The Evils of Email

May has been a month of email trauma.

I taught a particularly unresponsive and difficult class this spring semester (“Sooner or later, we all get the class from hell,” my supervisor comforted me wryly), and within a couple of hours after I submitted final grades, the complaints and accusations started pouring in. When confronted with the grades they quite richly deserved, a number of my eighteen-year-old ESL composition students fell all over themselves in shock and moral indignation. They simply could not believe that I could be so mean as to grade them in precisely the manner the syllabus indicated that I would. Some who never once contributed to class discussions were indignant that simply showing up for class every day wasn’t enough to get them full participation points. Others were frustrated that sloppily rewritten essays did not automatically garner grade increases. One particularly angry student, who spent much of the last half of the semester sleeping in class, sent me a six-paragraph tirade of his many grievances, ultimately accusing me of giving him poor grades because I disliked him. His struggles in my class had been monumental, epic, he explained; because he had to take a heavy load of pre-business courses, he had been forced to stay up all night writing papers for me without the aid of prescription drugs, and so had had no choice but to sleep through the class itself. And although he had worked to make his papers “perfect,” strangely I had not rewarded him with perfect grades, from which he could only conclude that I was taking out my personal animus on his GPA. [Editorial note: perfect except for the pervasive errors in subject-verb agreement, run-on sentences, unsupported claims, organizational problems, and in one case, a conclusion that flatly contradicted everything in the introduction and the body.] Several weeks later, this same student rounded up everyone from the class who was unhappy with his or her grade and tried to demand a group meeting with me, which–on the advice of my supervisor and my own best judgment–I refused.

Over the next twenty-four hours or so, I responded to the angry onslaught. I tried hard to be professional, striving for a calm, neutral tone, reviewing the specific calculations that had gone into the grades in question and reminding students that I’d graded them exactly as the syllabus had said I would.

Just when it seemed to have died down and I was sitting back on my heels in emotional exhaustion, I received yet another email of fury, this time from a professor to whom I’d just submitted a seminar paper. This professor is noted for her passionate devotion to Marxist psychoanalysis in the tradition of Althusser, Lacan, and Zizek, and for her dramatic, intense, quite personal teaching style. Although I wouldn’t dismiss all work Marxism or psychoanalysis out of hand, neither currently interests me as an approach to literature, and so I’d written my paper without any reference to the theories around which she’d structured the class. Since my annotated bibliography, which she approved, didn’t include any Marxists or psychoanalysts, she shouldn’t have been surprised by my paper, but she was incensed. Every sentence in her email contained at least one word in all caps. She had never, in all her teaching career, she informed me, received a paper that had so little to do with the class itself, or with the concerns that were so central to it. She could not believe I had handed a paper so remote from the concerns of these theorists. I gave her no choice but to demand to see a paper I’d written the previous semester on the same literature she had taught. She all but accused me of plagiarism.

I read her email on my way out the door to a lunch for which I suddenly had no appetite. I spent a miserable two or three hours before I was able to get back to my email and reply. In between horrifying visions of myself being unceremoniously tossed out of my program for plagiarism, I remembered what I’d done with my angry students, what my psychologist husband always recommends with angry people–de-escalate them, reduce the intensity of the interaction, respond briefly and calmly. And it came to me: of course! That’s what I need to do with my professor no less than with my students.

