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E-mail impoliteness dilemma

Call me old-fashioned, but I find it disappointing and disturbing when I receive a student e-mail without the customary expressions of politeness. Any request not accompanied by the words “please” and “thank you” creates an unpleasant resonance in my mind’s ear.

Here is a case in point from an actual student e-mail: “Let me know if you have any other ideas, [student first name]”

To be fair, I receive such e-mails very infrequently–in general, I am quite impressed with our students’ etiquette and social graces. That’s why I find those infrequent displays of a lack of civility so upsetting. Every time such an unfortunate event happens, I am faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, I am not that student’s parent, and it is not my responsibility to educate the student on the conventions of proper e-mail communication. On the other hand, I realize that once in the real world, such a communication style may hinder the student’s professional career.

Prior to grad school, I worked in industry for several years. Therefore, I am familiar with professional environments both in industry and academia, and I can attest that the issues of politeness and grace in business communication are of paramount importance. I also realize that someone utterly civil and polite in face-to-face interactions may not realize the importance of adhering to the same principles in e-mail communication.

I usually try to lead by example and reply with punctuated politeness, hoping to convey my point this way. Interestingly, the strategy works well in the majority of cases. At the same time, I wonder if by not confronting the problem up front, I may be hurting the student’s long term chances of success. I could definitely use some advice on the matter.

Categories: teaching
  1. John Regehr
    March 15, 2011 at 12:10 am

    I think we all face this. It’s scary to think of these students being released into industry: “hey boss man– takin the day off– later!!!!”

    Confronting the problem is likely to be painful and students will be annoyed and/or offended. It really is a culture clash. I think that leading by example and making some simple expectations clear is the best way. For example, I generally tell students that all written communication from them will be in full English sentences. This applies to email, homework, exam responses, etc. As you say, most of them have no trouble with this.

  2. March 15, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    You are a teacher, this is a teachable moment. Hence,…

  3. Nonnawk Cannon
    August 9, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Greetings. What you find here is a long version of the above reply. When I look back over the years of my formal education, I can say that it was not a complete waste of time and energy, but that is very cloe to being the size of it. There was almost no inspired teaching whatsoever, and there was a great deal of disrespectful so-called teaching. There are so many things that young people need to know to make a successful life for themselves, and many of these things require adult mentoring-not just parental mentoring. Childern can teach themselves a great deal, but not everything. If parents themselves were not mentored, they will not have much of use to pass on to their children. And if teachers then insist that it is up to the parents, where does that leave the children? As I see it, the choice is not whether or not to do the needed mentoring. The choice then for “true” teachers becomes whether to do the needed ‘remedial’ work where civility (or anything else) is concerned with kindness, wisdom, and respect or to do it with reluctance, guilt, and judgment. Make no mistake. If teachers bring all this unresolved “attitude” to the situation, the student will register it and this will undermine the teaching process. So, basically no mentoring is better than judgmental mentoring with an attitude, even though the need may be great. I can’t help but think that “true” teachers have (for the sake of their students) a responsibiilty to pick up the slack and to do it in a way that is fully respectful. Please, find a way to drop all the “upset” and reluctance about it all and respectully and lovingly do what you can to help these people prepare themselves for adult life. Is there really much else that you need to keep in mind? This and the students (regardless of age) “freedom of choice” to be mentored or not to be mentored are what constitute the mandate … at least as I see it. And, of course, as you likely know, the mandate (if that is not too large a word to use) would include helping both children and willing adults to prepare themsevles for a civil and successful adulthood. Thank you for bringing this subject up!

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