stacks of papersI’m just going to come out and say it: this semester was a doozy. And by “doozy,” I mean I barely hung on by my finger tips. A lot of this had to do with the sheer number of students I had, and the sheer number of assignments (written and otherwise) they had—all of which equated to an an almost daily torrent of of emails which not only took far more time than I would have liked to sort out (thereby taking precious time away from other things—both academic and personal), but became a source of incredibly irrational stress (one night a couple of weeks back I actually dreamt that every time I answered one email, three more spawned in its place.).

The end result is that, for the first time ever, I’m very seriously considering developing a formal electronic communication policy. When I say “electronic communication,” I’m not only talking about email, but other channels like IM and Twitter (both of which I use extensively to communicate with my students). I’ve never even considered something like this before. I’ve always had a very “student centered” email policy—and by that I mean I’ve always prioritized responding to student emails above almost all other tasks.

But after this semester, I simply cannot afford not to have some sort of formal policy that governs how I interact with students over email (and other electronic channels), and how I expect them to interact with me. Given this, here is how my electronic communication policy is shaping up (call it a pre-alpha build at this stage):


I’ve found that one of the most stressful things for me are students who expect an immediate email response. Even more stressful are students who email less than 24 hours of their original email saying something like “I don’t know if you got my last email...” As many of us know there is an expectation that an email requires an immediate response—something which is rarely possible. The other issue is that these “please respond immediately” emails are often asking for answers to questions which are well within the power of the student to answer themselves—with a simple Google search or a review of the course materials (website, syllabus, etc.)


In order to address this, I’m planning on enacting a two part plan that governs the schedule of communication. The first part of this plan speaks to the window of communication. In this, students shouldn’t expect to get a response from me for 48 hours. If I get to their email before the 48 hour period, great. However, they shouldn’t expect me to respond before then. I’m hoping that this 48 hour period will encourage students to try to figure out the answer to their question themselves. The second part of this plan is a blackout period. I’ve decided that unless there is some dire emergency (more on that later) I simply will not respond to emails over the weekend and after 9 pm or so. This may seem harsh, but I’ve got a family (and I like to spend time with them), and answering endless emails on the weekend isn’t conducive to a personal life at all. The flip-side to both of these parts of my schedule plan is that students should be encouraged to send another polite email after a certain amount of time has passed (I think I’m going to go with a week). This way, if I accidentally missed the email or deleted it in error, the student can bring it back to my attention, and I can address it. There will undoubtedly be cases of when students need to get in touch with me via email ASAP—in cases of an emergency. In order to signal these types of emails, I’m going to ask students to put [Emergency] in their subject line. I suspect it is going to become very important to impress upon students the severity of using the [Emergency] tag when there really isn’t an emergency involved.

Required Message Contents

There is nothing worse than getting a one line email from a student saying something like “when is the paper due?” You have no clue which class the student is talking about, which section of the class (if you’ve got multiple sections), which assignment, or even who the student is (beyond their email—which is hardly a good identifier). This is to say nothing about how disrespectful that these kinds of emails can feel. In cases like these, I’ll either send an email back to the student asking them to clarify, or I’ll use their email to look up which class they are in so that I can infer what assignment they are talking about. I rarely (if ever) say something about not appreciating the confusing brevity of the message.

So, what to do? Well, in my shiny new Electronic Communication Manifesto (apparently, I’m calling it a “manifesto” now), I’m going to require that students have the following elements in all emails:

  • Email should open with a salutation (Ethan, Professor Watrall, HRH, whatever)
  • Body of the Message should open with something like “I’m in your HST250 class, section 001"
  • Email should close with the student’s full name, Student ID, and class name and; section (if they didn’t already put that in the body of the message)

What happens if they don’t? Well, I haven’t quite figured that out yet. One option is to say upfront (both in the first day of class and on the course website) that these types of emails will simply be deleted, and I won’t make any effort to find out who they are, what class they are in, or what assignment they are talking about (for example). The other, less harsh, option is to have a boilerplate response which tells them that their message didn’t meet the class requirements and that they should review the electronic communication policy and resend. The problem with this approach is that I’ve got to take the time to write something out (or, at the very least, copy and paste something from a pre-written document). The alternative (that I’m very seriously considering) is to use TextExpander—a handy little Mac app designed just for this purpose. [Look for a ProfHacker post on TextExpander soon! —Ed.]


The Bottom Line

The key to this (or any) electronic communication policy is that students are well aware of it going into the class. Any policy must be talked about in detail on the first day. It should also be front and center on the course website. Students should also be reminded periodically of the policy throughout the semester. I’m also fully aware that any policy that I do end up enacting will most likely go through significant changes, and I’m cool with that.

So, do you have an email policy (or a broader electronic communication policy)? If so, what does it look like? Have you chosen not to have a policy? Why?

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user uzvards]