Take Charge of Your In-Box

By Peter Connor

Email is a fact of life and for many of today's technology savvy students, life without it is beyond the scope of their experience. As a college or university instructor, you can expect your in-box to be inundated.

So, here are some tips on keeping student/teacher email from becoming a nuisance, you from pulling your hair out, and positive communication flowing even when the in-box is overloaded.

Establish some formatting rules. Have your students:

  1. Use the university supplied Web mail program and email account. Explain that email from .edu accounts indicate legitimate communications and not spam. Such emails won't be filtered out, whereas, havnfun@hotmail.com will.
  2. Place the course number in their subject line. Explain that besides helping to legitimize the email, it's a time saver: you teach more than one course and it helps you quickly focus your attention on the correct class and section.
  3. Begin their email with a respectful greeting. It will ease student uncertainty and nervousness about what is a proper level of familiarity if you define how you wish to be addressed at the beginning of the term. Hi or Hello Dr., Professor, Mary or Bob are generally accepted. Yo, Dude!—is not. Explain that lack of a Hi or Hello is rude and that Dear belongs in personal letters.
  4. Close their email with a full signature—first and last name—followed by Course number (section#, too, when appropriate). Explain that repetition of Subject line info reinforces the legitimacy of the email.
  5. Send a thank you email after receiving your reply. Explain that, besides being the courteous thing to do, a thank you email indicates that your reply answered their question and closed that particular communication loop.

Establish Some Netiquette Rules. Have your students:

  1. Limit their email questions to pertinent course-attached inquiries that can be answered in one or two sentences. Explain that more than that should be addressed in an "office hours" meeting and offer to arrange one.
  2. Write in complete sentences and avoid the temptation to use IM (instant messaging) terminology. Explain that clarity is important and you need to understand their inquiry without deciphering code.
  3. Proofread their email before sending. Explain that correct spelling, grammar, syntax and vocabulary are expected, for clarity's sake, on your part and should therefore be paid careful attention on theirs. Set some composition boundaries by which an email will be either read or returned and, if returned, under what conditions it may be resubmitted.
  4. Refrain from Flaming—venting emotionally online. Such emails should not be dignified with a reply. Explain that humor, irony, sarcasm etc. are difficult to express in an email; that the lack of audio-visual clues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone-of-voice make such communications difficult to interpret or decode.
  5. Refrain from YELLING! Using bold, upper-case letters and repeated exclamation marks at the end of a sentence is extremely bad form and, generally speaking, perceived as yelling, NOT TO MENTION BEING HARD ON THE EYE!!!
  6. Respect your time. Explain that their inquiries are very important, but you are not on call 24/7; answering email will be done daily and promptly—not instantaneously. If you think it would help, set some email office hours in which you answer email and at which time students may reasonably expect a response.

Lastly: Carve it in Stone.

It's a good idea to put your email formatting and netiquette rules down on paper. Your course syllabus is as good a place as any: it establishes all your other course policies, why not email as well? As you go over the syllabus on the first day of class, explain in particular, what will not get a response. Make a list and include it in a hard copy. For instance, you may not respond to apologies for missing class or requests to make up course work.

It's also a good idea to formulate some rules regarding requests for reviewing attached files—drafts of essays and papers—and defining some timeline parameters. You don't need your in-box clogged up with last-minute email-attached documents to read a day before 250 papers are due. It might be helpful to remind your students that they are not in correspondence school or taking an online class.

Lastly, after handing out hard-copies and going over the syllabus in class, it might be useful to promise a pop-quiz on the second day: subject—the syllabus.