My only problem with email is the quantity

Maybe it’s Minnesota, or maybe it’s me, but this situation with professors complaining about student email doesn’t really affect me. It’s been my experience here that UMM students are usually friendly and trouble-free with email (haven’t you heard? We’re all nice up here!), and I even welcome the complaints—I’d rather hear from the students than not hear from them, especially if they’re worried about something. I also like my email terse and to the point, so I’m not at all discomfited by a message that would be rudely abrupt if said to my face.

One thing would absolutely drive me nuts, though, and it’s this horrible piece of advice.

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor’s response to an e-mail message.

“One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back,” Professor Worley said.

Ugh. Email is a communication medium, and the less we clutter it up with rank and power and hierarchical crap the better; there’s enough real power disparity between me and my students that I don’t need it acknowledged, and I’d prefer it were minimized. As for bouncing back with a superfluous “thank you”…no, thank you. That’s just noise in the channel, one more scrap of clutter in my mailbox.

(via The Washington Monthly)

I think Tim Burke and I agree on this one, and I note in the comments that Worley was misquoted—what she was suggesting is actually much more reasonable.


  1. says

    Huh, maybe it IS because you’re in Minnesota. I happened to write about my frustration with student emails yesterday, and a commenter pointed me to the NYT article this afternoon. The lack of formality (such as instant message spelling, as in “u” instead of “you”; or “Hey Prof” instead of “Dear Dr. Hussy”), the emails at midnight before an exam demanding an answer “ASAP”, the requests for lecture notes because they missed class… all drive me insane.

  2. says

    I don’t mind quantity a bit, but I teach at a small school and don’t have an additional . I actually wish most students would e-mail me more … it beats trying to play phone tag. Lack of formality doesn’t bother me so much, but if the spelling is so bad that I can’t tell what the student is saying, *then* it bugs me.

    My student e-mail pet peeves are:

    * Students forget to identify themselves. Sorry, but I really don’t know who is…

    * Students assume that I carry all the textbooks for my classes around 24/7. I’ve gotten e-mails at 10:30 PM from students who need “the answer to number 67”. While I might be dedicated, I don’t keep the books in my living room every night. Now if they included the actual *question*, maybe I could help …

    * Students start off “I’m in your chemistry class and … [usually some question about an assignment]”. Well of course it’s my chemistry class – all I teach are chemistry classes. *Which* one the student was in might help…

  3. Rosie says

    I’m a university student and the rules I try to go by are causing as little inconvenience to the person emailing (if it’s someone like a professor) as possible. So I don’t usually email back “thank you” in reply to a quick factual query or similar because I figure most of the time they would rather answer the question and forget about it than waste more of their time reading and deleting another email.

    If they did something particular to help me beyond a quick one-line reply or I had to write back anyway I would of course thank them.

  4. says

    I checked out the article. Wow, what a bunch of whiners! What kind of accomplished academic and skilled teacher needs to have their ego validated by the “deference” of a bunch of 19-year-olds?

    But student e-mail can go too far, said Robert B. Ahdieh, an associate professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta. He paraphrased some of the comments he had received: “I think you’re covering the material too fast, or I don’t think we’re using the reading as much as we could in class, or I think it would be helpful if you would summarize what we’ve covered at the end of class in case we missed anything.”

    That’s going too far? A professor is so totally convinced that his teaching style is the One True Way, that he can’t take criticism from his students? It’s not even face-to-face! He’s not obliged to do anything about it!

    Maybe it’s different for me because I’m a language instructor rather than a PhD/ivory tower type, but I consider communication with my students to be the main focus of my job. I give my cell number to my students so that they can SMS me with any questions, in case they don’t know how to use email. (I live in Southeast Europe and computer access and literacy are much rarer here.)

    When my students do get in touch with me, I take it as a sign that they’re interested and invested enough in my class to make the effort. That means I’m doing something right.

