Friday, April 8, 2011

Student Ethos and Email Etiquette

I've been silent this past week, in part because I got sick, fell behind, prepared the house for weekend guests, planned my soon-to-be four-year old's birthday party, partly because while I had a whole list of planned posts, I couldn't concentrate on writing them. No, I was distracted by trying to come up with a way to write the following posts without impacting my own ethos as a writer and a teacher in higher education.

I received a number of emails from my students all at the same time that really, really got under my skin. Now, I am (still) a regular visitor to College Misery, and I talk to my colleagues, so I know that my students are not an anomaly and professors all over the country are dealing with emails from students that are...frustrating in any number of ways. What really bothered me was that we have just spent an entire semester talking about ethos in writing - how a writer is perceived and how students want to be perceived as writers, students, professionals. We are even doing a blog assignment so they can really start to think about how they are seen by people other than their professor.

But nonetheless, I think it's important that students realize how their emails impact their ethos with their professors. This, of course, should be expanded to face-to-face meetings and any assignment, written or otherwise, handed in to their professor. And I tell them this. I had hoped that the lessons about ethos, even though not explicitly taught, had been applied by my students to other facets of their communications with me. Namely, their emails. 

But I guess not. This troubles me not because their emails communicated to me that my class was indeed not a priority, but because they haven't applied what they have learned beyond the classroom setting, beyond what they were "told." And again, I can imagine an undergraduate reading this and complaining, I didn't mean it that way. And I get that how a student understands the ethos they are (trying) to present versus what a professor may actually read and receive. 

For example (and this is an example based on an email I received this week), a student emails explaining that he has an opportunity to go hunting but it would mean that he would miss two [out of three] of the classes this week. Would it be ok, and he promises he'd make up any work that he missed, especially if I let him know now, before he leaves.

Now, some additional context. They have a paper due next week, and the classes missed are peer review/writing workshop classes. This student is pretty good; not the best but also not the worst. I can imagine the student thinking that they were doing the right thing by a) letting me know they intended to miss class, b) not lying about why they were missing class, and c) showing initiative by proactively asking for the work to be missed. 

For me, all I read is: your class, in fact, university, is not that important to me. And that may be true. But why, then, should I, someone with over 100 students all taking writing-intensive classes from me, make you a priority, or devote extra time to you? I also wonder about how serious a student he is when he claims he can keep up with the work while outdoors trying to shoot animals. 

Critical thinking. We, as professors, want our students to develop the skill. Employers want employees with that skill. But my students can't think critically about their own communications with their professor, the person, for better or for worse, who holds their future (through their grades) in their hands. It's frustrating. I don't care that the student doesn't care about my class. I care that they don't see what that might be a problem. 

This email will become a unit on ethos, on digital communications, on email etiquette, and on why my students are even in college to begin with. I'm sure I've opened a can of worms by writing about it, but it's been bothering me for a week, and I needed to get it off my chest. 

What do you think? Why do students have such difficulty recognizing how their communications with their professors impacts their ethos?


  1. I couldn't agree more. I found the need to include an entire section in my syllabus devoted to email etiquette and expectations, my point being: If they will write emails they way some of them do to me, a professor and someone of (alleged) distinction and authority, then what's to stop them from writing this way to a future employer? Many have no clue about ethos and sadly, many don't care. I think some students (and some faculty) use email to ask (demand) for things they wouldn't ask for in person; email becomes a thinly veiled disguise for what is really going on: I don't care about how it looks that I don't care about your class. And no one who thinks that way is going to be a critical thinker any time soon.

    I'd be interested in learning more about how you use blogs to promote a writing ethos.

    Keep the faith, sister!

  2. ... And I'd be interested in learning more about the ways in which you incorporate discussions of ethos in FYC.


  3. In my part of the world, it is not unusual for (adult) hunters to ask for and receive time off during a hunting season, or on the opening day of fishing. That being said,

    Why not strip away the disguise? Why not present a fictionalized email and ask straight out "What does this say about the writer? Is the writer showing reponsibility? How, and to what? Why does the writer feel entitled to make this request? Why might I, the reader, be upset or offended?" and so on.

    You can make real connections between "practical writing" and classroom writing, and how writing communicates something about the author regardless of the setting, by asking a similar set of questions about each.

    It would appear that as teachers you also object to the underlying behavior. I'd be wary of disguising a lesson about behavior as a lesson in writing. The students might learn more about behavior if it's not flung in their faces.

  4. As a student, I think I may help. College is my foremost priority, and I work for my school's newspaper, I'm a 2011 Teach For America corps member (which requires a lot of work before the summer), I'm interning at a magazine, and, yes, I have a social life, somehow. But that's not the case for a lot students.

