to the letter

I teach a Technical and Professional Writing course for juniors and seniors in disciplines across the curriculum. We discuss and practice writing in many different forms: correspondence, instructional, data analysis, and others. In the process of this course, I use email entirely for correspondence outside of the classroom. I expect return emails to be done in a formalized manner: salutation, body, and a proper closing. It is tiresome to get emails that are just attachments, or that don’t contain the name of who is writing me (this is especially bothersome early in the semester when I don’t know the names and email addresses of the students yet). My students are great about it and give me wonderful emails (my instructions were to be conversational in approach because we are spending an entire semester together and this allows me to get to know the students better).

It seems, however, that not all students are receptive to this type of writing. In fact, Historiann‘s experience was downright awful. The exchange that really amuses me is

Thank you for responding, but at the same time it is not your duty to counsel others on how to conduct themselves via email. I was never rude or inappropriate in any manner. I’ve had many professors and others I’m not well acquainted with who email me in the same fashion. There are many customs and practices and no single one is correct. You are the first person I’ve had an email exchange with that feels the need to reprimand me about email etiquette.

I’m a 33 year old man who doesn’t need to be told how to conduct myself. I do just fine. Hopefully, in the future you will be more relaxed with not only students, but any person who may be interested in talking to you about history. You will find that you shut out a lot of people in life by conducting yourself in this manner.

While it is true that there are many customs, there are also appropriate guidelines that we should follow when approaching someone to ask for assistance and whom we don’t know. In addition, perhaps it is important to remember that formality is a condition of a relationship. I write to plenty of friends and family without a proper salutation (I almost always close with my first initial — lowercase d), but I’m also very cognizant of my audience. When I write to a new professor, I always greet them with Dr. or Professor so-and-so. It is not until we’ve developed a relationship do I even ask how they would prefer to be addressed — even in email.

I believe my students deserve the same respect. I email them with a salutation, body, and a closing with my full first name — unless it is an ongoing conversation, and then I will often do without the salutation (and realize they may as well).

If I were to write an email to my husband’s pillow (if I had a husband and he had a pillow like this), on the other hand, I doubt it would get any respect from me. It may just get the trash.


  1. cathelin

    oy, that was an amen you heard from this corner.

    i got an email today that i actually had to read out loud to translate.

    i’m certainly fine with students emailing me — but as i tell them, i need to know who they are when they email me,and i’m actually going to have to have something in my syllabus next semester about sending me blank emails.

    you rock.

  2. Michael Faris

    The terms that I’ve included information on the syllabus about email etiquette and being rhetorical (thinking about who your audience is) and STRESSING that on the first day of class has led to much more thoughtful, clear emails throughout the term. Especially in technical writing courses.

    This term I didn’t have the language on the syllabus (it was a generic syllabus used by all new teachers), and while things haven’t been bad, there have been a few cases where I wish it had been on the syllabus and we had talked about it.

    Thanks for sharing this. The student in question here certainly seems to have a sense of entitlement to him. barf.

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