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(Motivated by https://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/55082/hey-i-was-wondering-of-your-students-write-like-this)

The writing style probably [stems] from the electronic age of text messaging. In any case, an email between an a student and professor is a professional communication (not a social text message).

[Example:] "hey. i was wondering if your students write like this when they send you emails or ask for your help in an email and weather or not your willing to respond when such little effort is put forth when writing."

What can professors do to encourage properly written email messages from students?

(Other than being a positive role model.)

  • 12
    That students write sloppily can probably traced back to Thales, don't blame current technology. – vonbrand Sep 27 '15 at 18:53
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    You know, from undergrad lecturers and advisers to tenured collaborators, it's more often me rather than the senior person who pays attention to capitalization and full sentences. Perhaps the question instead should be "How do I train my professor to use the shift key?" or maybe "Are my well-composed emails signaling to my professors that I have too much time on my hands?" – user4512 Sep 27 '15 at 19:46
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    Relevant comic #1. Relevant comic #2. The incongruity is irreconcilable by logic. – Moriarty Sep 28 '15 at 9:21
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    @Chris: "too much time on my hands". This assumption always confused me, I don't type emails correctly because I spend a long time on them. I type them correctly because many years ago I had enough time on my hands to learn to freaking type (and spell, and punctuate). Therefore it's not the big job for me that it is for illiterates (and arguably mobile phone use is a separate issue due to the UI being necessarily so poor). But then some people who can spell perfectly well say they find it quicker and easier to spell incorrectly. I believe them but it still baffles me. – Steve Jessop Sep 28 '15 at 10:33
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    @Moriarty PhD comics are good, but I prefer these instructions. – Kimball Sep 29 '15 at 3:09

11 Answers 11

8

The best way to deal with this is on a broader level and explain the rules during an introductory or preparatory course to all incoming students. For example, at our department, first year students have to follow a course on academic skills, and there they also talk about emailing professors. It also has the advantage that students don't have to deal with different expectations by each professor. One sign that it works at least to a certain extent: Students seem to learn in that course that they should sign with their name and their student number (something which I never expected and definitly did not ask for), but most of them actually do sign this way (at least when contacting me first).

  • Maybe this is culture-specific, but I would not consider writing an e-mail to someone who is not a friend or a relative an "academic skill". (At the same time, though, I do not associate any different writing style, degree of politeness, or formality depending on whether the recipient is a professor, a customer service agent, a HR representative of a company I apply to, an official at some municipal or state agency, or a neighbour I do not know - in short, a stranger.) – O. R. Mapper Sep 27 '15 at 19:04
  • Good point. I did not want to suggest it is an academic skill, I just wanted to say that this particular skill (writing professional emails) is taught to everyone who has to follow the "academic skills"-course in our department. – damian Sep 27 '15 at 19:06
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    I see. That is at least a good way to ensure no-one has an excuse for not being aware of the basic expected forms of communication. – O. R. Mapper Sep 27 '15 at 19:07
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    I do consider email etiquette to be an academic skill, actually. (Which is not to say that other areas do not have email etiquette, or that there isn't a great deal of overlap.) – aparente001 Sep 27 '15 at 19:20
  • @O.R.Mapper: If the student is sending such an e-mail, s/he is hoping to get a helpful response. It is a(n academic) skill to craft an e-mail that has a good chance of getting a helpful response. Instruction in how to get a helpful response should be appreciated. We can then argue about whether the responder is too restrictive, but if you want help you should make it easy for people to help you and the targets of your requests will have a varying level of helpfulness. – Ross Millikan Sep 28 '15 at 4:38
61

hey. i was wondering of your students write like this

Alas, yes, they do (however, I'm a non-native English speaker who teaches international students whose level of English is extremely varied, and there's not much I can do about grammar).

