If your professor has sent you a link to this page, two things are likely true. First, you probably sent an email that does not represent you in a way you would like to be represented. Second, while others might have scolded you, mocked you or despaired over the future of the planet because of your email, you sent it to someone who wants to help you represent yourself better.
In part, because only a click or swipe or two separate emails from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and texting, the lines between professional emails and more informal modes of writing have become blurred, and many students find the conventions of professional emails murky. We think we can help sort things out.
In the age of social media, many students approach emailing similar to texting and other forms of digital communication, where the crucial conventions are brevity and informality. But most college teachers consider emails closer to letters than to text messages. This style of writing calls for more formality, more thoroughness and more faithful adherence (sometimes bordering on religious adherence) to the conventions of Edited Standard Written English -- that is, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and syntax.
These different ways of writing are just that -- different ways of writing. The letter approach to emails is not always and forever better (or worse) than the texting approach. Knowing how and when to use one or the other -- based on why you are writing and whom you are writing to -- makes all the difference. So, if you use emojis, acronyms, abbreviations, etc., when texting your friends, you are actually demonstrating legitimate, useful writing skills. But you aren’t if you do the same thing when emailing professors who view emails as letters.
Effective writing requires shaping your words according to your audience, purpose and genre (or type of writing, e.g., an academic email). Together these are sometimes called the rhetoricalsituation. Some of the key conventions for the rhetorical situation of emailing a professor are as follows:
1. Use a clear subject line. The subject “Rhetorical Analysis Essay” would work a bit better than “heeeeelp!” (and much better than the unforgivable blank subject line).
2. Use a salutation and signature. Instead of jumping right into your message or saying “hey,” begin with a greeting like “Hello” or “Good afternoon,” and then address your professor by appropriate title and last name, such as “Prof. Xavier” or “Dr. Octavius.” (Though this can be tricky, depending on your teacher’s gender, rank and level of education, “Professor” is usually a safe bet for addressing a college teacher.) Similarly, instead of concluding with “Sent from my iPhone” or nothing at all, include a signature, such as “Best” or “Sincerely,” followed by your name.
3. Use standard punctuation, capitalization, spelling and grammar. Instead of writing “idk what 2 rite about in my paper can you help??” try something more like, “I am writing to ask about the topics you suggested in class yesterday.”
4. Do your part in solving what you need to solve. If you email to ask something you could look up yourself, you risk presenting yourself as less resourceful than you ought to be. But if you mention that you’ve already checked the syllabus, asked classmates and looked through old emails from the professor, then you present yourself as responsible and taking initiative. So, instead of asking, “What’s our homework for tonight?” you might write, “I looked through the syllabus and course website for this weekend’s assigned homework, but unfortunately I am unable to locate it.”
5. Be aware of concerns about entitlement. Rightly or wrongly, many professors feel that students “these days” have too strong a sense of entitlement. If you appear to demand help, shrug off absences or assume late work will be accepted without penalty because you have a good reason, your professors may see you as irresponsible or presumptuous. Even if it is true that “the printer wasn’t printing” and you “really need an A in this class,” your email will be more effective if you to take responsibility: “I didn’t plan ahead well enough, and I accept whatever policies you have for late work.”
6. Add a touch of humanity. Some of the most effective emails are not strictly business -- not strictly about the syllabus, the grade, the absence or the assignment. While avoiding obvious flattery, you might comment on something said in class, share information regarding an event the professor might want to know about or pass on an article from your news feed that is relevant to the course. These sorts of flourishes, woven in gracefully, put a relational touch to the email, recognizing that professors are not just point keepers but people.
We hope that these rules (or these and these) help you understand what most professors want or expect from academic emails. Which brings us back to the larger point: writing effectively does not simply mean following all the rules. Writing effectively means writing as an act of human communication -- shaping your words in light of whom you are writing to and why.
Of course, you won’t actually secure the future of the planet by writing emails with a subject line and some punctuation. But you will help your professors worry about it just a little less.
With wishes for all the best emails in the future,
PTC and CHM
Paul T. Corrigan and Cameron Hunt McNabb are assistant professors of English at Southeastern University.
Last week, the University of South Carolina suspended a student for writing the n-word on a whiteboard in a campus study room. The university president explained that the student had violated the Carolinian Creed, which bars “racist and uncivil rhetoric.”
