's from (SugarDaddy987@hotmail.com might not be a good clue, but if the name is on the paper...) then the extra "pomp" (Greetings kind sir, please see my attached...) is needed as much as a cover letter or a post it note. – WernerCD Jun 21 '15 at 20:17
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    @alephzero: You would assume incorrectly, then. – Nate Eldredge Jun 22 '15 at 2:58
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    @StrongBad Putting important information on a Post-It is silly as it can fall off. Putting unimportant information on a Post-It is... unimportant. – David Richerby Jun 22 '15 at 6:19
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When teaching large classes or multiple classes, it can be very helpful if the email, or even better the subject line, contains the key information about the class, section, group and assignment (and possibly TA). It should be the responsibility of the instructor to tell the students what is expected, if anything, in the syllabus and on the assignment itself. Those instructions should make penalties, if any, clear. In the absence of instructions, it is not worth saying anything.

I would be hesitant about imposing penalties mid term, but asking students to include additional information seems reasonable. Just make what you want clear.

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    This other answer is good, but this IMHO is better: 1. an identifying subject actually helps, 2. if you do not tell them to, they won't. – o0'. Jun 21 '15 at 19:02
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    +1 for the practical aspect: maybe this is slightly weird, maybe it isn't, depends on all parties involved. Is the OP entitled to think it is slightly weird? Sure. But the real question is: is it weird enough to intervene by making a course policy about it? If yes: okay, do it; students won't object. If no: let it go. Students -- and people in general -- can be very, very weird. This is small time stuff. – Pete L. Clark Jun 21 '15 at 19:33
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    I'd expect all of this information to be part of the subject line and not the body (there's nothing in the OP that indicates that this isn't done). Adding stuff to the body just forces the recipient to skim quickly over it to make sure there's nothing of importance in it. Wasting everybody's time for no purpose isn't polite in my book. Keeping emails as short as possible (but not shorter!) is one of the core rules of email nettiquette. – Voo Jun 21 '15 at 20:11
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    Not having a subject does often put the email in your spam folder! – Ian Jun 22 '15 at 9:34
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    Even better a website that lets the student upload the assignment and sends them a confirmation email. – Ian Jun 22 '15 at 9:34
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Unnecessary courtesies (like greetings) and stating the obvious (like saying that attachment is attached) only waste YOUR time and increase YOUR workload. This might not be obvious at the first sight, but if they all did same that would save YOU considerable time in total. In some company environments this is standard practice, and adding meaningless greetings is what's frowned upon (between close coworkers, like you and your students).

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    This is something that gets more apparent the longer your career has been going on. I'd guess in ten years you will actually prefer emails with as little content as absolutely necessary, just because this will save time on your part. – fgysin Jun 22 '15 at 10:59
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    Saying the attachment is attached is useful if the receiver receives an email without attachment. In that case there's a good chance the professor would hit reply and just type "attachment missing", and the sender fixes the problem, vs. a failed assignment. – gnasher729 Jun 22 '15 at 11:10
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    @gnasher729 Yes, of course. But pay close attention at who is benefiting from this correction code and who has to pay for this benefits. It's the student who is benefiting and the professor who has to do this work: read the mail, verify presence of the attachment, verify if the statement matches observed state, take corrective measure (reply). We're talking here about how empty body benefits the professor. Cordial greetings also benefit the student at expense of professor, as it creates more "humane" relationship which will make the professor more likely to explain instead of simply failing. – Agent_L Jun 22 '15 at 12:48
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    Actually, processing an empty mail costs more time for me, as I can grasp at the first glance that an e-mail contains nothing but a minimal text like "Hello, see attached assignment solution. Regards, Alice", while it usually takes me a few moments to realize and become certain that the e-mail client is not currently trying to display or load some complex e-mail content, but that the e-mail is actually empty. – O. R. Mapper Jun 23 '15 at 14:29
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    Asking students to give an email subject or body like, "Chapter 4 homework, Fred Smith" is reasonable. If the assumption is that the homework will be attached, then there's no need to say "attached", but okay, if it makes you feel better. If that's what the instructor wants, he should tell the students, and then if they don't comply, he has reasonable grounds to say "sorry, but your homework was not properly submitted". He shouldn't shouldn't just assume that students will know just what their emails should look like if he doesn't say. But in any case, the complaint here was not that he ... – Jay Jun 23 '15 at 18:38
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You may want to be more forthcoming as to your expectations - if you want text, ask for it. Have a sub section on the homework policy in the syllabus explain that each e-mail should contain the students full name, the class that they are e-mailing you about, the section, etc. such that you can search for the assignments when you grade them, and that any e-mails missing/lacking the information won't be graded and thus the students will receive a zero on the assignment.