Although I was sick and shaking as I typed it out, I again strove for a neutral, professional tone. I sent my professor the paper from the previous semester as evidence that I hadn’t plagiarized. To my immense relief, she accepted my explanation and apologized. She did include a somewhat self-pitying account of how hard it had been for her to imply that I’d plagiarized, and she gave a long explanation of why she had to give me less than an A for failing to use her theorists, but fortunately for me, the unpleasant exchange has had no lasting consequences for my academic life.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to both the story of my students and the story of my professor. In the case of the students, there’s the problem of the university enticing wealthy international students to attend school here on the hopes that they can get accepted to the business school even though their English is often seriously deficient. As the reluctant gatekeeper of the required composition course in which all business-school applicants have to get an A or a B, I became the fulcrum on which the pressure of their understandable frustration is concentrated. I’m doing the university’s dirty work: telling these poor kids they don’t qualify after the university has gotten a semester or two of sky-high international tuition out of them. I’m crushing these kids’ dreams. Of course they’re angry. And in the case of the professor, in one sense the back story is of course the culture wars in all their glory. More specifically, it’s the minority of humanities professors who politicize the classroom, demand ideological allegiance from their students, and don’t maintain appropriate professional boundaries. Mocking media coverage of MLA to the contrary, in my experience such professors are a small minority–albeit a noisy one.

Here’s the connection between these two unpleasant incidents that currently interests me: email. Of course human beings have always been prone to anger and rage, for great and trivial reasons, and human beings have always been rude to each other at times. But in the same way that cars distance us from one another and facilitate a kind of rudeness on the road we’d be much less likely to find among people moving down a sidewalk, I’ve found email facilitates rudeness. My students in particular pop off brusque requests or long rambling complaints, and sometimes they re-send them repeatedly if they don’t get a response within a few hours. I doubt they’d be so abrupt and demanding if they had to face me in person. Similarly, email allowed my professor to essentially yell at me for not adopting and repeating her ideas back to her, and I doubt she’d have had the nerve to yell at me face-to-face.

I love email more than I hate it. I’m introverted, indecisive, easily overwhelmed by other people, and congenitally unable to think on my feet. Email allows me to word my messages precisely and to convey exactly what I mean. But the incidents of the last month have made me approach my inbox with loathing and dread.

What are your experiences with email? Do you use it, as I do, to avoid the exhaustion of face-to-face or phone encounters with authority figures and acquaintances? Have you found, as I have, that it facilitates rudeness? Or have your experiences been altogether different?

25 thoughts on “The Evils of Email

  1. 1

    One of my biggest weaknesses is that I’m way more snarky over email than I am in person. I have a goal this year to wait 24 hours before sending “certain” emails at work. Part of my work role is to be a “bad cop”, so I don’t fear getting fired over sending those hostile emails, anyway. I just need to tone it down slightly.

    The advice on de-escalation is a great.

    I know some people say that we should replace email with personal contact, but that’s just not feasible in most cases.

    But I have taught myself over the last year to just delete emails that are sent with the intention of getting a rise of me and to get me to respond. Fine, let them have their fun, and I’ll just delete them.

    My professor brother says that he deletes over half of the complaint emails he gets. My PhD advisor says the same thing.

  2. 2

    I use e-mail all day long for my job. Occasionally I will be somewhat formal; usually when others have requested something that exceeds the scope of what I am able or willing to do for free. I am always polite, and always concise in such e-mails, and the inevitable response is always defensive. It’s very frustrating.

    When working with a smallish client base, it’s important to be cordial; friendly, even. But that doesn’t change the nature of the relationship; it’s still business. I am usually informal in my dealings with others, but somehow that is interpreted as being their buddy. But because the client base is small, I think a more formal approach would be perceived as cold. That plays out in my e-mail as well as my phone and my infrequent face-to-face communications.

    E-mail is a form of conversation, but because it’s written, it has persistence that verbal communication doesn’t have. I wish I could do a better job of establishing the right tone with e-mail.

  3. 3

    Fascinating post, Eve! I’m sorry your email has been full of such nastiness this month. I’ll be sure to send you some fun messages to make you rejoice in it more.

    I think you’re right on about the distance of email allowing us to be meaner than we would dare be in person. I guess blogging and commenting are susceptible to the same problem of distance that you mention. Actually, now that I think about it, it might be worse. Your students and your professor at least know you in real life and know they will likely see you in person later. Most bloggers and commenters don’t know each other in real life, perhaps freeing us all to be really rude.

