Is an Apology Enough?

Brian Taylor

August 01, 2012

Question: I made a classic e-mail gaffe. I'm a first-year professor, and I intended to send an e-mail to my co-teacher about some of the problem students in our class. I named the students who hadn't turned in their work, and I expressed some dramatic frustration, in vivid language—and then accidentally sent my note to the entire class. I'll spare you the details of how I managed this awful mistake.

Once I realized what happened, I replied and apologized. I kept it short, just three sincere and humble sentences. I informed my co-teacher about my mistake and my follow-up. Aside from wishing for a time machine, is there anything else I can and should do to rectify this? Or do I let it go and hope others do the same?

Answer: Ms. Mentor is reminded of a young barber who got hold of a shocking secret about the king. The barber, call him "Dunderhead," knew he couldn't tell his friends, but he had to tell somebody. So he dug a hole in the ground and whispered into it, "King Midas has ass's ears!" It turned out that a clump of hollow reeds nearby had some sort of magical power, so that all of Phrygia got the news, as if trumpeted from the trees: "King Midas has ass's ears!"

King Midas, of course, denied everything and said the quote was an evil rumor taken out of context. And anyone who persisted would have his own ears cut off. Dunderhead was apparently not heard from again (Ms. Mentor couldn't find him through Google or Facebook)—and yet the rumor took on a life of its own, and she still hears, now and then: "Oh, sure, King Midas is mega-rich, but have you heard about his ears?"

Which is by way of saying that time can't erase the memory of truly weird gossip. Nor can anything ever be fully erased from the Internet ("Psst. The provost has ass's ears. Don't tell anyone.")

But when a story is clearly innocent, like yours, you can manage it best by ignoring it and letting it die. Also think of yourself as part of a grand tradition studied widely in academe: the misdirected message.

Historians know, for instance, that the Battle of Antietam was won by the Union troops once they found the Confederate battle plan, wrapped around somebody's cigars. The Battle of New Orleans took place in 1814 because the combatants hadn't yet gotten a letter telling them that the War of 1812 was over.

Poor Romeo and Juliet, too—dead because of a letter that wasn't delivered. (Teen readers today find it incomprehensible that a death was faked and no one was tweeted.)

As for your gaffe: It happens to everyone at least once. Most likely you hit "reply" and sent your e-mail to an entire list rather than to an individual. Such mistakes were legendary in the early days of e-mail. "Marie," for instance, thought she'd be sending her confidential e-mail to her best friend, with a detailed account of her affair. Instead it went out to some 7,000 people on a chemistry list.

Other academics have e-mailed hiring tidbits ("We wrote the ad to fit Phil, and stupid HR didn't even notice.") Some have revealed honest opinions ("Once I get tenure, I'm never going to speak to X again. He makes my skin crawl. Blaergh.") And academics, like civilians, have sometimes e-mailed to the wrong people their credit-card numbers, their medical issues, or their guilty-pleasure entertainment preferences.

If it's sensitive information that you wouldn't want broadcast on Facebook, then don't put it in an e-mail. If you can't bear not to write it down (a curse of literacy), then write it in some kind of code. Write it in French or Sanskrit. Get a free e-mail account with a screen name that no one would ever associate with you. Never write anything sensitive while there's an e-mail address lurking atop the message. A momentary distraction ("I have a text!"), a drop-in colleague ("Got a minute?"), even a stray elbow can make you accidentally hit "send." And then you're awash in embarrassment and confusion.

A famous scholar in the humanities once posted, "I kiss the hem of your toes" on an academic e-mail list, but because she was powerful and known to be quite eccentric, the eye rolling was minimal. "An unfortunate clerical error," she huffed. People snickered and said, "Whatever."

Which is what they'll do with your gaffe. The students who see your e-mail may decide that you're a more caring teacher than they thought. Some may realize, for the first time, that teachers have feelings and really do want their students to succeed. But if you apologize all over yourself, they won't be able to forget—and then they'll be annoyed.

Right now you've done exactly the right thing: Apologize quickly, then move on. Ms. Mentor congratulates you on your professional savvy.

If you crave further study, you can find a discussion on "epic e-mail gaffes" in The Chronicle's forums. Many are far more egregious than yours.

Or you can try the extreme cover-up suggested by Ms. Mentor's consultant, Techno Ted. You can decry your mass mailing as the work of a hacker, and follow up with further proof: a disgusting, vile, outrageously offensive mailing, full of warts, that someone like you would never send. Blame a Russian or Nigerian hacker, apologize profusely, and look (relatively) sane.

But you really don't need to go to all that trouble. What you need to do, next time you feel the urge to vent, is pick up the phone.

Question: I have a good job, a spouse, and kids, and we live exactly where we want to be, but I'm underpaid and my bosses say there's no money (it's a state school). Should I slink away, figuring they're telling me the truth in this terrible economic climate? Or should I conclude that they're liars and thieves, as people in power always are, and that I need to figure out ways to undermine and punish them?

Answer: Slink.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor thanks those who've already sent nominations for next year's Ackies (Academic Novel Awards). More than 40 books lie ungraded and unreviewed, and witty, snarky new ones continue to appear.

In what's left of the summer, Ms. Mentor urges her flock to write letters to lawmakers and newspapers about funds for education, including student loans. Opportunities are slipping away.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, rants, and gossip. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. She does not share her private e-mail with anyone. All communications are confidential, and identifying details in printed letters are always mercilessly muddied. If you wish to speculate as to who is whom, Ms. Mentor recommends that you send your speculations only to her, not to your Facebook friends or e-mail-list cronies.

© Emily Toth. All rights reserved.

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. Her latest book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is