Tuesday, October 31, 2006

R U Serious?

This is probably a classic old professor rant, but what are students thinking when they send text-message-like emails to prospective graduate advisors? I don't pore over student emails, editing them for grammar and spelling, but I do like to see evidence that a student can be articulate in writing.

In the past few weeks, I've gotten email messages from students applying for graduate studies with me. Most emails are fine, but some messages lack capital letters and all punctuation except periods. Some email messages contain abbreviations that might be convenient when typing on a tiny phone keyboard but that aren't cute in a semi-formal letter to a potential advisor. For example: "i want to apply to work with u."

I am sure that it is quite possible for someone to be a creative genius at research and to write annoying emails like that, and I will keep an open mind until I see the full applications and meet the students, but still.. I just wonder why they think it is appropriate to send such emails to a prospective advisor.

And then there are the email messages from current students. Some of these messages are text-message-like as well, though I don't mind that so much if the student is writing to me with a question about class material.

I guess everyone has their own pet likes and dislikes regarding email etiquette. I have colleagues who hate it when their students use their first name in email greetings, or other informal greetings like "Yo Professor!". I get those too and I don't mind them, but I do hate the ones that start "Dear Mrs. X" (or Miss or Ms.). I'd much rather they just use my first name. My husband never gets "Dear Mr. X" emails, so the students are definitely deciding that I must not be a real professor.

I always reply, though. A few months ago, I read an article on professor preferences for email etiquette, and some faculty don't even reply if they don't like the style or tone of an email, but I can't see myself doing that.

18 comments:

plam said...

Yeah. I was surprised to get an email from a friend of mine who's now a professor---it included 'u' instead of 'you'...

On the other hand, I've seen 'u' on billboards in Singapore, so it's just totally different there.

Anonymous said...

I thought I'd let you know that I, a youngish male prof and big fan of you blog, also get email from students addressed to "Mr. X" .

I think it's mainly because the students are clueless, and have no idea that they have chosen the most insulting form of address.

Ianqui said...

Yeah, this isn't just something that bugs tenured professors. I'm an assistant prof who only graduated 4 years ago, and it drives me nuts when I get "can u send me the notes from class? thx!" messages. Aside from the content, that is. If I were a writing instructor, I'd definitely incorporate this into my class, but somehow it seems inappropriate for a scientist to do that to me.

meijusa said...

Ms. doesn't sound too bad to me, given that I've been adressed as Sir and even as Respected Sir by e-mail by students who have clearly seen my website and read my papers (and my first name is quite unambiguously female, too, even in the country of the Sir-ing students). Somehow they just don't seem to take it in.

Ms.PhD said...

Dear Professor,

Funny, I've now worked for two men who absolutely refused to answer all but the most essential email.

As you can see, I always write with the utmost attention to spelling, grammar, capitalization, punctuation, and etiquette.

Too bad they're completely lacking the etiquette part.

Sincerely,

MsPhD

p.s. I hate the abbreviations for 'are' and 'you' the most, I don't know why, but they really annoy me.

And I'd take Sir any day over Miss.

Maxine said...

I am not surprised that this happens, but certainly agree with your views.

At nature, where I am an editor, I get a lot of emails -- and I mean a lot. Winnowing those down to those where the sender is asking me personally to do something, I too get all ranges of salutation -- Mrs, Miss, Ms, Dr, Sir, first name (even if the person has never written to me before), nothing, generic options, etc.

I also find that even when I provide my sign-off (which specifies I'm a Dr), and always use the salutation "Dear Dr x" or "Dear Professor x" as default if I haven't had a title provided by my correspondent, I get responses "Dear Ms xxx" or "Dear Maxine".

Miss said...

I was told to expect txt-spek emails from undergrads because (it was said) before coming to university they have only ever used email for chatting with friends, and see an email address as an invitation to be informal.

Still, I'd expect them to cotton on by the stage of applying for graduate positions.

ethidiumbromide said...

It baffles me to hear how common this is, particularly at a graduate level. When I was seeking out potential advisers, I double and triple-checked all my emails for spelling and grammatical errors. Even now that I have been in his lab over a year, I always formally type up emails, and although we are in a casual department and address PIs by their first names, when sending him an email, I always start with 'Dr. X."
I just don't think I could hold any respect for a student who cannot be bothered to type out the full spelling of words!

Scott Stein said...

"My husband never gets "Dear Mr. X" emails, so the students are definitely deciding that I must not be a real professor."