  5. Clare says

    Email doesn’t bother me. It works well when students use it to ask good questions, or send along additional material they’ve found on a topic. Almost all are polite; some are even obsequious (not something I encourage). The stupid emails are the ones which if their contents were spoken would be equally stupid: lame excuses for missing class or assignments; or repeated requests for the syllabus or handouts; the odd rant from time to time. In other words, they’re nothing new! I’m as troubled as anyone about the rise of the “consumer model” of education, but I’m not convinced that email is by any means the worst symptom of this.

  6. kutsuwamushi says

    As a student, I often feel awkward emailing my professors since it’s impossible to know what they personally find annoying. This just makes me want to bang my head against the wall. (At least the quote wasn’t actually that dumb.)

    Another tip, learned the hard way:

    Don’t use your favorite pseudonym on your email account if there’s even a remote chance of a non-native English speaker mistaking it as something to do with porn.

  7. Loris says

    As a graduate student teaching a junior-level course (uncommon at my institution) I am more friendly/familiar with my students than I would be if I were an actual professor. The students mostly address me by my first name in class or office hours, but I find they’re more formal in e-mail. For instance, using my last name, attaching the title Dr. or Ms, etc. I rarely complain about informal e-mails, but I do tell them that they need to use something close to standard English with punctuation when communicating in an academic/professional environment.

    The other thing I tell them is that they need an email address for school and other professional type communications that is at the least non-offensive/vulgar. My suggestion is often to open a university account that is their first initial and last name. Professors may look askance at e-mails from, and if you use your name for e-mails of this type, I know who you are.

    I think the only time I corrected a student (briefly, friendly, after class) he e-mailed Mrs. Instructor, not Ms. and I told him I wasn’t married, so the Mrs. did not apply to me. Shockingly, he didn’t know Mrs. is only for married women, and thanked me for clarification.

  8. says

    Don’t use your favorite pseudonym on your email account if there’s even a remote chance of a non-native English speaker mistaking it as something to do with porn.

    Heh. That’s the flip side of something one of my labmates experienced; her perfectly good Vietnamese name was unfortunately a homonym of a word that tripped our prof’s Anglo-centric porn filter. As a result, she never could be sure whether or not any given one of her mails were getting through to him.

  9. Loris says

    Just for an inappropriate e-mail tidbit, after the Sox won the world series I received an e-mail from one of my students informing me he would be missing class for the rest of the week because he would be in a “drunken stupor” “go Sox, HELL yeah!” I was amazed a student would admit such a thing to the instructor. I just wondered if they e-mail professors such things?

  10. says

    As a student, I often feel awkward emailing my professors since it’s impossible to know what they personally find annoying.

    I wouldn’t worry much about it. Most instructors will love it if you simply identify yourself, tell what class you’re in (if it’s a question about class) and ask away. It also helps to use regular sentences rather than IM-speak, since some instructors are old farts who don’t und4erstand it.

    And if your instructor is younger than 50, chances are he or she will welcome an e-mail much more than a phone call in any case!

  11. says


    You’re lucky then. I’m not even a professor, just a grad student with teaching duties, and I find that student e-mails are a huge pain in the rear. My issue has very little to do with formality and informality. I don’t really care about that, as long as I can make sense of what they’re trying to say that’s all that matters in terms of style or form. My problem is that I get angry e-mails from students who did poorly on assignments (or people begging me to raise their mark), I get e-mails from people who chronically skip class and want me to go over what was discussed, I even get e-mails asking me to help people cheat. For every e-mail I get that has a legitimate question or concern, I get three that are, for all intents and purposes, a waste of my time.

  12. C says

    Maybe 5% of e-mails I get from students are weird or inappropriate, and even those are, in their way, informative. I think it’s a boon. Anything that gives you more information on what students are thinking helps you teach better, and anything that encourages them to communicate helps them. I urge them to send me essay drafts for comment and I wish more did.

    The only frequent faux pas is people asking me to reply “ASAP” or being in other ways overly importunate.

  13. says

    The only frequent faux pas is people asking me to reply “ASAP” or being in other ways overly importunate.