Anyway, during the first lesson I give the following pieces of advice (which are frequently ignored, though):

  1. Sender address: please, use your institutional email address and avoid personal fancy addresses like "dirtydeedsdonedirtcheap@hardrock.com". But if you really want to use such an email address, at least configure the email client to show your real name and surname.
  2. Subject: write a meaningful subject: if you don't put a subject and respect point 1, I'll surely delete your email without even reading it, thinking that it is spam.
  3. Course information: please specify which course you are attending or have attended: I teach several courses and if you don't specify this I may not be able to answer (this piece of information is the most frequently missed).
  4. Express your issues clearly: if you have long questions or complicated issues, just ask for an appointment instead.
  • 13
    +1 (To all three answers here, in fact). On your 2nd and 3rd points, I have my students "tag" the course number in the email subject, e.g., for the course ECE 290, I tell students to tag the course in the subject line as [ECE 290], followed by a proper subject. – Mad Jack Sep 27 '15 at 22:08
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    I would argue against even suggesting the option of using a non-institutional email address. Aside from opening you up to all sorts of bogus claims about the spam filter eating the assignment it also puts the burden of identification on you when it shouldn't be. – Lilienthal Sep 28 '15 at 12:53
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    I wonder though, have you ever considered just replying to people who ignore one of the first three points with a form letter asking them to adhere to them and resend their e-mail, Pavlovian-style? – Lilienthal Sep 28 '15 at 12:58
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    @Lilienthal: for what concerns the spam filter eating the assignment, I don't have this issue because, in case, there is an electronic board from which students can transmit their assignments without passing through the email; in addition, my homework policy doesn't require strict verification. For the second point, it's good advice, I'll consider it from this year ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Sep 28 '15 at 13:15
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    +1 for focusing on the points that really matter for effective communication (giving sufficient information, organising it well, …) rather than capitalisation, punctuation, etc, which correlate with the rest but aren’t in themselves so essential. – PLL Sep 29 '15 at 9:54
52

I'd like to chime in as a student here. I tend to write my (initial) e-mails formally, however, many professors tend to reply in the most informal way possible. I often get replies like [sic]

Sure, can you b ethere 29/8 at 10am?

James

to my well-crafted "Dear Dr. Jamesson" e-mails. For students, this can be confusing: if I reply, should I go for "Dear James, I guess I can make it the 31st at 2pm" or still reply with "Dear Dr. Jamesson, I have a class the 29th. Could we arrange a meeting 31/8, for example at 2pm?" In my experience, many professors write their e-mails in an informal way (note that this may be specific for Dutch culture which is very informal to begin with). For students, this means that they'll continuously have to consider whether to continue writing formally, or whether the professor feels that that's highly necessary. For that reason, I don't think plainly ignoring students who don't write their e-mails in a formal manner is a good idea. Therefore:

  1. Assume good intent. There are many reasons for students not writing their e-mails formally. This could include coming from a different social background (do you really want to ignore students who managed to make it from a disadvantaged position to university?!), an attempt to appeal to the 'personal' side of you as a professor (some of my friends write e-mails like that because they feel that professors will answer them more readily if addressed in an informal manner), or even being nervous about writing a professor. Don't assume all students are lazy - be that person who is happy if he can make the difference for one student in your class.
  2. Reply as you would to a formal e-mail, and notify the student that you would like a more formal inquiry next time. Informal e-mails are usually perfectly understandable - there's no need to be condescending and pretend you don't understand informal e-mails. However, simply include a note at the start of your e-mail if you feel that the inquiry could have been more formal. Direct feedback is in my opinion one of the most important things in the academic world, so don't be afraid to simply (but politely) state that you want to be addressed more formally next time, and that other professors might appreciate that too.
  3. Students talk. Believe it or not, but students sometimes talk about other things than alcohol and potential partners. It won't take long before the vast majority of students know that you prefer to be addressed formally. If more professors indicate this preference (since I imagine professors also talk about other things than research grants and potential partners), it won't take long before all students start writing all their e-mails formally. Of course, this process will have to be repeated with the new batch of first-year students. Keep in mind that the scope of being a professor goes beyond teaching the course contents, but that you are there to train students to be professional members of the academic community (otherwise, we could just get rid of all professors and only read the book instead).

I'd like to add the following, which I posted as a comment but I think it will help in understanding this answer (especially why I use 'informal' instead of 'sloppy' throughout this answer):

Informality displayed by professors can be confusing to students. This, combined with students' ill-conceived ideas of how much effort should be put into writing even informal e-mails, makes for the sloppy e-mails described by the OP. Key point: don't assume a student is lazy if that could potentially disadvantage a motivated but 'uneducated' student.

