February 13, 2013

It's All In How You Say It (or the art of not pissing people off)

Like most administrators and faculty, I routinely receive email requests from students that severely stretch my good will and my resolve to be an educator. What I realize is that often the problem is how students phrase the request, their language choice, and how much responsibility is placed on me, that causes me to grit my teeth.

Image courtesy of planeta through Flickr Creative Commons license
Take, as an example, a recent email from a student who added my class late. The email looked promising because the student had read the syllabus instead of emailing me, "What is your class is about?” or "Send me the syllabus." So, he started well, but then veered off course.

What he asked: "Since I'm a commuter, I can't complete that assignment. Is there any way around it?" 

What I heard: "Clearly these assignments are just random stuff you made up to keep us busy. Even though everyone else has to do it, I don't, right?"

Ok, I know that my reaction wasn’t entirely fair. But like most professors, I take time to thoughtfully plan my class. The syllabus and assignments are not random, so starting a class by asking if you actually have to do the work is not a good plan. It was fine for the student to reach out and make me aware of the outside issues that may affect his performance in my class. There is a clear difference between “what can I do to make this work” and “what can I get out of?”  It is a difference felt and appreciated by faculty, administrators, and by your future employers.

Let’s consider this suggested rephrasing of the question: "Since I'm a commuter, I'm concerned about the assignment. Can I come speak with you about how I can complete it since I'm not on campus all the time?" 

This reframing is respectful and asks for help through a conversation, rather than shirking responsibility. Let’s be honest, in a world of FB comments, texting and IM, word choice and tone impact how we hear and respond to requests.

College is a time for learning, both inside and outside the classroom, and that includes learning how to not piss people off. Believe me, not pissing people off is a major life skill. 

Here, for educational and entertainment purposes, are a few more real-life student inquiries known to illicit groans and snarky responses from professors:
I missed class today; did you cover anything important?
I missed class today; what did we do?
I have a conflict with tomorrow's final; when can I get a makeup?
I'm leaving for vacation early; can I take the final early?
Is your class easy because I'm taking it to boost my GPA?

Points to consider when emailing a professor:
·         Are you putting the responsibility for your concern on yourself or on the professor?
      ·         Would I ask a potential employer a similar question with the same tone?
·         Avoid texting/IM language, proofread, spell check, and edit – be professional!
·         Be brief but specific
·         Use the subject line wisely – be descriptive and never use words like “URGENT” and “IMPORTANT”
·         Clearly identify yourself by your full name
·         Also, don’t be this guy: