15 January 2010

Is This Wrong?

I received the following email from a student (who will, of course, remain anonymous) recently.

hey professor,
i wont be in class today because i have a doctors appointment. i kno you said that if we're not in class then you dont care where we are but i just wanted to make sure that you didnt think that i dropped the class or something like that. see you tuesday.
thank you

And here is my response:

The next time you write an email to me, please make an effort to use proper punctuation and grammar. Consider the impression that you are sending to people when you write this way. It is acceptable between friends for casual communication, but it is not acceptable in business communications.

Is it wrong to reprimand an unsuspecting student this way? This is a frosh who's taking me for the first time, not an upper division student who knows me well, so this surely comes as a bolt out of the blue for him/her.

But in the past several years--and I literally mean just the last 3 or 4--this kind of email has become very common. I would not be surprised if the student sent it from his/her phone, which encourages all lower-case typing, but that's not necessarily the case. The IM style has infected regular email correspondence as well.

Let me note several things:
  1. I don't think such a style is always inappropriate. As I noted in my response, it's fine for casual communication between friends.
  2. I don't intend this as a "students these days" kind of criticism. Only a fool could doubt that students in my day would have done the same had we had this technology. (I'm not immune to the tendency to think that students are getting worse every year, but that's just a function of age. I don't think the data that I have, casual as they are, support such a claim at all.)
  3. Despite left-wing criticisms of contemporary education as being just about creating good corporate citizens, the reality is that the vast majority of students I teach will end up in the business world in some capacity or other. Unless the norms of the business world change, communication-style will continue to matter, and styles that suggest (even if inaccurately) illiteracy will be detrimental to their success.
Given #3 as an assumption (I can't say for sure that it is true, as I am quite insulated from the business world), is it better that an 18 year receives a rude shock now, when the cost is purely psychic, or that a 22 year old receive that shock, when there is a financial cost in addition to the psychic one?

Or have I just become a cantankerous old bastard?

1 comment:

Scott Hanley said...

Resisting the temptation to reply to your very last question ...

It would be useful to know what medium the student was using. It sounds awfully wordy for an IM, for which I would be inclined to revive telegraph-style terseness (no articles, use of "I", etc.).

But that's an interesting problem in itself: different communication tools favor different styles, and rightly enough, but now the recipient isn't necessarily aware of what tool the write was using. In the olden days, if you received a brief "Will meet Friday," you knew whether it was a telegraph message, a quick memo, or a letter - in the latter case, the style would be inappropriate. Now you don't know.

People - especially in situations of power differential and shallow familiarity, like universities and corporations - can be very sensitive to whether they're being respected or not. I would imagine that etiquette has to prevail, because I don't see many bosses tolerating a communication style that's as egalitarian as high school pretends to be. Nor other business contacts being insensitive to whether this salesman respects them or not.

So even an IM, outside a familiar relationship, surely must obey some level etiquette.

Maybe there's some significance that, when English dropped its distinction between you and thou, it was the familiar form that got dropped? And that in egalitarian America, everyone could be called a "gentleman?" I would bet against informality totally winning the day.