But in the United States, there’s another creed that’s supposed to take precedence over all the others: the Constitution. And the university -- not the offending student -- violated it.
So did the University of Oklahoma, when it expelled two students last month for leading a racist chant on a fraternity bus trip. The chant referred to the lynching of African-Americans, one of the ugliest chapters in our nation's history, and the students deserved all of the condemnation they received.
But our university leaders deserve censure, too, for their craven disregard of the First Amendment. Everyone has the right to speak their mind, no matter how much it offends yours. When Americans work themselves into a fine moral lather, however, freedom of speech is always the first thing to go.
Campus speech codes date to the mid-1980s, in the aftermath of several well-publicized racist episodes. Following the last game of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, drunken brawls erupted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst between white Red Sox fans and black Mets supporters. At one point, a mob of 3,000 whites chased and beat black students.
After that, media outlets ran a spate of stories about racist incidents on campus, including a mock slave auction at a fraternity. It was never clear whether racial prejudice and harassment had actually increased during these years. But it made for good copy, with headlines like “Bigots in the Ivory Tower” and “Reagan’s Children: Racial Hatred on Campus.”
As the last item suggests, liberals were quick to blame the alleged rise in racism on Ronald Reagan and the so-called New Right. As conservative politicians stoked the fires of prejudice, the argument went, our campuses should remain bastions of racial equality and justice.
Enter speech codes. By 1992, fully one-third of colleges and universities had enacted some kind of speech regulation. The most famous one -- which became a model for many other measures -- was adopted by the University of Michigan, which barred “verbal or physical behavior… that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap or Vietnam-era veteran status.”
But as a U.S. district judge ruled in 1989, when he struck down the Michigan speech code, the words “stigmatizes” and “victimizes” were notoriously slippery. “What one individual might find victimizing or stigmatizing, another individual might not,” the judge wrote.
A few years later, the University of Pennsylvania charged a student with violating its speech code after he pleaded with some partying African-American sorority members to keep down the noise. “Shut up, you water buffalo,” the student shouted. “If you want a party, there’s a zoo a mile from here.” In his native Israel, the student later explained, the term "water buffalo" referred to a rowdy person; but the black students interpreted it -- and his zoo remark -- as racial insults.
Penn eventually dropped the charges against the student and -- two years later -- it eliminated its speech code. But it was one of the exceptions. Most college retained their speech codes or added new ones, even in the face of judicial decisions barring such measures. Between 1989 and 1995, six courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- examined university or municipal speech codes, and in every case the codes were deemed unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s 1992 decision struck down a St. Paul ordinance prohibiting hate speech. Inevitably, the court ruled, city officials would be called upon to decide what was truly hateful and what wasn’t. And that’s not a call that any of us should want our government making for us.
But that’s precisely what our campus speech codes require universities to do. In a recent survey of over 1,000 Jewish students on 55 American campuses, more than half reported experiencing or witnessing an anti-Semitic act or comment within the prior six months. Earlier this year, a Jewish student applying for a campus judicial board position at the University of California at Los Angeles was asked how -- as a Jew -- she could maintain an “unbiased view.” And at another U.C. campus, in Davis, Jewish students opposing an anti-Israel boycott measure were heckled with cries of “Allahu Akbar.”
Both episodes made national news, but they didn’t lead to any official punishment for the students who made the offending comments. Why should racist comments elicit penalties while anti-Semitic ones don't? And why should we allow our universities to discriminate between them when the courts have ruled that both types of speech are protected? We need to educate our students against bigotry without turning our backs on the Constitution. But first, we'll need university leaders with the courage to do it.
Title IX and gender-based compliance. Alcohol and drug abuse prevention. Mental health. Student privacy. First Amendment expression. Threats to campus safety.
These tricky higher education hot topics are a starter list of the issues that are perplexing campuses across the country and are slated to be discussed at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting. A common denominator among these issues and plenty of others is that they fall to student affairs professionals to address.
But my colleagues and I in NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education are more than just fixers during a crisis. Higher education must broaden the discussion of student affairs to include strengths and not just potential vulnerabilities.
NASPA released a survey last year of more than 860 chief student affairs officers and found that 12 percent of their time is spent addressing crises, which means 88 percent of their time is spent on noncrisis work. Unfortunately, most boards, members of the campus community and even the media only ask questions of and hear from student affairs leaders when the institution faces a crisis or they feel the institution is vulnerable.
