Email Etiquette and Higher Education

I’ve examined a number of faculty posts over the last few years, tweets and Facebook updates, blogs and essays, relating how poorly students communicate with faculty. I’ve had conversation with faculty, my peers, who have various policies for handling questionable emails. I’ve tried to examine my own email styles along the way. As our global society moves more into digital communication, electronic media becoming as important as verbal communication, there is a growing body of evidence we are becoming less nuanced about interpreting messages, and perhaps more sensitive over word choices, tone, and general content. I overheard a basketball coach state recently, “My girls will text each other all day long and never say an actual word, and when I want them to talk to each other on the basketball court, they don’t know how, or won’t.”

txtmsgElectronic communication is easy to misconstrue. Emails and text messages are not nuanced; we bring a priori knowledge to a text message email and overlay a tone biased with our own experiences. There is no body language or vocal tones to derive wit, sarcasm, anger, concern. We may read an email using an internal voice of a child, e.g. “I can’t find the syllabus – waaa!” or in the voice of a parent who spoke to us in a demeaning tone. Because we (faculty) bring a personal bias – due to life experience, honestly – to these forms of messages we erroneously infer the student is being rude or condescending without that necessarily being the case.

About two years ago, I stopped being antagonized over what could easily be taken as rude emails from students. Or, really, I mentally stepped-back and made a choice to be less antagonized by what I could easily interpret as blatantly rude emails from students. I decided I would take these emails at face value: crude emails written by a young person who has no idea how they are coming across potentially as a result of having no exposure or experience in creating professional or formal emails. With so much emphasis on testing, I’m not sure how much training or education high school students have received on something as simple yet meaningful as authoring an email.

Thus, when I get an email I don’t like I take a moment, re-write the email for the student, compare and contrast their email with mine, and then let them know their email was not acceptable for communication with a professional of any type. Below, I provide an announcement I provide to one of my online courses based on a series of recent emails.


I’ve handled a number of emails over the weekend and this morning sharing a common theme: the emails come across as rude.

An example. If your email looks like the following, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a reply back from a faculty person, or you get a reply that is … terse.

“I need the code for Pearson.”

“I want the code for Pearson.”

“i can’t find the code you are talking about.”

If your emails look like that then do not send them. Do not send them until you rewrite them. These are not appropriate emails to send to a professional person, faculty or not. Hopefully, emails like this would not be sent to a potential employer. If you wouldn’t send an email like the above to a boss, supervisor, or someone with whom you are setting up an interview, then don’t send the email to faculty.

I don’t really blame students for rude emails. I often wonder what example they are using for composing emails, or if students even have an example to work from.

When communicating with professionals – and all faculty are professionals – students need to engage faculty as such, at least until the faculty person is known well-enough to be able to send conversational emails. I’ve taught at Murray State since 1993 and one of the common complaints I hear from faculty is the increasing rudeness of students and the use of text message-style emails to communicate. 

Instead, compose emails similar to:

“Hi, Mr. Busby;

I was wondering where I might find the Pearson code. I was wondering where I might find the syllabus. I was wondering why Alpha House didn’t win a Golden Globe award. Could you assist? Thanks!”

-Bob Student”

Let’s set aside the concern the information requested is probably already available on Canvas for a moment. An email like the above is far more likely to leave a good impression with faculty and is far more polite than the initial requests which come across as demands.

Always make sure you consult all course documents before you go about asking questions. That is a huge help.

I am posting this announcement to help you, to improve the probability of getting positive feedback not only from faculty but everyone in a position of authority.


[End of Announcement]

To clarify, the three examples I open with were all real examples of emails I received – in their entirety. That’s correct; a single line. No salutation, nothing in the Subject: line, and no closing or signature. What you read above is word-for-word the complete email, including the lower-case “i” in the third example.

I have a rule in my syllabus reserving the right NOT to reply to emails that are not professional /  formal or have gross misspellings. But, here is what happens. I don’t reply to the emails, the students complain to administration, chairs, VPs of Online Learning, etc. I then get a phone call from the chair or the VP asking why I am being rude to students. Then, I have to explain myself. The other circumstance I’ve dealt with concerns course evaluations. A student may not call or email (of all things, students email to complain. I always wonder that those emails look like…) but they wait until “Evaluation of Online Course” time rolls around. I then received very low marks in areas of communication. Our evaluation system is color-coded; obviously any red is going to be eye-catching. I then get a phone or email from a chair, dean, or VP of Online Learning inquiring about the nature of personal problem with students and if I want to continue employment I need to improve my attitude.

Higher Education being turned on its head by bureaucracy so education is now sacrificed to ensure happy students and course content now falls within the domain of administrators might be a topic for a future essay. To keep things basic for this post, I’ll simply state some colleges have administrations which will advocate in favor of students, imposing the burden of proof onto faculty.

To close out this post, I’ll ask a question on your behalf: “Since you have been re-writing student emails, how have your students responded?

I’d like to say students have without a doubt, unanimously, been appreciative. I can’t say that. Sometimes, I get a “thank you. You are right; I forgot.” Sometimes, the emails improve, sometimes they don’t. The student who offered Example #3 above actually replied with, “How am I rude? My email was not rude?” I then sent another, even more detailed email than the content of the announcement above. The reply I received was, “I’ve never had a problem before. My teachers like me.” The response of this student indicates far more to me about the intellectual processing power present within the student than I really want to stop and consider.


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