Be Polite, E-Polite

Some professors respond to publicity about students' online demands by setting out some rules.
April 19, 2006

Two faculty members at the University of Oregon have added “netiquette” to the syllabus.

Lamia N. Karim, an assistant anthropology professor, had gotten more than enough e-mails from students asking for directions to the library, or the bookstore, she said. So when she picked up a February New York Times article entitled “To: [email protected] Subject: Why It's All About Me,” the next step became clear.

The article is about how close e-mail has brought students and professors. So close, that students take the liberty of filling professors’s in-boxes with everything from criticisms of classmates to grade venting and questions about how to shop for school supplies.

“E-mail has absolved the boundary between professors and student and made us into some kind of surrogate caretaker,” Karim said.

After she read the Times article, Karim, who said netiquette is a frequent topic of conversation among her colleagues, decided to add e-mail guidelines to her syllabus.

The rules basically tell students not to e-mail her with trifles; not to e-mail asking for information that is already on the syllabus; and not to use hallowed salutations like: “yo.”

Karim tells her students that “you have to address your professor as ‘professor X or Y’ unless they tell you otherwise, and I will call you ‘Mr. X’ if you want me to,” Karim said.

Sarah McClure, an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology, said that she’s received some e-mail messages from students that use “completely inappropriate” language.

McClure said that some students seem to feel “that e-mail is a casual form of communication, where professional relationships somehow do not exist as they do in the classroom … students feel comfortable saying things in an email that they would never say to you in person.”

McClure also added netiquette pointers to her syllabus for her class: “The Prehistoric City: Ur, Harappa and Teotihuacan.”  She consulted Web sites, including one of Oregon’s own, to formulate guidelines.

On the syllabus, McClure instructs students to “please talk to me in person before/after class” if their question “requires more than a single sentence response or a back-and-forth exchange.” And she reminds them that “e-mails are public documents, even if sent to someone privately. Therefore, avoid 'flaming' (venting emotion online) and remember that humor, irony and sarcasm are difficult to express on email.”

In an article in the Daily Emerald, Oregon’s student newspaper, Adam Walsh, president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, called for a balance wherein students should not expect a professor to be at their beck and call, but professors should make pre-emptive restrictions. An editorial expanded on his sentiments.

Athan Papailiou, an undergraduate student senator, said that he understands “the frustration of reading endless e-mails, but answering questions is an integral part of teaching, and if seemingly simple questions are not addressed in lecture then students should not be chastised for sending an email to their professor.”

Karim said that students from her 200-person “sexualities and cultures” class are welcome to visit office hours or to set up appointments with her, and they can post questions on a Blackboard forum. She still welcomes academic questions via e-mail. She added that the etiquette has definitely been a diet for her in box, and she doesn’t think students are shying away from asking questions altogether.

John Bonine, an Oregon law professor, said that he gets over 100, sometimes hundreds, of e-mails each day, but that it doesn’t bother him. He said he’d advise faculty members to get familiar with e-mail filters that route messages to designated folders based on rules the user creates.

Bonine added that he has more trouble convincing his students to communicate via e-mail than he does in preventing useless communications. He said that’s more of a concern to him than frivolous or even confrontational e-mails. “We need to raise a generation of young people who are not intimidated by authority, who are willing to challenge authority, including their professors,” Bonine said.

He recalled a conversation with an Oregon emeritus professor of biology who “told me that if he asked his graduate students to refer to him as ‘professor,’ or if he and students used last names, that would create a blockage to the uncovering of truth in science … that a graduate student has to be able to offer his ideas, or her ideas to the professor, without any sense of barrier, or fear of hierarchy,” Bonine said. He added that “e-mail etiquette is fine,” but that etiquette should rarely be codified.


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