    That reminds me of a series of about five e-mails I got from one student that were spaced less than ten minutes apart wanting me to respond immediately. They were all sent between 2 and 3 AM the morning before a test!

  14. Kitty says

    Socialist Swine, I’m with you there. I teach several intro-bio lab sections, and I receive hundreds of utterly incoherent emails every semester.

    This afternoon, one of my students actually wrote, “cudl u hepl me make up the labzzz i skip thanx” and I’m sorry to say that the majority of emails I receive are of similar quality.

    I really like answering thoughtful and sincere student emails, but the signal-to-noise ratio is kind of phenomenal.

  15. says

    One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back

    I believe that’s called arrogance? Give me a break. If a student emails a professor and the professor responds, it’s not like the student goes around telling all is friends how they’re more important than the professor.

  16. Emily says

    I’m a grad student and this is my first semester teaching, and the thing I’ve noticed about student emails is that the amount I receive increases exponentially two days before the deadline for a big project that they’ve had one entire month to work on.

  17. says


    Have you ever had a student e-mail you and offer you money (especially a ridiculously low sum like $20) for an answer key? I’ve had that happen three or four times. I seriously don’t know what some people are thinking.

  18. Kitty says

    SS, Bwah! Yes, i am familiar with the tiny, tiny bribe – and the frantic backpedaling that follows a mention of the phrase “academic judiciary.”

    Along similar lines, I had a student who brought assignments from her other classes to my office hours and asked me to do them for her. She suggested that we discuss the material over lunch – her treat. (Wow! Lunch? Seriously? You mean, like, a sandwich?) At least she had the sense not to put the offer in writing.

  19. says


    I’ve had similar experiences with people bringing in their homework from completely unrelated classes asking me for “help”. I’ve actually had people do that during tutorials. One time, while I was teaching a class Venn diagrams I had someone start asking me questions about theology. When I asked them why they thought that was related to what we were doing, they admitted that they were working on a paper unrelated to the class and thought that I could help them.

    I have no idea why they thought that.

  20. says

    She suggested that we discuss the material over lunch – her treat. (Wow! Lunch? Seriously? You mean, like, a sandwich?)

    How difficult was it to resist the temptation? I remember how well grad school paid … :)

  21. Theo Bromine says

    Why is it surprising that a 1st year student would ask for advice regarding binders vs notebooks? She probably spent the previous 12 years of her life having teachers tell her (for reasons that probably often appeared abitrary and sometimes contradictory) what kind of note-taking aparatus she should use, and here she was, cut loose and having to *decide for herself*. What if she made a mistake?

  22. says

    One thing that happened with student emails and my duties as a TA was receiving student assignments that way. One of the instuctors I TA’d for let students hand in assignments via email, which was fine mailquota wise, but forgot to tell students to use this or that format, so I had to deal with telling a student that his paper in Lyx was unsuitable. (I don’t care that it is a free download!)

  23. PaulC says

    The only Meg Worley that comes to mind used to post on rec.arts.books as Emory’s Oldest Living Freshman, and that was way back, over 10 years ago anyway. If she’s now an assistant prof, she must be the Oldest Living Academic Without Tenure.

  24. lovable liberal says

    The Meg Worley quote may indeed be a misquote or a blended quote, but it is so Meg-like that I believe its accuracy even if it’s imprecise.

  25. Nix says

    It is that Meg Worley, and she’s been bombarded with email calling her an idiot for, er, saying something she didn’t actually say…

  26. says

    A few months ago, Cory Doctorow wrote something on Boingboing that I’ve found useful.

    When corresponding with busy people who don’t bother much about formalities, put your terse message in the subject line and leave the letter empty.

    “OK, go ahead”, “Sorry, I don’t know” and “Thanks dude, IOU1” are examples.

  27. James says

    Is it the general rule in the US that students address lecturers as Dr… or Prof…?

    In the UK it is very rare for a student and lecturer not to be on first name terms.