Dear Students: I am not your friend, buddy. Or your buddy, guy.

Email etiquette, particularly when students are emailing their professors, is more of an issue than you may think.  While it often does not make its way onto course syllabi, behind closed doors we freely gripe about student emails that a) are written as though we are a close friend of the student, b) lack any sort of recognizable syntax or are written entirely in Internet/1337 h4XX0rsp33k, and/or c) lack a signature or other indication of who is actually emailing us.  For instance:


Time: 5 minutes before class begins

Subject: [No Subject]

im running late lol whats the hw again???? bts

Sent from Blackberry.

There is a lot wrong with this picture.

Now, I try to establish a rapport with my students.  I want to know about their majors, their interests, their thoughts about other subjects as well as Composition & Rhetoric.  I believe that this creates an exceptional classroom dynamic, as students then feel more comfortable talking about the sorts of uncomfortable issues that often arise in my courses, such as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, to name a few.  That said, when I open emails like the one above, I want to murder the student who sent it, if I could just figure out who it was.

I’m starting to think that a lesson on email etiquette is in order, perhaps a mini-lesson or exercise early in the semester, with brief do’s & don’ts.  Do include a greeting and a signature; do punctuate; do use correct capitalization and grammar (for God’s sake, you’re emailing your writing professor); do make clear what exactly you’re emailing me about and why.  Don’t email me from your Blackberry (and DO NOT send assignments and essays from your Blackberry!); don’t email me 5 minutes before class (or even a couple of hours before class), as I may not be around to check my email; don’t use Internet slang, for the love of God.

Ultimately, I am your professor.  I am teaching you Composition & Rhetoric.  I like you, and I want you to feel that you can approach me, but I am not your friend, I don’t email you as though I am your friend, and you should email me as though I am your professor, because, ultimately, I am.

At the same time, I don’t blame the students entirely.  Their chief mode of composition occurs via Internet or cell phone, and consequently is based on slang, lowercase letters, and stream-of-consciousness writing.  It’s almost as though they use email not just to convey or request information, but to record a specific moment in their lives and communicate it.  Furthermore, it isn’t as though they don’t recognize the need for formality.  Their formal writing emerges without fail when they’re requesting grade estimates or explanations or contesting something or the other.  So perhaps a mini-lesson is all that’s needed, just to remind them that formality is expected in all emails to professors and other figures of authority, and not just in the emails where they’re stepping into potentially uncomfortable or upsetting territory.

I imagine this lesson would involve drafting an email as they would to a friend, and then “translating” it into a formal email to a professor.  We could discuss how to make formal writing a little more casual; I may even use my own pre-class emails as models, where I straddle the formal and the casual.  (That is, contractions are okay, as are parentheses, dashes, and even an occasional fragment for effect.)  In partners, students could role-play “student” and “professor,” where the “professor” emails a request to the “student,” who has to appropriately respond, and then vice-versa.  It would be good practice, to say the least.

Some of my colleagues in the past have simply said they will not respond to “incorrect” or “inappropriate” emails, however they define those two words.  I’m wondering if it would give me less of a headache to make this announcement after the mini-lesson on email etiquette.  At the same time, I know that, no matter how much I strive to be a hard-ass, I’m kind of softhearted and wouldn’t be able to ignore a panicky request from a student about a paper or assignment, even in the face of atrocious grammar.  It’s clear they’re pleading with us, and I can’t turn them away.  I just want them to plead in a more structured, coherent way.  I mean, this is Composition & Rhetoric, after all.

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This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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