  • 3
    The general convention that I stick to is to begin an email chain with "Dear..." or "Hi...". I guess it's up to the professor's individual demeanor, and the department culture, as to whether it's "Dear Professor Smith" or "Hi John". If replies are sent and received rapidly, or as one-liners (such as "Sure, see you then"), then I usually omit the greeting at the start for brevity. A protracted or lengthy reply will start with a greeting again. I always sign off as "Cheers, Steve" or "Thanks, Steve". As a postgrad, I generally treat professors and students the same. We're all just humans. – Moriarty Sep 28 '15 at 9:32
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    @Moriarty Note that I'm not saying professors should do a better job (hell, as far as I can see they work for two fte's, and I'm surprised they even get to my e-mails within a week), but that the informality displayed by professors can be confusing to students. This combined with students ill-conceived ideas of how much effort should be put into writing even informal e-mails makes for the sloppy e-mails described by the OP. Key point: don't assume a student is lazy if that could potentially disadvantage a motivated but 'uneducated' student. – Sanchises Sep 28 '15 at 9:39
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    In many cases, this goes toward expedient communications. There was a time when the quickest way to deal with a printed memo was to scrawl a reply right on the print and send it back. – Scott Seidman Sep 28 '15 at 18:03
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    Stick with the formal greeting and you'll be safe. – JoErNanO Sep 29 '15 at 14:01
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    @T.J.Crowder Probably not, since lowercase is the correct capitalization in Dutch. I'll edit it though since this answer should of course adhere to English standards. – Sanchises Sep 30 '15 at 8:24
24

What can professors do to encourage properly written email messages from students?

A rather straightforward option, that I have seen various professors follow, is to either delay answers to non-properly written e-mail messages, or to outright ignore the respective e-mails.

One precondition that I see for this is that it needs to be clearly communicated to the respective students that this is what is going to happen (i.e., to be on the safe side, it should at least be clearly stated next to the professor's e-mail address on their website).

Advantages:

  • The reaction (or lack thereof) has a direct effect. Some less motivated students might have a stance like "I don't care whether Professor XYZ complains about my writing style; as long as I get an answer to my request, everything is fine.", and with the (non-)reaction outlined in this answer, the point is that they do not get an answer to their request unless they send their request in an acceptable way.

Disadvantages:

  • This is implicit feedback. A student might be genuinely unaware of the degree at which they are breaching professional protocol by writing all e-mails like text messages to their best friend. I consider this a weak disadvantage, given that
    • students are young adults who should have had plenty of opportunity (including respective lessons at school ...) to learn how to properly write letters and
    • a university is generally a "pull" system; if the attempt to communicate was inappropriate, it is the student's responsibility to find out why, not the university's to readily deliver a step-by-step tutorial for something that should already be known and that can realistically be found out rather easily. Of course, it might be easy for the professor to provide instructions on how to properly write an e-mail, or even specifically point out the issues with a particular student's e-mail. However, teaching such basic text editing skills is not the purpose of a university, it should be known at least from highschool. Moreover, readily serving a correction seems detrimental, given that it does not help students develop into autonomous people who fix their own problems instead of waiting for someone else to fix them.
  • 13
    +1 for noting a university is a "pull" system. A lot of people these days seem to view it as a push system... – Mehrdad Sep 27 '15 at 21:57
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    That doesn't leave much sympathy for the poor student who spends 20 minutes crafting the perfect email and the professor forgets to put up the out-of-office reply. The email gets ignored for days and the student is left panicking through no fault of their own. – tpg2114 Sep 27 '15 at 22:51
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    A better solution might be the one we use here -- "close as unclear". Return with a note saying "I'm not sure I'm understanding your question. Could you resubmit it as readable sentences? Of catch me at office hours." Or something of that sort. Better than ignoring since it indicates what the problem was and how to fix it. File it away so you can pull it into a reply with just a few keystrokes (along with other useful form answers), and refine them as needed over time. – keshlam Sep 28 '15 at 1:57
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    I don't see this as spoon-feeding but as education in professional conduct, which I believe is part of what college is for. But I'm an engineer by philosophy; I believe in fixing the problem first, then considering its implications for theory. – keshlam Sep 28 '15 at 13:20
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    @ormapper: I agree. I just don't agree with needlessly penalizing folks who need a bit of remedial education when it's so easy instead to provide that feedback. – keshlam Sep 28 '15 at 15:09
23