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    Have a sub section on the homework policy in the syllabus explain that each e-mail should contain the students full name, the class that they are e-mailing you about, the section, etc. — Don't forget the compulsory wishes for having a great weekend! :^) – Mad Jack Jun 22 '15 at 1:03
  • hahaha. this is the best answer by far. if teachers expect something out of the ordinary from their students, they should indeed specify it on their syllabus. – ell Jun 25 '15 at 15:38
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    ... and given that 'ordinary' clearly is subjective here, I would just say "if teachers expect specific information they should state it very clearly and/or provide a template and/or examples. Otherwise everyone will make their best guess". – Michael Durrant Jun 27 '15 at 14:51
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I disagree with the other answers. "Hello" and "thank you" are banned from SE sites for reasons of efficiency, but it is far from the norm on Internet. Look at newcomers' first questions for example.

If the assignment had to be submitted in my office, I would be upset if the students were opening the door, dropping the paper on my desk and leaving without a word.

Why emails should be different? Email between students and professors is a formal way of communication (how many questions about ethics and protocol for emails to professors do we have on this site?) and (non superfluous) politeness never hurt.

As for what to answer to students, it is up to you:

  1. You could ignore it
  2. You could tell them you personally found it was a lack of politeness and respect to you.
  3. You could tell them that, although they didn't mean to be impolite and just tried to save time, it may hurt them in later communications. Not spending two minutes to be polite and clearly identify their work (the name of their file may not be as clear as they think - I regularly receive assignments named "Math Homework" by "lovelyflower@gmail.com") may be interpreted as a lack of involvement in the project/class.
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    '"Hello" and "thank you" are banned from SE sites for reasons of efficiency' - that's only half the story; the other half is that SE is meant to be a collection of questions and answers directed to the public, not a discussion board with personal communication from one user to another user. An e-mail, on the other hand, pretty much is communication from one user to another. – O. R. Mapper Jun 23 '15 at 14:44
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    How would you tell the students that you think it's impolite? "I think it's impolite for you to drop off your homework without wishing me a happy weekend." Just to state that sounds silly and petty. What next? "Any student who fails to send me a birthday card will be given a failing grade"? – Jay Jun 23 '15 at 18:28
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    @Jay: Very simple and natural: "I think it's impolite for you to drop off your homework without saying a single word." – O. R. Mapper Jun 24 '15 at 2:22
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    If students dropped off their homework on your desk at the end of class, I wouldn't consider it rude if they all just walked up and dropped their papers in a pile without saying anything. Would you expect each student to stop and chat? "So, how's your family? Hope you have a nice day", etc? If someone came to your office to drop off homework and you were talking to someone else, it would be rude for them to interrupt; I'd expect them to just drop the paper and leave. Sure if someone came to your office and you were sitting at your desk grading papers or whatever, I'd expect the student to ... – Jay Jun 24 '15 at 13:26
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    ... say something like, "Just dropping off my homework, Dr Jones". If you weren't there and there was some sort of box for papers, I wouldn't expect the student to add a note, "This is my homework"? Well, obviously, right? "Have a nice day"? Rather superfluous. – Jay Jun 24 '15 at 13:29
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Wishing you a good weekend, while perhaps courteous, is also superfluous. However I can see why there might be legitimate reasons for wanting something meaningful in the email body and subject, in addition to the attachment. It would help with sorting and filing emails for example, and empty emails are also more likely to be flagged by spam filters.

I would suggest you make it clear to the students that you require some basic information in the email subject, and body, including student number, course and assignment title etc. Greetings and salutations shouldn't be necessary though.

If an attachment was corrupted in transit for example, or was in an unusable document type, having the basic relevant data in the email body would help to resolve this.

7

It should be added that automated processing is not unusual now a days. If I am asked to send a specific file, with a specific format, and specific name, to a specific email, it is not far fetched for me to believe that there is a script on the other end which 'processes' the attachment, but ignores the body of the message (uploading it somewhere or sorting it into a folder to view later). Even something as simple as having email rules setup could cause the body to go ignored until a human has to read/grade them. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for students to forgo formal letter formats in a world where a lot of things are automated anyways.