    But that’s a bit of a tangent. I use email in much the same way that you do–to let me word things carefully so I don’t have to make an idiot of myself in person. I can’t think on my feet either (you’re probably right that it’s in our genes) and I sometimes worry excessively about unintentionally saying something that comes across as mean or dumb. So I love how email lets me draft my messages and read over and edit them so I can reduce these problems. (With all that, you might expect my emails to be masterpieces. The sad truth, though, is that I’m striving for normal and straightforward. I start out with stuff like “Og want cheez doodles,” though, so getting there takes a lot of work. πŸ™‚ )

    You’ve already confessed to me that you didn’t write it, but I was struck by how similar the anonymously written article In the Basement of the Ivory Tower sounds to some of your teaching experiences. Particularly the part about being the gatekeeper who has to crush students’ dreams.

  4. 4

    I see Ziff beat me to the Atlantic article linkage, but I would bet Eve has already read it.

    No offense to Eve or anyone else out there, but I’m so glad that I didn’t pursue a career in teaching composition.

    So now I work in higher ed PR. And I assume that every single e-mail I send, work or personal, could become public. That doesn’t mean that I don’t express opinions in my e-mail correspondence. Or that it’s always totally formal. But I’ve seen too many instances where an e-mail blew up in someone’s face and was broadcast widely (sometimes around the world) to be comfortable sending overly emotional responses in an e-mail.

  5. 5

    There’s some science on the email/aggression thing, and it’s a genuine effect: email removes the vocal and facial clues that signal the humanity of our interlocutors and often prevent us from escalating all the way into maximum rage. One piece actually provides a theoretical account complete with charming title: the dispute-exacerbating model of email.

    I’ve had plenty of these kinds of confrontational email experiences. It’s generally worth doing what you did in these accounts, Eve: taking a deep breath and backing away from it all before sending a response. I also find it helpful to imagine the sender’s face before replying to a confrontational email; it helps me remember that I’m interacting with a person, not just an automated generator of irritating or angry words.

    I’ve also had plenty of students emailing to complain about their grades. There’s no real solution to that, I’m afraid.

  6. 6

    I have a friend that teaches the same course in person and on-line to basically the same kind of student; she tells me that her on-line students, the ones who only know her through e-mail, are much more rude than the ones she sees on a weekly basis.

    My best e-mail friend is my draft box–I have many snarky e-mails sitting there I am glad I have not sent.

  7. 7

    I do find that I can be rude in email, but it really is not as effective as talking in person. With email, there is always a risk that someone will read the sentence and assume that I meant to have a smiley face after it. To really be rude and make sure it sticks, I have to walk over to a person’s office and speak to them in person. This way they can see my face and tell that I mean exactly what I am saying, that what they are doing is idiotic, and that they’ve pissed me off one too many times.

  8. 8

    Remember, email started with the engineering and scientific community, which tends to be overpopulated with passive-aggressive, confrontation-avoiding namby-pambys. In other words, just because we all invented this cool tool doesn’t mean that it works well for every other industry… πŸ˜‰

  9. 9

    Email has been a huge benefit to me. Like you, I am phone-averse, and email allows me to take control of how and when I engage with people. I can go through my inbox and take care of what needs to be done without having to answer the @&%#& phone every five minutes.

    My biggest gripe about it is the spam (cheap merchandise, female companionship, viagra) and chain emails. These are mostly from church members, and they are sometimes even worse than the spam.

  10. 10

    This complaint sounds awfully familiar, Eve. One of these days, we’ll have to trade war stories.

    For the moment, though, I’ve got to get back to grading the giant stack of exams. You know, so my students will have something to complain about. πŸ˜‰

  11. 11

    I had a friend who taught the pre-med class at a university where it was his job to do the same thing for donors who did not understand the price threshold difference between buying your way into the university and buying your way into the medical school.