I have a colleague whose signature looks like:

Dr. John Doe
Thing I Like to Study Department
University of this Country

(123) 456-7890
doej@countryu.edu

Hello students: let's communicate formally. Let's start our e-mails with a greeting,
make use of a meaningful subject line, and write in complete sentences. I think this
will make our collaboration deeper and richer. Join me. -Dr. D
  • 37
    This commits the cardinal sin of assuming people will read your bloated, junky email sig ;-) – Steve Jessop Sep 28 '15 at 10:39
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    Need an emoticon. You really need one to communicate effectively to students :D – Ooker Sep 28 '15 at 11:59
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    +1 for long signature complaint! Furthermore, some e-mail clients may even automatically hide overly long signatures! I know that this happens to me in Gmail for example quite often. – AndrejaKo Sep 28 '15 at 20:40
5

A professor should present a "Code of Conduct" to the students, along with the agenda, that explains expectations for all things like homework submission, communication, testing, labs, etc. If email is something that you expect students to treat at a formal level, they need to be told that explicitly. Some professors are very sloppy in there own style of presentation and communication. So, it is helpful for students to know all the expectations and acceptable class culture. Make sure they know that unsatisfactory attempts will not be given complete review, and will be given a generic response.

  • My favorite so far. You could answer the sloppy writen ones with only a link to the code so they will know what to do. You could tell them this is part of the teaching since they haven't learned it yet and sloppy written answers show lack of respect (this goes both ways). But don't answer the question till you got a better one. – Antitheos Sep 28 '15 at 7:04
  • "If email is something that you expect students to treat at a formal level, they need to be told that explicitly." - sorry, downvoted for this statement. I reject the assumption that everything needs to be spelled out like this; that gives rise to a culture among students to look for every tiny loophole in everything said and written instead of using some common sense. I cannot give someone a mark that allows them to graduate from a university when I have to expect they will write to their future employer's customers in chatspeak because the customers didn't explicitly say otherwise. – O. R. Mapper Sep 29 '15 at 18:33
  • every professor has different expectations. I get very informal emails from some professors. Some professors only know how to use the subject line. Some professors don't even check their email. So, it is unreasonable to expect students to know your expectations for correspondence without you telling them what it is. – farrenthorpe Sep 29 '15 at 21:01
  • @farrenthorpe: It is absolutely reasonable to expect young adults to be familiar with basic social protocols that they should have picked up at latest during highschool. Of course, different professors might have different preferences, and these things change significantly over time - but currently, assuming all-lower-case-no-orthography-chatspeak as a default for written communication unless told to do otherwise is still not a valid assumption in many parts of the world. – O. R. Mapper Sep 30 '15 at 9:17
  • your assumption of basic social protocols and its inclusion of email is highly biased and I completely disagree. As soon as you assume what students know about technology and writing, or hold it against them if they don't, you are no longer acting as a teacher but a judge. – farrenthorpe Sep 30 '15 at 13:29
4

We now offer a 2 credit required course in professional communication, but it doesn't happen early enough.

The best solution I've found is that if I don't find a student's communications to be suitable, I respond to whatever their inquiry is as best I can, and include some statement telling them that I expect them to communicate with me at a professional level.

Meeting requests are a source of frequent problems.

Student: I hope you had a nice weekend. Can we meet?

Me: Sure. What would you like to meet about.

S: I'd like to drop a course

M: What course would you like to drop?

Now, we've just had four emails instead of two, and I still have no concept of whether a meeting is really necessary or if any prep work on my part is required. If our timing is off, and the student and I are out of sync with respect to working hours, this can delay a meeting (which usually doesn't need to happen in the first place) by days.

For meeting requests in particular, I demand all the info up front, because I don't like being surprised at a meeting by needing to run down information and then have another meeting. I explain to the student that there are rarely meetings that I don't put 15 minutes of preparation into, and that if they tell me all those details, we could save a whole lot of time.

Lately, during orientation, our undergrad committee chair offers a bit of coaching on effective email communication with advisers. I hope it helps.