Furthermore, even if there was no automation, some teachers may be trained to see emails with attachments as 'the homework' and ignore it, until they actually grade it. As a result if students included comments or questions, they would go largely unanswered/ignored, and they subsequently would be trained to make it clear when they have questions/comments, and not include those in the 'homework attachment' email, as those dont get adequate responses.

That said, in this case its likely most students probably think the file name is adequate enough to indicate the contents. I.e. if the title says "Homework_Assignment_4 -- Michael_Jones" no other explanation is necessary.

6

There's an old system administrators' maxim, "Be conservative in what you generate and liberal in what you accept."

It might be thoughtful to add a few polite notes, but just sending the requested homework should be tolerated, too.

I'm working on a technical book now, and my publisher has established certain expectations regarding email, including that email subjects will be rather formulaic (with an identifying string for my specific title, a chapter number, a revision number if appropriate, and "WIP" if I have to submit a work in progress). And both they and I try to add a few words of politeness, but this is not a formal expectation.

I think it's nice that students wish you a happy weekend, but if your biggest problem with your class is that one student is emailing you assignments without niceties, you're doing well.

  • Going a bit off-topic here, but Postel's principle can actually be a terrible idea and the cause of many problems when if comes to standards: you get two implementations tolerating their own deviations from the spec, another ones implements it rigorously, but doesn't work and has to guess what to do in all the possible wrong cases sent by the other implementations. – Bruno Jun 26 '15 at 19:29
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Definitely this group has more common sense and familiarity with the use of email than most of your students.

First of all, if you have a preference for a given format, information included in subject line or in the text, you should say so. Students are coming from different places, they cannot just figure out of your expectations or preferences.

Second, emails are not letters. The common way of professional emails is similar how the said group used it: brief, contains only necessary information. Most text on professional writing clearly discourage all kind of "Dear XY", "Best regards" and similar. Wishing you good weekend of rehearsing that the attachment is an attachment, and indeed it is what you think is rather unnecessary.

Off course you can have a personal taste different, and you can ask your students to accommodate, but don't expect that your rules are universal or known automatically by everyone.

To answer comments:

Indeed, empty mails are a little extreme. However the closes format to an assignment submission is a memo, and memos does not contain salutation, greetings, or any superfluous "best regards", "is your dog happy?" etc or signature. In other words, memos does not contain anything that OP is explicitly missing.

If one has other preferences, she/he is free to write a guideline or communicate that. For example a page like this: http://faculty.mccombs.utexas.edu/kristie.loescher/assignments/memotips.htm

Comment along the line with Nate's answer, and using his example:

Just for the sake, imagine a similar homework assignment on paper. Do you expect a printed letter like "If it would be a homework assignment, no one would expect an extended intro with "Dear Sir, How was your weekend? I hope you are in good health and enjoy the chirping birds of the Spring. Let me introduce you my solution for the first problem you kingly asked us to solve:" with a big "Should there be any question feel free to contact me. Sincerely, (huge, hand written signature)" at the end? Would you frown upon students who are listing only the answers, no greetings, no salutation as unprofessional and rude behavior because they do not follow standard letter formats (or what you think standard)?

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    Downvoted for the blanket claim "Second, emails are not letters." In general, e-mails very much are (the digital equivalent of) letters. The differences are the medium and the transfer mode, not how we fill them with content. Now, it is conceivable that in some cultures on this planet, specific ways adapted to particular contexts have locally overridden the general way to write letters, but then, that needs to be specified. – O. R. Mapper Jun 23 '15 at 14:51
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    -1. In my opinion and experience, an e-mail saying "Dear X, Here is homework set N. Regards, Y" would be considered, if anything, more professional than an empty e-mail. Sure, this courtesy might be skipped in certain workplaces for the sake of efficiency, but to say that it is unprofessional and lacks common sense to include it seems bizarre to me. – Trevor Wilson Jun 23 '15 at 22:15
  • The guidelines you link to recommend to start e-mails with a salutation and end them with a courteous closing line and your name. I cannot see any indication that e-mails are supposed to be written like "memos" (even in cultures and contexts where that latter specific type of document exists). – O. R. Mapper Jun 24 '15 at 7:47
  • @O.R.Mapper The guideline is an example to OP if he wants to communicate better what he likes. I didn't say it is a authoritative guideline on a given genre, or that it supports my opinion what are best practices. – Greg Jun 24 '15 at 7:59
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    @O.R.Mapper He said he was upset because the students did not wish him a happy weekend or similar greetings. My point was that such greetings are routinely included in personal letters, but not in business communications. Sure, you might say hello to a co-worker whom you meet in person, but -- at least in my experience -- it is VERY rare for a business memo to include greetings or well-wishing. They just get to the matter at hand. The bit about the green dress was hyperbole, of course. – Jay Jun 29 '15 at 13:50
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If there is some information you need in the email to properly identify it or otherwise to help you sort through your emails, you should tell the students what this is. Like it would be reasonable to say that the subject line or the body of the email should specify the title of the class, the name of the student, and an identification of the assignment, perhaps something like "Chapter 4 questions". I can certainly see saying that you want this in some specified, standard format, so that you can quickly sort through emails and figure out what's what.