I don't know that it's usually, or always, a gender thing. I sometimes get "Dear Mr. X" e-mails from students, especially freshmen. They've spent years calling teachers Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. Some of them take a few months or longer to break the habit.

agprof said...

I get dozens of e-mails, almost always from international students, who are obviously writing a generic "Dear Sir" letter to every school that they can find on the internet. I NEVER respond to these. Does anyone? Is this really an effective way to locate a suitable graduate program?

Kyle said...

Poor spelling and some poor punctuation don't bother me too much, but abbreviating "are" and "you" drive me completely batty. I think part of the problem is that I grew up using the Internet before all these cutesy abbreviations even existed. Me and my wife met on a local BBS, over 2600 baud modem.

You are right that it's possible for someone to be a creative genius at research and write these annoying emails. However, being a creative genius and actually doing great work are different things, and I think total failure to show any respect, preparation, social awareness or effort are reasonable indicators that the person is not ready to work with you.

Kyle

Rosie Redfield said...

I teach freshmen, and they haven't a clue about how to address their professors. So on the first day of class I tell them how I want to be addressed and that when in doubt about others they should use "Dr.". I also caution them about underestimating the qualifications of the women who teach them.

(I also get called Mrs., and I find it especially irritating that they've assumed I have a husband rather than a PhD.)

Anonymous said...

Please remember that many students (graduate and undergraduate alike) really do not know how to address their professors. Sometimes, this is not just "cluelessness" in the derisive way most professors mean it. Often, students have never been around professors before. Academia is a familiar world to many middle and upper middle class folks, but quite astonishingly foreign to many others.

As an instructor, I know how annoying it is to get an email that begins with, "Dear Mrs." or "Hey." But, we're educators. So instead of griping--educate. Put the information in your syllabus under a snazzy section called "Communication" or send out a beginning of the semester email of your own and let it serve as a model.

Female Science Professor said...

I can believe that students wouldn't know whether to call someone Mrs/Ms/Miss/Dr/Professor or their first name, and I always discuss this issue with my students at the beginning of the semester. Most end up calling me by my first name, and that's fine with me. I reply to any and all emails from students in my classes. BUT:
I don't think lack of exposure to academia/professors explains why a graduating senior would think it was appropriate to write an informal, text-message-like email, complete with atrocious spelling and grammar, to a potential graduate advisor. That's my main complaint.

Anonymous said...

The inadequacies of students when it comes to language are not specific to the gender of the professor. I wonder why you try to spin everything into a gender issue.

Female Science Professor said...

Most of that post didn't have anything to do with gender. All professors deal with issues related to communicating with students. Women have additional issues, and I mentioned one that seemed relevant. I wonder why I need to explain this.

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergrad there were a whole slew of reasons to email professors--professors I knew personally from when I was a child to professors I'd never met at other universities asking for research opportunities, but the first email always started with "Dr. so and so,", used almost painfully correct and polite grammar and diction and ended with "Thank you" if not "Sincerely" since that's just stilted in modern nomenclature. I generally looked for the reply as a guide to how the professor then wanted to be addressed but rarely scaled my language down too far even if the professor felt comfortable being entirely casual with me: I was probably about 20 and she or he generally at least old enough to be my parent!

But I have recently read that in some locations such as some schools in India there are schools that aren't teaching English as a the language we read but as a pidgin version, a combination of the local dialect and English, which would interfere with the correct acquisition of both vocabulary and grammar. It could be difficult for some students, having initially learned English this way, to discern the proper way to write an email if they hadn't been specifically taught.

Anonymous said...

To the commenter who would not reply to queries from prospective international students starting with "Sir"/"Dear Sir"/"Sirs" and the like, I have this to say: I was once (some years before the internet was used by people outside of the Pentagon) one of these correspondents. I began my letters with "Dear Sirs" because that's what my high school English teacher taught me letters to people whose gender you don't know should start with in English. Millions of other kids have been taught, and in many countries continue to be taught, the same thing. If very young people not living in North America don't know the North American academic etiquette before getting accepted into an academic program here, I don't hold it against them. I now teach at a major Canadian research university, and most of my students call me "professor" even though I would prefer to be called by my first name. In form letters and emails my university administration calls me "Ms." even though I am male, perhaps because I have a strange, foreign name that sounds feminine to them. None of this offends me. Get a grip, people. Why is it so important to you that 18-year-olds use the right honorifics in addressing you? This is not an attitude I would expect from serious academics. Luckily in my field (philosophy) people tend not to have this attitude.