After regularly receiving overly informal emails in their inboxes?and even the occasional inappropriate message?some faculty members are wondering if students might want to slow down before they click the "send" button.
Faculty members point to messages they have received that make unfair demands or turn out to be downright embarrassing for students.
Edward Little Professor of the English Language and Literature William Watterson received this message from a student on the eve of a final examination two years ago:
"Hey professor, the airport limo is here to take me to Portland so I won't be taking the final examination for English 210 tomorrow. Please call me at home at your earliest convenience so that we can clear this matter up."
Professor of Government Paul Franco once received an email from a student apologizing for sending a message that was not intended for Franco's eyes.
"Of course, I immediately sought out the offending message, which described in detail a night of drunkenness and debauchery," Franco said.
Perhaps the most common complaint among faculty are emails from students who apologize for missing class and then ask, "Did I miss anything?"
Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Jill Pearlman sends equally brief replies to that question. "Yes, you did," she writes. Or occasionally, "I like to think so."
Pearlman and others also referred to messages that begin with a "Hey" salutation, followed by the professor's first name.
"What's most surprising is when a student I've never met emails me by my first name," Pearlman said, though she also noted that some students can be "incredibly gracious."
The phenomenon of questionable email interactions has achieved national attention. A front-page article in The Next York Times reported on the issue last week, and some faculty members at Bowdoin have been discussing the issue since.
Professor of the History of Art Emeritus Clif Olds remarked that the article made a "petulant mountain out of an occasionally irritating mole hill."
"Yes, I did receive a few annoying questions, most of them from students who had not read the course syllabus or had been asleep during class, but these were few and far between," he said. "Most of what I received were good questions or suggestions made courteously and intelligently."
Associate Professor of History Sarah McMahon often encourages students to send email when they are confused or need assistance.
"What I like about email is it gives me the ability to know that students are having difficulty," she said.
Before email, students would call her at night in a panic. Now they can email her late at night, and she responds in the morning. She said she considers the technology "a really valuable educational tool" that allows her to receive questions that students might be afraid to ask in person or to help students develop their thesis statements.
Watterson said that email "has advantages as well as liabilities."
One such advantage is rapid communication made on-the-record.
"A student can send me a question or a comment at 11 p.m. from the library, and will have a thoughtful answer by the following morning," Watterson said.
On the other hand, less important messages still take time to answer.
"I think we all spend too much time writing and responding to non-essential messages," Watterson said. "If you had told me 10 years ago that I would spend multiple hours per day doing email, frankly I wouldn't have believed you."
Assistant Professor of Education Chuck Dorn is a scholar of higher education. He said he wonders if requests made by email might be part of a larger trend of the commodification of higher education.
"I wonder how much of it is email, and how much of it is students approaching colleges and universities as consumers," he said, noting that demands made to professors could be seen as analogous to demands made to a salesperson at a clothing store.
Dorn said that it is also possible that email communication has proliferated simply because it is convenient and free. He also said it is "easy to overgeneralize" the more extreme cases of email use.
Franco described himself as a "big fan" of email and sees the technology's overall effect on education as positive. He said the negative aspect emerges when users say something "we would never dream of saying face-to-face to someone."
"We all have to watch out for this false boldness," he said.
A survey conducted by the Office of Institutional Research of the Class of 2009 shows that students have practice using electronic communication. In the survey, 32.1 percent of students said they spend three to five hours a week communicating electronically, while 22 percent estimated their hourly email and instant messaging time at six to 10 hours a week. Thirteen percent said they spend at least 11 hours a week on these tasks.
Of the respondents, 53.2 percent said they contact faculty via email, instant message, or phone at least once a month. Ten percent said they do so at least two or three times a week.
Although electronic communication is widespread, some students say that it is not always easy to get email etiquette correct.
"Email is very informal to me," Ian Yaffe '09 said.
When a faculty member signs an email with his or her initials or first name, Yaffe said he is often not sure what cue to take and wonders, "What do you want me to call you?"
He also pointed to a few instances where a professor has changed an assignment or added to an assignment the night before it is due.
Nate Underwood '07 said email has been very beneficial to his education. After he found out that email has become an issue at some colleges, Underwood said he has been a little more careful.
"I guess I thought a little bit about how I word my own emails," he said.
"I think some students do not know where the line is," Underwood said.
Alaina Thomas '09 said the line usually is not hard to find.
"It's fairly obvious early on in the semester when you have a professor with whom you can joke around," she said.
When that line is blurry, an expert from the Emily Post Institute encourages students to use respect. Emily Post was a best-selling author of etiquette advice books and established the institute in 1946.
Cindy Post Senning is Post's great-granddaughter and is the institute's current expert on etiquette for children and in education.
"The rule of thumb for emails is that you shouldn't be sending them any differently than if you're handwriting a note," she said in an interview with the Orient.
If a student calls a professor by a first name in class, it is appropriate to use the first name in an email. Otherwise, she advises the use of a proper salutation.
Senning said that ease of use is no excuse for not showing "the same respect that you would show when you're addressing a professor in person."
The Orient put a question from a student to Senning: When should a student re-write to someone when he or she does not receive a reply to the original message?
Senning estimates that "a couple of days" is probably the proper time frame for waiting for a reply. As for concluding an email conversation, Senning noted that a brief thank-you email might be in order when a professor took the time to research or consider a question in an email.
"That way you're showing you're appreciative for the time they took," Senning said.
Email etiquette problems are not just an issue for college students, Senning said. The Emily Post Institute runs seminars around the country, and Senning said that the issue is a common topic.
"We know that this is an issue for people in workplaces," she said. She noted that since individuals establish habits when they are young, habits formed while writing instant messages may transfer over to email.
The bottom line, Senning said: "Make it look respectable."
Faculty members noted that whatever the tone of the message, in-person conversations still are important.
"There's no substitution for the live conversation that can occur when a teacher and student sit down together, but there's no doubt that an intelligent e-mail exchange is the next best thing," Olds said.
Assistant Professor of English Aviva Briefel said that she will take a look at a thesis statement or introduction when a student sends a draft by email, but asks them to come to office hours for more substantial comments.
"I find that this is not only helpful for my own time constraints, but also for the quality of the feedback they will receive," Briefel said. "Email doesn't usually allow for the same kinds of dynamic interactions that occur during individual meetings."
Watterson noted that email use has led fewer students to come to his office hours.
"The diminishment of face-to-face encounters seems at odds with the whole idea of a residential community," Watterson said. "I communicate with students more but see them less."