With a portfolio that includes student learning and success; campus culture; health, wellness and safety; compliance and regulatory responsibilities; and leadership development, the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs team must be a vital resource for all members of the institution as they plan and formalize the vision, goals and strategic direction of the institution.
Student affairs responsibilities exist across campus and the greatest benefit of our efforts can occur if we are allowed to break through self-imposed silos and partner creatively.
Here are a few examples of this type of creativity.
The University of South Florida launched a program to increase the overall student retention rate by 15 percent. Critical to the program are strategies such as expanded orientation, required housing for freshmen and intentional advising, tutoring and mentoring to support those students who are at risk for attrition. Students deemed most at risk are offered mentoring. The Office of New Student Connections was created to coordinate mentoring, coaching, online networking and programs to involve freshmen and transfers in campus life.
Elon University has built on the strengths shared by many campus leadership programs, which are often housed in student affairs, to increase leadership skills and grow core interpersonal competencies among students. Elon’s Center for Leadership oversees the LEAD program, which bridges the important topics of leadership and civic engagement. Elon is joined by many institutions, including University of Miami and Florida State University, in partnering student affairs professionals with faculty to create meaningful civic engagement experiences for students in the community, region and abroad. These experiences provide students with tools for self-examination and growth, and culminate in an opportunity for students to apply learned leadership skills in the community.
Employers have clearly articulated that they want their employees to have specific, real-world skills, and institutions like the University of South Carolina are providing leadership and organizational behavior training for students who qualify for work-study employment. Students earn money to help pay the bills, get job experience and are introduced to information and opportunities that increase their work-ready competencies. These experiences will help them land jobs and succeed in their chosen careers.
The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) takes a holistic look at the needs of its students by providing academic, student affairs and financial support to encourage full-time enrollment for all students, and specifically for those who are Pell Grant eligible. ASAP’s efforts include special seminars and block-scheduled classes, new approaches to developmental education, enhanced advising and career services, MetroCards for use on public transportation, and use of textbooks. To date, the program has increased semester-to-semester retention, average number of credits earned over two years and proportion of students who earned an associate’s degree in two years.
Student affairs work is growing in complexity and we are implementing best practices for delivering practical, real-life experiences to students that will help them grow and refine their leadership skills. Our staff members are partnering with faculty colleagues to position our students to graduate with interpersonal and intercultural skills. And we provide opportunities for engagement where student learning occurs best -- across campus in an environment that connects classroom and cocurricular learning. We’ve heard complaints about the skills gaps of our graduates and are focused on preparing our current students to be successful in their first and their most impactful jobs.
We want to present our work and be held accountable for what we do. Student affairs officers should be encouraged to share their metrics and examples of student engagement and success. Our student affairs colleagues are utilizing increasingly sophisticated tools to collect and share data and can offer concrete examples of how they contribute to the strategic initiatives of the institution.
We understand the pressure our leaders face to offer up compelling student outcomes, job placement rates and other indicators of degree value, and we welcome the opportunity to provide the qualitative and quantitative measures of our success that bolster these metrics.
Student affairs team members are more than just party planners and shoulders for students to cry on -- ask to hear how they are meeting the complex social, emotional and -- in conjunction with the faculty -- academic needs of today’s students.
The lines between student and academic affairs are blurring, and we welcome our role in supporting and enhancing the work being done in the classroom. Chief student affairs officers oversee the learning opportunities that complement, support and enhance the classroom environment. They play a vital role in retaining students and giving them the opportunities and skills that ultimately make them employable.
And, of course, we cover those topics that induce heartburn in campus leaders. Work is being done on difficult and serious topics by student affairs teams in conjunction with presidents, legal counsel, government affairs, academic affairs, budget and finance and other offices on campus to prepare for potential challenges to our institutions. As we all know, it is rare that an institution faces a unique challenge; we are learning from the experiences of others and applying the guidance of experts to refine our approaches.
It is the responsibility of the chief student affairs officer and the student affairs team to provide students with healthy and productive experiences on campus to prepare them to contribute to society and the workplace. Ask us about our entire portfolio of work, not just the work most similar to the headlines of greatest concern.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.