3

I'm a PhD student, so my emails are usually to superiors; I do expect, though, to receive quite a few emails when the TA-ing season starts. I also expect that a few emails will be at a similar level to your example.

This question raises a bit of a conundrum for me. I have two options (although many more would arise if I let common courtesy slide).

  1. I could ignore their lack of effort and just answer their question to my own standards. I am there to help them with physics, not language; my authority is negligible anyway, and I'm certainly not going to try and assert any such authority by telling them how they can or can not communicate with me. Heck, Im getting paid to help them, so I should probably stick to that.
  2. Whilst formalities are a fairly strange construct, they do exist and they do signify a level of respect (one could argue that this is equivalent to a piece of arbitrary cloth tied in a certain way around one's neck signifies professionalism - it's just something that we kind of stick with). And, as advanced as our species likes to think it is, we want to feel respected. If I were to neglect my duty to inform the student that, whilst undergraduate learning is a nice sandbox where they're free to make mistakes, contacting more important people (future PhD supervisors, potential employers, authors of relevant papers, etc) in a manner which could be deemed inappropriate can, plausibly, have some pretty harsh consequences.

This does go on the assumption that their email is actually legible and they arent actually being offensive. If it isn't, or if there are possible ambiguities in any questions, that's a great opportunity: reply, with the appropriate level of formality, and point out any interpretation issues and request that their email be reworded more explicitly.

2

A colleague of mine, in the classes she teaches, allocates a certain percentage of the grade for "professionalism". Students who send poorly written emails like your example will have points deducted in that category, on the grounds that it is unprofessional.

(Other possible deductions: asking questions that are clearly answered in the syllabus, having a phone ring in class, etc.)

  • 3
    Isn't this basically punishing students for asking questions? I think a student might ask a question that appears to be clearly answered, but just isn't clear to them? If they are bad at articulating what they don't understand, this means their grade drops (and the feedback they see isn't "you need to learn to articulate this better" but "don't ask 'stupid' questions"). On the phone ringing, there needs to be some leeway. You might have a member of emergency management in class, who needs to leave his phone on in case of emergency. I guess you might check this kind of thing in the first class. – Jerome Baum Sep 30 '15 at 1:29
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    @JeromeBaum: If this answer refers to the situation described in the question (that is, the issue with the message is poor writing style rather than the complexity of the questions), it's not punishing students for asking questions (which is what I upvoted the answer for). However, if the method described here actually penalizes the contents (beside the mere "can be found literally in the syllabus" part), I agree with you. Even then, though, not the professor has to check exceptions for the rules, but the respective students have to point out their duties. – O. R. Mapper Sep 30 '15 at 8:47
  • @O.R.Mapper I was purely referring to the parenthesized part of the answer. I agree that the students should point out their duties, if they are made aware of the rule up-front - at which point it would not hurt to say "if you need an exception, speak with me after class." But yes, it is the student's responsibility to make sure they bring up any possible exceptions. I think in general it is best if everyone does their best to cooperate and give people benefit of the doubt. :) – Jerome Baum Oct 2 '15 at 0:03
  • This can potentially silence non-vocal students and create a bad atmosphere where people tend to engage less since they can be actively punished for it. – runDOSrun May 26 '16 at 16:41
1

Other than introducing a course on Academic communication, as some of answers mention, you could recommend a book on Academic communication to students, such as this one. From my perspective, it has a lot of advice that your students may find relevant.

Next, there are parts of the netiquette that everyone shares, and there are parts that differ from professor to professor. Your personal preferences on email communication with students should go in the syllabus of your course.

-4

Your email communicates to me that you're still living in high school. Please try to communicate to your professors more formally. This exercises not only your ability to form well-crafted sentences, but conveys knowledge to your professors that you respect their time and their craft.

If the latter is not the case, then you won't be able to depend on timely (or perhaps even proper) answers in return.

[Edit: Sorry I can't but help keep that first sentence. Rewrite as proper.]

  • 13
    I think passively-aggressively insulting the students is not a good idea. – Davidmh Sep 28 '15 at 9:24
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    I also think high school students should know not to write e-mails like that. – gerrit Sep 28 '15 at 11:21

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