    The class was always taught by TAs, and they were warned up front that they would only get two semesters of teaching in it in order to appease the parents whose kids they were going to flunk.

    Sorry you’ve got that job.

  12. 12

    Eve – you handled both situations admirably. And at least you didn’t have the students’ parents calling you to complain.

    Email is dangerous, not only because of the reasons you and others have mentioned, but also because electronic communications are a permanent record – and almost impossible to destroy.

    Another downside to email is that students expect an INSTANTANTEOUS response. Before I start going all Andy Rooney here, there are two primary things wrong with students these days: (1) their indomitable sense of entitlement and (2) their incessant demand for instant gratification.

  13. 13

    My little brother recently sent one of his humanities professors an email like what you’re describing (and worse–I believe he called the prof unprofessional, or something like that). And then, after sending the email, he called me. I let him know that he is never to send an angry email (a) without sleeping on it, and (b) without calling me first. He didn’t seem to grasp (in the same way your students don’t seem to grasp) the permanence of email, the portability, and lack of social clues and markers. I think that it is generally hard to be so aggressive in person, and you can’t hit send without thinking in an actual letter. But in email . . .

    It just blows me away that kids (and some adults) don’t understand that an email can be forwarded around the world (to the chagrin of at least one New York summer associate every summer) and that clients/teachers/colleagues/whomever will judge you on the way it’s written. Sure it can be informal, but if I were a client or a teacher, I’d expect to see capitalization, punctuation, and some other basic niceties of writing. (Of course, if you’re a composition teacher, you know that better than I do.)

    And I was thinking the Atlantic article that Ziff and William got to before me, too–in a lot of ways, this lines up perfectly with that professor’s experience.

  14. 14

    This post is not helping my indecision about going off to grad school in the fall πŸ™‚ I’ve had a yucky class this quarter too (I’m currently teaching for a technical college).

    E-mail is a double-edged sword; I’m a big phone phobe and I really like it for things like arranging visiting teaching, when it saves a bunch of little phone calls. Our ward Relief Society has eliminated handouts with announcements by sending around a weekly email with all the important information for what’s going on, including links to the lesson for Sunday.

    On the other hand, the problems you pointed out are very real. It’s very easy to be much more rude in writing that you are with someone in person, especially if you don’t actually have any personal contact with the person you’re having a conversation with. I had a very unpleasant experience on my blog a few months ago where a random commenter who I don’t know at all (most of my readers are people I have met in person) misinterpreted a post and left very nasty comments about me. It was difficult because I had no idea who she was and no way to gauge what she was saying, let alone how to respond. I always remember that it takes one person to start an argument, but two people to keep it going.

  15. 15

    I agree with what you are saying, but I’ve had at least one experience with email that went the other way. My father and I had a very emotional issue we needed to deal with and were dreading doing this in person or on the phone. I suggested email. We went back and forth for several weeks dealing with the problem. It was absolutely a perfect solution for us. We could read the other person’s point of view, rage about it if we wanted, then calm down to write a reasoned response. If the first draft wasn’t exactly what we meant to say, we could revise as often as we wished without unintentionally hurting the other’s feelings. In general, I prefer face-to-face contact, but for this very volatile situation it worked well.

  16. 16

    An e-mail situation that worked out well for me was my courtship with Left Field. We pretty much fell in love by e-mail, though we met in person every couple of weeks for several months before we got engaged.

  17. 17

    It’s a blessing or a curse, and I have found that that depends almost entirely on me – not those who send me the messages.

    I try to re-read what I have typed prior to sending it (e-mail or blog comment) and try to understand how I would react if it were being sent to me. That usually works to soften the tone. There still are misunderstandings that arise occasionally, but they happen more rarely than before I began this focus.

    Btw, if I were dealing again with multiple angry students, I would far rather deal with them initially via e-mail. That gives me the chance to pick and choose with whom I deal first – and those I simply avoid unless they press the issue. Sometimes, venting is all some students do, and if you ignore them they stop.

