Teaching professionalism one email etiquette lesson at a time

Years ago, I conducted research about the strategic uses of email at work. My colleague and I interviewed a bunch of folks about how they employ the “power CC” (aka copying an authority figure on an email) and the blind copy function, and of course, the irritation and mortification of mis-sent Reply-Alls. It was fascinating to dig into a mundane but pervasively annoying topic.

A thread of those conversations included email etiquette and the growing absence of it. Oh and P.S. this was pre-social media taking over our lives. Facebook wasn’t available to non-university students yet, and the first iphone had just come out.

Fast forward nine years. The semester ends in two weeks and student emails are increasing exponentially. Last week I received three emails from three different students that started out the same way…

“I see you gave me a 0 on this assignment…”  No greeting. Accusatory tone. Instant annoyance on my part.

I let the first couple messages go, waiting to respond until I could do so without snark. (It took awhile.) But by the third I felt compelled to say something. To all of my classes. Again.

I thought back to that email research study and how the people interviewed complained about email etiquette but never said anything to annoying emailers. I thought about how many annoying emails I receive from colleagues and friends, and how I never say anything. As a professor, I want my students to leave the university knowing how to communicate professionally, and understanding how their messages make people feel.

Last week, I confessed that I was getting many emails that made my face look like this:
no-thumbI asked students to make inquiries politely and recall our previous discussions of etiquette.

Throughout the semester, I refer to “professionalism” policies outlined in the syllabus, which include how to write a proper email. Yes, a step-by-step guide to writing email with advisements about subject lines, proper greetings, clear and concise messaging, and appropriate sign-offs. I’ve stopped assuming that students get this information growing up or in other classes.

I appreciate that the message seems to have sunk in for now as recent emails have been exceedingly polite. Even if they’re just humoring me, I’ll take it at this point in the semester!

–dr. shawna

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