Question: Getting e-mail used to excite me, but now I have to force myself to turn on the computer. I get SCREECHES (all caps) or cryptic mumblings from students; vague or crazy memos from colleagues; pointless administrative pronouncements that have nothing to do with me; and rivers of inane forwardings from people who think they're my friends. All of these people need lessons.
Answer: Many faculty members do dread e-mail messages from students. In The Chronicle's In the Classroom Forum, a thread on "'favorite' student e-mails," begun in October of 2006, now has more than 8,000 melancholy postings.
Ms. Mentor wonders if some particularly tawdry scenario inspired this month's query to her. Someone whined, someone was offended, someone brandished such terms as "brat" and "meanie." Then everyone hit "send" when they should've hit "delete" — until finally, in a brief bow toward civilized discourse, a letter was written to Ms. Mentor, seeking rules to e-mail by.
Ms. Mentor does get well-mannered letters from students. One recent correspondent sought "the 10 most important rules for a student to follow in e-mailing a professor," and even concluded, "Thank you very much." But in every era, it is fashionable to blame the youth for bad fashions, moral degeneration, and illiteracy. Ms. Mentor reminds her readers that tenure was invented to instruct, socialize, and tame the barbarian hordes — and so wise elders should teach their charges not to send e-mail messages like this one, sent to a professor at Big Football U: "yo, prof! i in ur class but 4got class yester-day because my cat dyed lol. did i miss anything? plmkayecok. have a nice day. chris"
Once upon a time, students in typing class learned proper business salutations ("Dear Professor Wise"), block and indented paragraph styles, and businesslike endings ("Yours truly, Chris Cross"). All that, Ms. Mentor knows, is passé and fogyish, and she mentions it only because ranting and bemoaning are salutary at the end of an academic year.
Still, the first rule for all grown-up e-mail messages is "Be literate." That means a proper opening ("Dear Professor Wise"), careful proofreading (a read-aloud helps), spell checking, and shunning text speak, which often communicates an odd attitude (why is the death of a cat, apparently, funny?). Or text speak may fail to communicate at all. Ms. Mentor believes that "plmkayecok" means "Please let me know at your earliest convenience, OK?" but it could mean something else entirely. (She welcomes readers' translations.)
Many syllabi now include class rules ("no cellphones," "no sleeping"), and Ms. Mentor suggests that a little lecture on e-mail etiquette is not amiss — beginning with those students who ignore their institutional e-mail addresses and persist in gmailing or hotmailing to faculty members as WetWillie or BabyGurl. Those names will not make a professor's heart pitter patter in the right way ("A true scholar writing to me! O frabjous day"!) Still, students are expected to be juvenile at times, and they move on. Irksome colleagues may be with you forever, including the ones who think that being themselves in their e-mail missives (their lazy, harried selves) will give the impression that they are Too Important to Be Bothered With Niceties. Those extremely important people can rarely resist the siren e-mail song: "Send it now. Only wimps proofread."
Ms. Mentor knows that she is not alone in craving rightly placed capital letters. Messages in all caps SHOUT at you, while those written entirely in lowercase put everything at the same mumbly level ("hey how u doin"). Lowercase practitioners claim that that style is easier on their fingers. But it's harder for their audience to read, which means that the lower texters are really saying, "I care only about my own satisfaction, not yours!" — a sentiment that is never engaging.
In the heat of passionate disputes, which used to be settled with shouting and sulking, participants now send insulting e-mail messages, which are always forwarded, posted, and saved, and everyone will know you've had a shriek-out. Unless you want a colorful trail for your biographers, Ms. Mentor advises everyone to write down all of your anger, venom, and feelings of betrayal, but don't address or mail them (except, perhaps, to your own secret WildGurl account).
If you have particularly juicy tidings, you needn't send them via e-mail at all. Spread them in the time-honored manner, through spiteful whispers prefaced by "Don't tell anyone." That's far more effective, for an e-mail message cannot convey tone and sometimes it is simply baffling.
Inebriated e-mailing is always a bad practice, as is recklessly hitting "return," which may send your confessions to a whole listserv. You don't want everyone in your address book whose name begins with M to learn about your low-rent rendezvous, suspected social disease, or rich fantasy life.
Fear of revealing anything may account for the blandness of those untargeted, broadcast e-mail missives sent to an entire "university community." In the fall faculty members are welcomed to an "exciting, challenging year"; in the spring, they are thanked for "contributing to our continuing pursuit of excellence." But this year, midyear, some universities have been forced to drop the mask: "Hard economic times may lead us to make difficult choices." When a broadcast e-mail contains bad news, that is really bad news.
Finally (but not really, since e-mailing never ends), Ms. Mentor exhorts her flock not to prolong correspondences. Thank people in advance, so you needn't clutter their mailboxes with a chain of "Thank you" and "You're welcome" and "The pleasure was all yours."
And never forward jokes with the heading, "This is hysterical" — which always makes Ms. Mentor mutter, "DWR" — delete without reading. Life is short.
For those wanting even more rules — together with rich tales of reckless e-mailers nailed for lewd, cowardly, or jail-worthy epistles, Ms. Mentor recommends the Strunk and White of e-mailing: David Shipley and Will Schwalbe's Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. The average white-collar worker, the authors note, sends more than 30,000 e-mail messages a year and receives more than 100,000. (Ms. Mentor can already hear her readers sending this about, with the subject heading: "Are you normal?")
Really finally, "Send only the kind of e-mails that you'd like to receive," Shipley and Schwalbe advise. At the end of the semester, after grades are in, Ms. Mentor recommends sending a literate and sincere message to someone who made your life better. Maybe a colleague, or a student lab worker, or (best of all) an administrative assistant/secretary. You can even copy the e-mail to Ms. Mentor, who will not forward it to anyone — though she'll be tempted to brag about your secret act of graciousness, so rare in our snarky and barbarous times. But she'll do so in the proper way: on parchment.
Question: My officemate e-mails herself once a day, listing her accomplishments and singing her own praises. Is this narcissistically loony, or a good way to keep track of what she's done, for annual report and salary time?
Sage Readers: Ms. Mentor reminds her flock to save, copy, and print out any e-mail messages praising their work, while archiving any rude misery-inducers. As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes reactions, vents, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally. Confidentiality is guaranteed, and identifying details are scrambled in published letters.
Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.