  18. 18

    If you ever need a laugh, just watch this primer on the different between real life and the Internet.

    I’ve found that if anyone ever gets angry and goes off on me online, responding really nicely and being kind about it makes them calm down and apologize pretty quickly.

  19. Pingback: Virtual Oases, June 1 « The Exponent

  20. 20

    Wow! I so agree with you. There is something about the current generation of college students that feel entitled to good grades without working for them. How many calls from parents have you received? I can’t believe how mister joe cool, I’m-21-now-so-I-can-drink-legally, has to have his mommy call to complain about his grades. It just blows me away.

    And as far as the e-mail goes, I think if they have to teach a university 101 (intro to college life) about how not to get drunk and date-raped, the least they could do is include a section on how to write a civil e-mail to an instructor. Granted I do not hold my PhD yet, but when a student sends the old “hey bro…” greeting at the beginning of the e-mail, I want to just flag it as junk mail. Anything that follows just can’t be taken seriously, and is usually a complaint about how late they stayed out last night and if they can get an extension on the homework since I’m such a nice guy. Some people really have the audacity to be completely unethical.

    On more than one occasion have I found myself writing a page long e-mail to a student in a fit of rage wondering how they made it to college, only to erase it after calming down, and then sending a one line e-mail stating that we should discuss the issue during my office hours, knowing full well that most of the time they will never get around to coming to my office.

    I guess more than anything its just aggravating for the amount of time we put into planning, preparing and teaching a class, the least the student could do is show some respect, maybe even pay a little attention and if we are lucky, do the homework. Is that too much to ask? Maybe.

  21. 21

    Thanks, as always, for so many kind, encouraging words. It’s particularly comforting to know I’m not alone in struggling with difficult students and their email habits!

    queuno, I’m especially fascinated by your accounts of professors who just delete complaints. Ray similarly mentioned that some people are just venting. I’ve certainly been tempted to ignore student emails, but I’ve always felt somehow that a complaint, however unfounded or obnoxious, deserved some kind of response, even if only a one-liner. I do like Addere Coram’s suggestion of requiring complainers to see me in person, and especially during the semester I’ve generally done that. On the other hand, Ray’s right that some situations are easier to defuse via email. In this case the student claimed to be complaining on behalf of four others, so I just ignored the four others, addressed only his concerns, and told him that the university handles grade complaints on a case-by-case basis. So far it’s been effective at making the complainants who lacked the nerve to contact me themselves disappear, as I’d hoped it would. I suspect they were just hoping to ride an easy bandwagon to a better grade.

    Ann, I too struggle to find the right tone. Sometimes I’ve read emails I’m drafting aloud to my husband, and he’s told me I’m being too conciliatory. Of course we all sometimes we have to communicate unpleasant things people don’t want to hear. Sometimes there’s simply no way to avoid upsetting people, no matter how we communicate.

    Ziff, me too. It’s such a Zelophehad family affliction. Then after I send an email over which I’ve agonized I agonize waiting for a response. Argggh. I periodically conclude that I just shouldn’t interact with other people at all. It’s too hard on my neuroses. πŸ™‚

    William, I totally understand getting out of teaching comp. Good reminder too about the eternity of email (and blog posts and comments, more’s the horror).

    I really like RT’s suggestion about imagining the person’s face. Some people whose ideas have driven me to frothing rage have taken me completely aback when I met them in person and they were so…nice, so human. I suddenly couldn’t froth at them anymore. Although I wouldn’t be dying to post my own picture, I’ve sometimes wondered if just having the sender’s face come in with the email wouldn’t make me more humane.

    ESO, I taught online for awhile too and that was exactly my experience. The online students were, as a group, significantly ruder than my face-to-face students.

    Jacob J, heh heh.

    queuno, is it possible that email is spreading the virus of passive-aggressive namby-pambiness?