    The way I see it is that because they or their parents are paying for college, missing a class or an assignment isn't a big deal in the long run. They see the university as a product. It's when they have to start working and start earning their pay that acting like a responsible adult matters. B

    But college is now just a requirement expected from their parents and future employers. It's a type of limbo between high school and the real world. College, for them, isn't relevant. It's just another thing to cross off the list.

  5. Email is so impersonal...Ive had some crazy emails just from running my free writing course, including being called lazy for not doing free work on a student's website.

    Both my parents were teachers and very strict about showing up for class and about respecting the teacher student relationship.

    Those students will probably take the same attitude to their job. I've also been a manager and have had employees that think they can miss work for stupid reasons...they don't understand that it affects the business.

    Underachievers really. They dont really deserve an expensive education and will get small roles in big companies.

    James from selloutyoursoul

  6. Lee,

    Really wish I could agree with you. And I'd hate to be a contrarian, despite their importance in critical thinking. But, to be honest, I have some difficulty agreeing with you.

    For one thing, we seem to have different concepts for "ethos." Which is fine, but it does make it harder for me to understand your approach. For us, in anthropology, ethos is a set of beliefs and ideas guiding the actions of members of a community. It's a mode of operation. Something close to "a culture" or "a worldview," only slightly more specific. Gregory Bateson also applied it as "emotional tone," but also related to a sense of community.
    Looks like there's a version of the concept which comes from rhetoric. It'd be easy to assume that it's the one you use and it seems to explain some of your statements. It sounds a bit like Wilson and Sperber's Relevance Theory (each occurrence of ostensive-referential communication carries the assumption of its own relevance). But I'm still a bit puzzled by what "ethos" might mean in your context, especially if the student should be able to present their (personal?) ethos and impact that of their professors.
    Not criticizing your use. Just noting that it's polysemic enough to warrant some explanation in context. It can help with our own critical thinking.

    Mainly, and however bluntly this may sound, I'd have to take issue with assumptions embedded in your statements. Especially when it comes to things like students allegedly unable to think critically about their communication with professors. Is a breach of etiquette sufficient to let a critical thinker know that their interlocutor is unable to think critically? Isn't it even remotely possible that this specific behaviour may be considered a breach of etiquette by some and expected procedure by others? Aren't there other interpretations of this message?
    As for discussions with colleagues, they may help in terms of commiseration, but they also have unexpected consequences. It's one of these cases which would be so amenable to confirmation bias and the problems of introspection that it might be worth it to take a broader stance about communication contexts.
    In fact, there's something to be said about differences in communication channels. In her work on "Breakup 2.0," fellow linguistic anthropologist Ilana Gershon had fascinating things to say about the relationships between communication tools, expectations, and behaviours. Not convinced you would have in that differently a way if this student had inquired in person during your office hours or sent you an essay about the importance of hunting in his development, but given the attention you pay to tone and thrust through diverse means of communication, it might be useful to think about what "emailing a teacher" may represent for this or other students. The insight might have to do with protocol vs. etiquette, however strange this may sound.

    As for the question of the value of education, it sounds like commenters are already addressing it. But it's such a broad issue that it's very easy to get lost in sterile debates. Let's hope comments remain nuanced enough to display and enhance critical thinking skills.

    Sincere apologies if any of this sounds like criticisms of your approach. I enjoy your work and know how critical a thinker you are. This post simply puzzled me.


  7. Too many e-mails basically say, "I missed class today. Could you tell me what I missed?"

    I reply, "No." And hit "Send."

  8. Similar experience. When one of my developmental students was drawn for her elk license, beating out both her dad and grandfather, she quickly informed me that she would be missing a week of class. I replied, "Good luck. Bag a big one!" I respected her and her love of hunting; very few elk licenses are issued.

    I wonder if students behave in these ways and communicate with their instructors such because they can relate to only one person at a time, one moment at a time, and they really have no sense of how all actions are interconnected, how actions have consequences. When they ask for extensions, I say "no." When they promise they will get the work done on time, I ask "how?" If they can live only in the present moment, I try to jump into that moment and question them about how that moment will affect the other moments that will follow—help them with their decision making by allowing them to consider consequences that they might not have considered.

    And other times I, like them, care more about their elk than their success in the class. "Go bag a big one, girl friend. And bring me some steaks after it's butchered. And, no, sorry, you will fail that essay if you won't be here to turn it in. But I look forward to eating some fine elk!"

  9. Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and a potential 2012 rival, said in a Twitter message that the news media should not “let the WH distract you w/the birth crt” from stories like the public comments of Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve bank.

    I think that a large reason that students correspond in that way with teachers is because it is really not that unacceptable/socially consequential. Palin may be elected to a major US office and can get away with tweeting gems like the above (and much, much worse).


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