Manners in The Syllabus

This year, I will incorporate a manners section on my syllabi.    The time has come.  Silly so you say.  No, I don’t think so. This was the brainchild of my sixteen year-old, who, by the way, is named Sage.  The wise child thinks this will spare me the need to remind students to place appropriate greeting lines when they write to professors, judges, librarians, my assistant, or the clients they serve in internships and at the legal clinics.  After all, it is helpful to know to whom a missive is directed—and without a name, it could be for anyone.

At a recent conference of law professors, a colleague-Professor 1–at another law school informed me that she deletes emails received without a greeting line.   “That’s too hardcore,” claimed another—Professor 2–who admits that he and his students operate on the first name basis in and out of class.

Professor 1 told the group, “Look, I’m not asking for fancy, but addressing me by Professor is the least they can do.”  The “they” are her students.  Others nodded in sympathy.  For years, I have included a few lines about conduct in the classroom in my syllabi.  After all, I believe in rigorous debate, and I think a healthy dose of disagreement is good in the classroom.  Just be civil.  And usually, my students are.

But manners…those are another thing altogether, and something I’ve noticed on the decline.  It wasn’t always this way.  Oh, the Glory Days.

Technology has something to do with it.  Students have grown up texting each other.  And some find it completely appropriate to send an unaddressed email to a professor, because this is what they do to their friends and parents.  Let’s face it; in this brave, new world suitors propose, couples break up, and marriages dissolve, all in text messages.  Good grief!  At least, include a “Dear Ann” line before popping the question.  I try to model this for my students, always including a “Dear Jane,” or “Hello, Jane” greeting line, hoping this will catch on.

Also with technology comes the expectation of speedy replies, because in an “instant messaging” world, students are used to typing quick snippets of the most intimate and profound detail to their friends, and receiving blazing fast responses.  But, as Professor 1 put it bluntly, “God help the professor who fails to respond by 8am the next morning to an email that comes in at 10pm the night before.”

Perhaps, she expects too much.  But, I too share some of those expectations, and have experienced the frustrations.

Admittedly, I was raised in a different generation and with people who placed the highest emphasis on dignity and manners.  My grandmothers fixated about children being raised “right” and “properly.”  “No home training,” was their typical response to a range of situations involving poor manners on display.

The anecdotal stories about loud bubble gum chewing in seminars, web surfing during class, students announcing to the class that the professor is wrong because they found a different answer on a blog, failing to thank professors after dinner at their homes, instant messaging each other answers during class, or students forgetting to acknowledge professors’ efforts after writing letters of recommendation on short notice, are becoming more common.

My answer: make your expectations clear in the syllabus!  But it’s a little awkward, isn’t it?  They are our students—and not our children—and as Professor 2 announced, “they pay hefty tuition.”

And after all, what would you write:  “Mind your manners?”

But here’s the unique case for law professors to think about manners.  At law schools, we are to model professionalism and also teach it.  Before a law student can sit for the Bar examination, she has to pass a “Character and Fitness” inquiry and an ethics exam.  Even when our students don’t take etiquette seriously, judges still do (and their bosses and clients will too).

I recall taking a law student to lunch to explain why he needed to look professional for his summer judicial internship (his baggy jeans and heavy gold chain just wouldn’t do the trick).   The student insisted that the culture of the legal profession should change to accommodate his look, because, as he explained, he was interested in civil rights and working with elderly African Americans.  I responded that Black seniors deserve better than that.

I’ve heard similar sentiments from other students.  But, what jury will take seriously a lawyer dressed like a fading Elvis or one resembling John Travolta in Grease or Saturday Night Fever?

For some clients, life, liberty or property will be at stake, and the last distraction they need is a judge or jury’s preoccupation with their lawyer’s ill-suited conduct or dress.


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