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Tips for Using Email with Students
Note: This is a letter to the editor I submitted to the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

To the Editor:

Lucia Perillo's experience with email highlights important considerations to keep in mind—and signals the types of adjustments to make—when using email with our classes ("Email and the Law of Unintended Consequences," Point of View, March 3). When I do workshops for colleagues on using email, I suggest the following considerations and adjustments:

  • When using email with a class, look into getting a class distribution list that both you and your students can write to. Addressing mail to one list is easier than entering 15–30 (or more) names on a regular basis. Advise students to write to the list for all class-related queries and updates (homework assignments, deadline information, follow-ups to class discussions, sharing of resources, etc.). Quite often, a question posed by one student will be ably answered by another, saving you time and energy.

  • Present to students the parameters for the class list, as well as information about how you plan to use email in general, including why and when you'll be sending them individual messages. Establish guidelines for when you'll respond to their email and what kind of messages you'll respond to. You don't need to respond to every message you receive.

  • Set aside email office hours, times of the day or week that will be spent on class email. Remind students of those hours so that they don't expect an instant response to every message they send you.

  • If you receive a sudden deluge of student email, don't hesitate to send a quick email to all your students telling them you won't have time to respond to their messages until a later date.

  • Since there are so many different email environments and email writing habits, students will default to what they are used to doing, which is usually less formal than you might like for your classroom setting. Therefore, establish email etiquette guidelines for students based on what is important to you in reading email. For me, accurate subject lines and signing messages with names and email addresses are always important.

  • Give students a sample message and ask them to follow its general principles—making sure, of course, that you do the same.

  • It is worth going over how email responses will differ from comments in the margins and at the ends of papers, office visits, phone calls, and classroom discussions. It is also worth addressing flaming and other issues directly and in advance. Just because the technology seems to encourage careless writing and flaming doesn't mean those behaviors are inevitable. Remind students to think before writing and to consider carefully before sending any message written in heat.

  • Even with careful planning and adjusting your use of email after trial and error, something new will come along. ... However, you will learn to adjust quickly and almost seamlessly to glitches and setbacks.

The key to using any teaching technology is learning how to control it as much as possible and finding ways to use it that support your teaching goals. Email offers unique challenges in this regard, but ones that are worth engaging because of the many benefits that email can bring to teaching.

We need to plan on using it carefully because we'll all end up, sooner or later, using it in our teaching anyway, much the way we now use phones, office hours, and class discussions to talk with our students.

Nick Carbone
Director, Writers' Center
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colo.
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