But to complain that they didn't wish you a happy weekend ... I suppose it's nice if teacher and students are on friendly terms and exchange such greetings, but if they don't, so what? Are your feelings deeply hurt because a student didn't say "have a nice weekend, Mr M" as he walked out the door? If so, I think you really just need to get over it.

It would be grossly unfair to penalize students for failing to live up to an expectation that you never stated.

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    "But to complain that they didn't wish you a happy weekend" - That is not what is stated in the question. I can only find wishing a good weekend as an actual example of a non-empty e-mail there, not as a concrete requirement. @MM may want to clarify, though, whether or not that is actually meant. – O. R. Mapper Jun 24 '15 at 2:25
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    @O.R.Mapper of course I do not mean that greeting me is a concrete requirement. What I mean is exactly as you explained: "....wishing a good weekend as an actual example of a non-empty e-mail there, not as a concrete requirement." – M.M Jun 24 '15 at 12:00
  • Okay, not necessarily "have a nice weekend". What then? As I said, if there's some question about identifying the attachment assignment, sure. But you seem to be saying that you demand that students say, not necessarily "have a nice weekend", but some "polite greeting", right? Maybe, "hope you are well" or "how's your family". I don't know where you live, maybe your culture is different. But here in the U.S., business and educational communications do not normally include such pleasantries unless the people actually know each other and are friends. – Jay Jun 24 '15 at 13:33
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The behavior is absolutely OK. The attachment is what it matters, especially if the student has already been introduced to you. If you cannot identify the student, simply ask them to provide their "Student ID" together with their homework. If I would be the student, and somebody would ask me to properly formulate the email, it would look like this:

Dear Mr. MM, highly esteemed Grader,

Today, year 2018 B.C., month of January, day 11, I'm attaching you the homework. It is a ZIP file. The content of the zip, consists of one single file (not to be confused with the zip file itself) called homework.java. Open this file in your favorite editor. This file, although stored as UTF-8, has been carefully typed so that it only contains Latin letters and ASCII symbols. The file has been also scanned for viruses.

Please review my homework at your earliest convenience. Any feedback is welcome.

Yours truly, Me, The Student

-2

Our world is a "behavioral thing" We are all becoming the reasons of some behavior. We can't say for sure, which behavior or which events have led to such situation with your students- and it could be the result of previous matters, which even don't depend on you. Anyway, you've got it and you want to change it. Very simple solution: You can tell to your students that your email internet filters dont allow you to receive empty emails, as well as emails with rudy content. After that- you can start checking only those which are not empty and those which don't have rude content. Belive me- their behavior will change very quickly. Cheerz

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    You shouldn't lie to your students. And it will be incredibly obvious that you are if this email is sent in reply to the email they sent. – Zibbobz Jun 22 '15 at 15:16
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    It is not a lie especially if you configure your mail filter – Alex Jun 22 '15 at 15:28
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    It is a lie, because the professor clearly did receive the email. Moreover, you should not try to 'shape' your students behavior through duplicitous manipulation anyway. And you should definitely not reject a project submission just because it hasn't got anything in the email body. Especially a group project, which would penalize all the other students in that group, not just the individual who submitted it. – Zibbobz Jun 22 '15 at 15:31
  • @Zibbobz for group projects, I give the expectation that all group members need to be CCed in the submission, such that if a member does not receive the CCed version, they don't assume anything and submit their own. – user2813274 Jun 22 '15 at 16:49
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    Now that's what I call flexible morals. I'm somewhat impressed I must say - not many people would publicly admit to lying to their students just to get whatever superfluous behavioral change they want. – Voo Jun 22 '15 at 22:05

protected by StrongBad Jun 22 '15 at 18:31

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