Do We Use Email, or Does Email Use Us?

Email. It was supposed to save us time–a quick email instead of “snail mail” will be SO MUCH FASTER–but has instead taken more of that precious commodity than we could have ever anticipated. That’s the paradox of technology: sometimes innovations that were intended to be time-savers end up being time-suckers instead. Email is the perfect example of this. It’s not just easy, it’s too easy. Have a textbook for sale? Send an email. Don’t feel like walking down the hall to engage in actual human conversation? Send an email. Want to rant and rave, but find it hard to gather an audience? Send an email! Before you know it, our Outlook inboxes are groaning under the weight of everyone’s electronic id in message form. And that’s not even counting all of the messages generated by a reply-all message chain where everyone is telling everyone else to stop using reply-all.

This gives me hives just looking at it.

The problem, though, is that floating in the sea of listserv announcements, campus community posts, and out-of-office replies are emails that are actually important. But it’s so easy and convenient for everyone to send emails that our inboxes expand too quickly for us to prioritize and respond to the messages that require it. Most of us on campus could spend the better part of every day merely processing and responding to emails, and still not be caught up. So how do we manage? Do we budget our time on email, or does it expand to fill every available minute of our day, like air into a vacuum? And, more importantly, how can we make sure that we’re using email in ways that still allow us to communicate and meet the needs of the most important constituency–our students?

There are some relatively simple ways to save time (for both ourselves and others) by using what we might call “responsible” emailing methods. Are our messages clear? Does the subject line tell our readers what the message involves? (Something like “response” or “howdy” probably doesn’t.) Email is a different genre than longform; are we making our readers go through three paragraphs to find the question or actionable item? And please, please, consider the ramifications before using the “reply all” option to an email message.

Moreover, there are some special considerations for email etiquette when it comes to students. Email works as it’s supposed to (quick, easy, convenient) when both parties use it properly. That’s why, for example, it’s worth the time to go over email “ground rules” with our students at the beginning of the semester. In an era of digital tools bringing nearly instant feedback to users, it’s not necessarily obvious to students that their hastily-written emails to you won’t elicit an equally rapid response. It’s OK, and in fact useful, to set expectations early in the term. I tell students I don’t check email after 9 PM, and I get so much email that it may take me a while to respond to theirs–so please wait 24 hours before following up with more emails. Of course, emergencies arise, and we can deal with them appropriately, but for the regular business of a course these email parameters should be more than adequate. It’s also useful to discuss email etiquette with our students; we should bear in mind that they may have never been taught the types of email conventions with which we are familiar. There are some very good resources out there, like this one and this one, that show students “how to email professors” without hectoring or lecturing them.

Just as we expect our students to adhere to a basic set of email expectations, though, we ought to understand they have some equally valid expectations for us. A new book from Michigan State University, To My Professor: What College Students Really Say about Their Teachers, uses hundreds of diverse student voices (from interviews, focus groups, and social media) to provide a nuanced and important perspective for faculty. Here’s what some students have to say about their professors and email:

I stayed up late to finish my paper, to wake up to an email from my professor saying class is canceled, paper due next week.

Professor sends an email saying class is cancelled 15 minutes before class. #Annoyed.

I just love how my professor said she would email us the test review over break and hasn’t yet.

I get really annoyed when a professor doesn’t answer an email for five days.

I would submit that we would be equally annoyed if these email behaviors were visited upon us. But we can both preempt sources of angst and build up goodwill with our students by observing a few simple conventions ourselves. Again, the students from To My Professor have some sage advice.

Students want important emails, such as those regarding class cancellations, altered due dates, and different locations, far in advance. Some professors teach in the same buildings where their office is, while students might have to travel all over campus [or drive in from a distance] to meet teachers.

Students want timely responses.

Students are asking for thorough explanations in emails. Enough context should be provided.

A promise is a promise, and students will be checking their email to see that it is kept.

Students recognize that professors don’t mean to have poor email etiquette.

Of course, these expectations closely mirror our own. As is the case with so much when it comes to students and pedagogy, simply treating them with reciprocity goes a long way. This is true for classroom interactions as well as those on the web and in Outlook.

On the surface, email may seem like a small, simple part of our daily workflow. But we know it’s more complicated than that. In a similar fashion, expectations and etiquette may seem like esoteric details, but they too are more meaningful than they seem at first glance. Mindful attention to how we interact with others through email, as well as with email itself, can make a big difference for us, our colleagues, and our students.

Now back to cleaning out the Inbox.

Looking for an answer? A particular resource? Want to talk teaching and learning? Come by the CETL or make an appointment for a consultation!

Be sure to check out the CETL Calendar for a complete listing of events and professional development opportunities.

Finally, remember that sometimes it’s good to wait a few minutes before hitting “send”:


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