Professor, Heal thyself! On unprofessionalism and lack of empathy in (complaints about) student emails

A recent op-ed in the Guardian, entitled “I’m not LMAO at ridiculous student emails” lodges a familiar complaint: students don’t know how to communicate with professors in a professional manner, flaunting reasonable social codes and ignoring professors busy lives outside the classroom. Such ignorance and lack of decorum will surely hinder these students future efforts in the workplace.

The bitter irony is that in nearly all of these pieces (and there are many) the professor  sorely lacks the very qualities they bemoan as deficient in their students.

Lack of professionalism: Here I am guided by Siva Vaidhyanathan’s idea that “the classroom is a sacred space.” If students can’t feel safe enough to express what is wrong or incomplete about their thinking, their learning experience will be needlessly limited and deficient.  If a professor never gets to see what students know, don’t know, and what they know which isn’t so, then the professor is merely sending a golden record out into the great unknown, hoping students are learning, but never knowing for sure. Even if we regard our job as conveying knowledge, we need to respect the inevitable ignorant failures of our students and not take student work in a semi-private, and yes, sacred, space, whether in the classroom, on a test or paper, and mock it in a public forum. Mocking student work or communication to a professor in a public forum is unprofessional and reflects poorly on how a professor regards the learning process and their role in it. Is it good practice to anonymize student writing and then mock it in front of the class? Of course not. Why is it then ok to do the same in front of a much larger audience of a national newspaper? Do you want to improve student writing? Teach them how to write a better sentence, don’t chuckle at their ignorance on twitter. Do you want to improve student’s emails? Teach them how to write a better one. Don’t publish their private communication to you in the newspaper, anonymous or not. Just a year ago, Jesse Stommel’s response to the Chronicle Vitae’s Dear Student series makes many similar points, but also emphasizes the necessity of empathy. For Stommel and many others, empathy is a critical part of the profession of teaching.

Lack of empathy: While professors bemoan that students don’t seem to understand that professors are people too (people who hate emojis, aren’t up at 2 am, and don’t respond to emails on weekends). Here is the Guardian writer:

The ultimate email, now legendary in my office, was from a postgraduate student on the day of her viva. We’d spent weeks trying to coordinate the meeting, getting the right people from different campuses to the same place at the same time. We managed to schedule half an hour, and impressed upon the student how important it was that we started promptly at noon. We waited, waited some more, and after a full 15 minutes an email arrived: “Running late. Put a potato in the oven for lunch and it isn’t ready yet.”

Disrespect is one thing, but when someone prioritises a baked potato over you, it feels like contempt.

According to Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I can assure you, this potato is not just a potato. The professor who complains that students don’t understand basic social considerations doesn’t seem to know the first thing about the psychology of being a student. A postgraduate student on the day of her viva is a nervous wreck. I assume like in the US, this is an in-person oral exam with a committee of impressive faculty with the express purpose of judging one’s work and merits as a scholar. A postgraduate student who has been “impressed upon” the importance of a meeting is not prioritising a baked potato. That student is a mess. A student who has worked hard for years in a field, gaining expertise, passing exams, demonstrating readiness in many ways (you didn’t let that student schedule a viva without helping prepare her, did you?) was so nervous she couldn’t get to the ultimate moment on time. You could have taken that student aside and said, “You’ve worked so hard, it’s going to be fine, we’re on your side. Anxiety is natural, but you’ve practiced and people get through this.” But no, you made that embarrassing call for help “legendary in your office,” and now decided that the student deserved wider embarrassment. That, to me, looks more like contempt than wasting 15 minutes of you and your colleagues time and following it up with a obviously meager excuse.

Lack of understanding of the changing nature of communication: When I entered college in 1994 the web was young. There was no Facebook (not even Friendster yet), no Google,  and one of the most popular websites, Yahoo, looked like this., circa December 1996

Most people did not have cell phones, so there was no texting. Since then, Facebook went from nothing, to something only Ivy League college students had access to, to something the world uses for social and professional networking and communication.  I’ve seen professional collaborations begin on Twitter. When I talk with one of my twin boys, who are 12, he tells me that he follows CNN on Snapchat. Yet we professors too often think that the social conventions of professional communication change as slowly as we do. So a professor who thinks it should be obvious to a student to not to use emojis? Probably doesn’t understand that before college, students are likely to have at least one teacher who has used emojis in a communication with them. A professor who assumes it is ridiculous that a student writes an email as if texting? Probably doesn’t realize that there are now systems (like Remind, or Celly) that intentionally blur that distinction, so that a teacher can send an email which appears to students as a text, or students can text which gets routed to a teacher’s email. Young students have even experienced change in communication rules, when Grandma starts texting, or Dad gets on instagram. Students don’t recognize that line not just because they are ignorant, but sometimes because they have a more varied experience than most professors. So when a student defaults to informality, it may be because keeping the different communications preferences of every adult in their lives is nearly impossible, and the world has just as often adjusted to their preferences as the other way around (as has been true for every generation time immemorial).

Further, when professors see shorthand communication as inherently informal and disrespectful, they are ignoring that such shorthand is a common and logical adaptation of language. It was common in Morse code to use shorthand such as: “Hw r u ts mng?” And the answer would be: “I’m pty wl; hw r u?” Taking student communication seriously as a complex adaptation rather than ignorant carelessness might be a good first step in helping them learn to communicate with us. The linguist John McWhorter puts it well in his TED Talk on why text language is no cause for alarm:

Let’s think about it. LOL is being used in a very particular way. It’s a marker of empathy. It’s a marker of accommodation. We linguists call things like that pragmatic particles. Any spoken language that’s used by real people has them. 

The first step towards teaching students must be by understanding and respect what they bring to the learning process, whether it is vocabulary or background knowledge, cultural approaches or misconceptions. Taking student communication seriously is a great first step.

So what would a compassionate, professional and understanding approach to fixing the “student email problem?” look like? There are some good resources out there in the deep scold sea, but here are the basic outlines of mine:

It would begin early in the semester with a short: “This is how you can communicate with me and what you can expect from me.” Along with recognizing that some of our communication rules might be idiosyncratic, it might be useful to students to identify some rules of thumb for communicating with all professors. For example I tell my students that a generally safe, respectful and gender-neutral salutation is “Dear Professor <spellsmynameright>,”  and that “hey” is never appropriate for a first email to a professor. I’m a psychologist, so I also use this as an excuse to highlight James Pennebaker’s fascinating work on psycholinguistics of pronouns.

Second, such a lesson is sadly not a universally effective vaccine against future cases of the HeySorryLOLs. Students will still send inappropriate emails, often informally joking about a failure of theirs, missing class, assignments, etc. When this happens, I see two choices: One, send back an email noting that while you are sympathetic to the students unfortunate and perhaps misspelled experiences, this is not the appropriate way to communicate with professors, and that attendance in class is important for their learning. I tend to think modeling appropriate communication while valuing and prioritizing their learning is the best course here.

A second option would be to ask the student to come meet in person. I tend to think that the more ridiculous the email, the more important it is to choose this option. Ms. Potato didn’t need mockery, she needed a mentor to both reassure her on her general competence and preparedness as well as note (in a firm and concerned way) that such tardiness and excuses might have lasting consequences to her credibility in future circumstances.

I agree with the closing of the Guardian op-ed arguing that universities should teach students to write better emails when they don’t know how. But along the way we should recognize that just as small potatoes make poor excuses, public mockery makes poor pedagogy.

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