Email and Your Students: Adjusting the Content of Their Communications

Email and Your Students: Adjusting the Content of Their Communications

Brianne Neptin

Coordinator, Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program, College of the Environment & Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island

Oh, email. How I loathe you, all the while using you as my preferred method of communication. I’m not afraid to admit it. I’ll take email over a phone call any day. I’m awkward on the phone. I stumble over myself. I ramble endlessly. It’s awful. Yesterday, I left a message for a colleague. After I hung up the phone I realized I never said my name. I’m currently hoping he recognized my voice because I’m fairly positive calling again, just to leave my name, is even more awkward.

With email though, I can correct what I write. I can obsess over every last sentence. I can worry about the reaction my word choice will elicit and then adjust it. My name is part of my automatic signature at the end of each work email. Email is wonderful.

Email is wonderful, right up until the moment you receive one from a student and it begins “Yo.” (And, I’m not being overly dramatic here.) I get “yo,” “hey,” or worse yet, nothing at all in the spot where a greeting should go. I am not your friend and this is not a text message.

I also know that I am not alone. You get these emails too. So the question we all have is: once we’ve gotten that email, what do we do about it?

I’m not a fan of modeling behavior in this particular situation. I don’t believe that it works. You simply are not emailing enough with that student and you cannot be sure your colleagues are helping to create a united front, so it doesn’t sink in.

If you do not want a student emailing you like they are texting a friend, you have to come out and say it. There are two ways to do this. First, you can write it out in the syllabus (you know, that packet of dead trees you hand each student that they unceremoniously stuff in their bag and never read). Or, you can stand in front of them and spell it out. If you are working in a support office, make it part of the student worker training.

I actually dedicate an entire lesson in my freshman seminar course to proper email etiquette. I start with giving them a reason to be concerned about how they email various people. I set the stage using a scenario that is easy for them to pictures themselves in. Over the course of the next year or two, they will decide they want to gain experience by working for one of their professors. “You won’t be the only student with this idea, so who do you think is most likely to get a reply from the professor? Is it going to be the student who hastily wrote a single sentence email ‘Do you have space in your lab because I am looking for a job.’? Or, do you think it’s the student that started with Dear Dr. Smith, and continued with ‘I’m really interested in your research on X because I find Y to be very exciting. I am hoping you might have space in your lab next semester. Would it be possible to meet and discuss this further?’?

We all need a little buy-in to pay attention and hunting for research opportunities is a situation most of my students will quickly face. Unfortunately, they don’t understand how much they are judged on their behavior since they are typically surrounded by people who behave the exact same way they do. In a professional environment, it is very different, especially when the person they are emailing is judging their fit for an internship.

Then I give examples on both good and bad emails. My bad email example is the one type of email I get all the time and one of the biggest errors in it makes me never want to reply.


Where do I find the application for the Costal Fellowship program??


That was the entire email. Not overly horrible, but not the greatest. Then, there is the fatal mistake. I coordinate the COASTAL and Environmental Fellowship program. Most people tend to drop the “and Environmental” so that is not an issue. The problem is not spell checking the part of the organization’s name that was being included. It was also spelled wrong in the subject line, so even as I clicked to open the email my expectations were low. Do you take emails seriously when your name or your organization/office’s name is spelled wrong?

Finally, I give step-by-step instructions for how to write a professional email. If someone has never done something before, they need to be shown how to do it properly the first time. We did not implicitly know how to write a professional email, therefore we cannot expect our students to know how without being told how.

At the end of the class where I delivered the session this year, there were a lot of blank stares, but one student actually asked for a critique of her last email to me. So I know it hit home with at least one student.

If you aren’t sure where to start, there are plenty of resources on the internet about email etiquette. There are also a fair amount of internet forums and articles lamenting the state of the college student email, so if you need more convincing that How to Email 101 is a necessary course…it’s out there.

Brianne Neptin

Coordinator, Coastal and Environmental Fellowship Program, College of the Environment & Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island