    Mark IV, oh yeah, chain emails from church members! I didn’t even think about that when I wrote this post, but I recently blocked the address of an old friend who was sending me several chain emails a week, sob stories about dying children turning into angels and glurge and random inflammatory petitions.

    Ethesis, ECS, Sam B, Kaimi, FoxyJ–so glad to hear I’m not alone in my teacherly frustrations! As ECS said, I hate to fall into the finger-wagging this-younger-generation cliche, but I have to admit that nothing pushes my buttons as a teacher more than an overblown sense of entitlement. I’m sure that’s partly because I’ve never protested a grade in my life; if I got a grade I didn’t like, I always assumed it was my own fault (and frankly I’ve gotten a number of As and thought that I’d somehow hoodwinked the professor because I clearly deserved less!)

    Good luck with your decision on grad school, FoxyJ. (You’re in comp lit, right? I’d love to hear more about your particular interests and all–drop me a line if you’d like.)

    Ann and Bored in Vernal, I’m so glad to hear that sometimes email works well. I do sometimes get pleasant, kind emails that make my day. Sometimes just a friendly name in my inbox makes all the difference in my mood.

    Susan M, yep, that just about sums it up!

  22. 22

    SusanM, love that primer!

    Great post, Eve! A much needed one for all teachers at the end of the school year πŸ™‚

  23. 23

    Eve, I just read your post (had to skip the comments b/c we’re headed out) but I wish I had read this a few hours ago!
    An old HS friend of mine is helping me plan a Seminary Council BBQ the night before our HS reunion. So, I haven’t seen her in years, but we’ll see each other on Friday.
    And, it happens that she is one of those people who sends along Mormon forwards. So the one she sent today was a political forward (because every Mormon is Republican, right?) with her note that she, “prays that McCain will win” . Included was a slanderous video of Barak Obama, and I was very upset, even angry. I took a while to calm down, but I still sent her a short email about how upset I was and that I prayed that Obama would win.
    I felt bad afterward, and wished I had waited or not sent it.
    I think it might make our party on Friday a little awkward.
    Anyway, thanks for the post. You are absolutely right about email. It does make us do things we wouldn’t do in person, or even over the phone.

  24. 24

    I have an ambivalent relationship to email. On the one hand, like Eve and a couple of others on this thread, as an introvert I find that many things are so much easier to do over email. I really hate calling people, and I think things like visiting teaching are so much easier if you can set things up over email and not have to pick up the phone. Also, it can be a great way to keep in touch–with my family so geographically scattered, for example, I really like how our family email groups keep me feeling more connected to them than I probably would be otherwise.

    When I’m teaching, though, or when I’m using email to negotiate academic issues of various kinds, I have to admit that checking email morphs from an entertaining distraction to something I dread. And though I often enjoy using email to stay in touch with friends, sometimes I get overwhelmed by it, especially when I find myself with a backlog of unanswered emails and a nagging feeling of guilt for avoiding them. And the longer I wait, the worse it gets, because then I have to explain why I’ve failed to answer for six months or whatever.

    As far as email lowering social inhibitions, I think that can be a positive or a negative. I suspect we’ve all seen examples of the negative. But there have been times in my life that email has been a real lifesaver for me, because it’s enabled me to have some important conversations about difficult subjects that I might never have managed to bring up in person.

  25. 25

    Sorry, Eve that you have had such a rotten semester.

    I prefer to get students’ complaints via email rather than in person and definitely before they vent on course evaluations. I do not do well with conflict, and it is easier for me to sort out my emotions, get advice from colleagues, and decide on a rational course of action before I respond to the student.

    Most of the students who have been frustrated with my classes (usually with their grades) have been male. I am a woman, short, and young, and I feel physically intimidated by these men. The last thing I want to do is have a private meeting in my office with these angry students. Not that I think they would actually physically harm me, but I do not have much confidence in my ability to be firm and professional in such situations. This semester I referred a particularly insistent student to the department ombudsman so that he could mediate.

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