Email 101

I will not begin this post with the word “netiquette” (you can get the book for more details), because the term dates to the 1980s and this is something I hope someone, especially my students, will read. I’m writing this because someone has to tell this generation of students about the meaning of the poor choices they repeatedly make, most especially in regards to email. OK, ok, twist my arm, I will. Listen up!

1. Your email user name

Poor choices:
I have had students (and still do) who use words such as “princess,” “sparkles,” “glitter,” “cat,” “sexy,” and “xxx” in their email user names.

What it means to your professors:
If your email user name is “” it is time to make a new email account. This type of user name suggests immaturity.

The email user name you give to your professors and to future employers is part of your professional identity. Use your first and/or last name as part of your user name. If you have to add numbers, do this in a way that does not reveal your birth year. This is not information you would give a new employer at an interview, and it is not information you would include on your resumé.

2. The subject line of your email message

Poor choices:
I had a student who sent email every time he missed class, about eight or ten times during the course of a class that met once a week for fifteen weeks. The subject of every one of his messages was “Hi Professor!” I laughed out loud by the third or fourth “Hi Professor!” message and by the last one I moved the message to the trash without reading it.

What it means to your professors:
The subject line should be relevant to the body of your message. If you are asking a question about an assignment, write the name of the assignment in the subject line of the message. Keep it short and make sure it is relevant. If you are replying to a message your professor sent to you or the class, it is acceptable to reply with re: in the subject line. Using a subject that is not relevant to the message will either frustrate your reader or give them a case of the giggles (not in a good way).

Email messages you send to your professors are partial constructions of your identity. If your online communication is relevant, your professors will be more likely to respond in a timely manner with relevant information.

3. The body of the email message

Poor choices:
You should see your professor during office hours if it will take her more than three to five minutes to reply to your email. Other poor choices include an abundance of typos and grammatical errors.

For instance, the message, “What did I miss in class today?” cannot be answered thoroughly in three to five minutes. A better email would be, “I missed class. The syllabus lists chapter 4 as the topic scheduled for today. I am writing to confirm that this is the chapter I should review.”

What it means to your professors:
Keeping your online communication short and relevant, and reviewing your message for typos and grammatical errors are all forms of respecting your reader. Messages containing a misspelled word in every line are sloppy. Use the spell-check feature if you need to clean up your professional communication. Sloppy messages indicate a lack of care and respect – if you do not respect your reader, why should she respect you?

I actually have a “Five Minute Rule” listed as an email policy on my syllabus. Some professors address this in their syllabi and others simply do not respond to unprofessional student email or messages that require much more than a quick reply.

In a professional relationship, such as one with your professor, you should communicate in a proper and effective manner. This includes proper use of form and grammar. Address your professor in the beginning of the email (Hello Dr. so and so, or Dear Professor so and so). Do not assume that you can write to your professor using his or her first name, unless she told you to do this in class. While I ask students to use my first name, I have colleagues who are more formal. They are put off by student emails addressed to their first names, as they use Dr. Last Name in class.

4. Identify yourself in your signature

Poor choices:
I have received emails from students who do not sign their names at the bottom of the message. These students also use email addresses such as, so of course there is no way for me to figure out which one of my students is the “sparkle ghost”. It is wrong to assume that your professor will know who you are, especially in the first several weeks of the course or the first time that you exchange email messages.

What it means to your professors:
Your professors will communicate with the same professional standards they uphold in the classroom if you behave professionally. Missing information from electronic communication, such as your name and the class to which you are referring will frustrate the person receiving your message. If you assume that the professor will need to know this information, your professors will appreciate the thoroughness of your message. Remember, this is part of your identity that is subtly being constructed throughout the semester. Your professors may lead multiple sections of the class you are writing about – be sure to identify yourself with your full name, the name of the course, and the day(s) and time the course meets.

5. Volume

Poor choices:
WRITING IN ALL CAPS and sending too many messages are bad habits.

What it means to your professors:
Messages typed in all caps feel like someone is screaming at you from across the room. Press the Caps Lock key and rewrite the message if this happened to you. If you send your professor an email every week to get advice about assignments or missing lectures, you should be attending class more frequently and/or visiting your professor during office hours. Email should not be used casually, and you should not rely on it as your first method of solving a problem.

Before you write to your professor, review the following: the syllabus (your professor probably already answered your question when she wrote the syllabus), additional online course materials, your notes, and your textbook. Then ask a friend in the course. Professors get cranky when they hear from the same student every week, especially if the questions have already been answered in the classroom, book, syllabus, or notes. Beyond the cranky-factor, this is not good for your growing professional identity. If you are the student who emails once a week or more with course-related questions that are answered in other places (such as the syllabus or textbook), it will be unlikely that your professor will write a letter of recommendation for you. You have already proven to be unreliable.

6. Does this look good?

Poor choices:
Design students should never send an email with an attached file and the message, “Does this look good?”

What it means to your professors:
When a student asks, “Does this look good?”, the message is interpreted as, “Am I going to get an A?” Usually, art and design educators are not interested in your letter grades. We want our students to strive to create work they are proud to include in their portfolio. “Does this look good?” has nothing to do with a particular attribute of a work of art or design.

If you are not asking about your grade, you should be more specific.

Your professor may have a rule about sending files for review via email. I allow students to send a JPEG or PDF for one of my assignments. All other assignments are to be reviewed in person, only. Students who send me AI or PSD files receive a single-word reply (“JPEG?”). Unless your professor asks for it, do not send the file in native format. Your AI or PSD file requires the receiver of your email to open an application that might not have been open or may not be installed on the device they are using to review your message. As the student, your job is to make the communication easy for your professor – the same rule applies to a work environment. Send a file (JPEG or PDF) that can be viewed in the email application or from a common application such as Preview.

7. Thanks!

Poor choices:
Unnecessary email communication is, well, unnecessary.

What it means to your professors:
Finally, on the same note as “making things easier for your reader,” there is one last detail and this will be different for various personality types. I checked with a few of my peers, and for the most part we agree, so I am including it here.

We receive so many student emails that for many of us: Happiness Is Inbox Zero! We would rather not receive a second or third email from the same student that simply says, “Thanks!”

You can thank us in class.

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