What Would Happen If Your Boss Received These E-mails?

Posted by on Sep 17, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 17 comments

“Right. We had someone great about to start today, but we just got word that they’re in Bora Bora and said they can’t show up for the first day. Looks like we’ll be searching again.”

(Here I am already! Returning to school may give me more ideas for blogging than I can keep up with! A quick post because it is timely for me… and important. Critical even. I hope you feel the same. A couple programming notes: Tonight, 9/17, 6 p.m. if you have some time, join me as @YouTern’s guest on Twitter for their #InternPro chat. We’re talking about “School and Career Success: The Art of Interacting with Professors.” Could the topic be any more parallel after you read today’s post? Join the conversation! And tomorrow, 9/18… big day! UW Bookstore! Who’s visiting at 7 p.m.?).

I want to preface this post by saying two things: First, as always, the nature of these e-mails has been heavily changed to protect student privacy. Second, beyond this post, let me reiterate my blog’s disclaimer: As a general rule, I will not write about specific occurrences that exist in a current term to maintain my students’ comfort and privacy. Now, on to the e-mails:

“I am in Bora Bora and my flight could be delayed. I may be late to class on our first day and wanted to let you know.”

“I have an obligation for another program and cannot make our first class meeting. Can someone else come to class for me.”

“I am out of town and won’t be at our first class. Can you please let me know what I am going to miss?”

At my college, students will return on September 24th. These e-mails have filed in over the past week and a half. I am a little concerned about how many more may still arrive between now and next week.

I teach hybrid courses that meet just once per week in a block of time, either two hours or four hours. The rest is online. If you miss one, it is like missing two or even four traditionally scheduled classes.

We both know that when I pick my class times and when students pick class times, we commit to those times, right? The date that fall term starts is publicized, as well. So, the information is known and we can all adjust our schedules accordingly.

I have seen many college success books and articles discuss the topic of missing the first day of class. The general recommendation is, of course, that you shouldn’t. This particular issue is peppered by students probably believing that they are doing the correct and responsible thing by e-mailing ahead of time. I have to say that exact scenarios like these are the key reasons ones I compiled 10 years of notes for STNT, and why I believed that students deserved to know what faculty really think when these situations happen. With missing the first day and these e-mails, I find it almost tragic that students may not connect the fundamental work ethic issue.

I recently blogged about how much I liked one Huffington Post student author’s take on the idea that college should be seen as a 9-5 job. I am so wanting to run with that thought more and more… shout it from the rooftops! What if a boss received an e-mail like these about the first day of work?

What if my boss received the following e-mail about my first day of work?:

“Dear Vice President,

I’m unable to come to my classes on the first day. I have another obligation. Can you please get someone to cover for me? Let me know what they do while I’m gone.

Thank you,


How would that fly?

Or, let’s try this one:

“Dear New Boss,

I’m going to be a half-hour late for my first day on the job. I had a trip scheduled and this is when my flight gets in. I know jobs are still hard to come by these days, and lots of people are standing in line for this one. I also know that you’re paying me a salary, but I booked this trip and this couldn’t be helped.

I’ll be right in when my flight lands (if my flight isn’t delayed and if baggage claim doesn’t take forever).

Thank you,


I think I’m making my point.

Wonderful students, you probably already know that receiving this type of e-mail doesn’t exactly kick off the greatest relationship with your professor. I won’t hold grudges with these students. That’s not who I am, by any means. But we’re just starting off. Before we’ve even met, I’ve already had to be direct and that doesn’t feel so great i.e.,:

“I totally understand your situation. Our class meets just once a week. You stand to miss a lot of information that very first class session when we will meet for pretty much the entire time. If you absolutely must miss, then I will need you to be responsible for going into the course management system, reviewing the syllabus and all of the start-up materials thoroughly and coming back to me with questions after you’ve taken responsibility to bring yourself up to speed.”

In other words, I need the student to be fully proactive and responsible for the choices that he/she is making, and not ask me for permission. After all, I can’t give 20-something other people permission to miss that first class, can I?

I know that for many of you reading this, college has already started. If this post can pre-emptively make a difference for just one student who may reconsider skipping the first day of spring term or any term, it will be worth it to me to get this topic out in the open.

Let’s focus on professionalism here. Like I said, I’m totally on to this concept of embracing college as a job.

If that’s the case, day 1 is the day to set the absolute best impression, make that important first-day connection with your prof and your peers, and kick your term off right.

Even going into class a day or two later can mean stressful catch-up for you.

You deserve a smoother start than that and I want you to have it!

I invite commentary from my academic and non-academic colleagues (and that always includes students, too!) on this subject!





  1. What a terrible way to start the academic year. Despite this, I hope you will enjoy your first day of classes!


    • Hi, Kenna,

      This isn’t new… I just wasn’t blogging in the years when it happened before :-) . But we will get through it, and the good news is that now I’m on a renewed mission to teach students the right way to do things–like be employable! So, go all of us!

      Thank you!

  2. I can’t agree more. The informality students, or anyone really, take within e-mails is a problem. With the amount of communication via internet these days students need to realize ASAP that electronic communication and professionalism matter just as much as in-person, and it literally leaves a trace of what they’ve said behind them; it can have serious consequences if they aren’t careful.

    • Hi, Justine,

      You know, it’s funny… I was focusing so much on the missing class aspect of this situation that I didn’t even think of the e-mail part :-) . You make a good point, though, that the communication from that perspective is equally problematic! Fortunately, the e-mails that I received, for the most part were well-written, but that often is not the case, as you mentioned. I have colleagues who will not accept e-mails unless they are in professional format. I am going to adopt this practice because I think it is important for students to follow.

      You raised an important angle that I missed, so thank you!


  3. I don’t think the comparison holds up well. If it was really business the professors and universities would treat the student as the customer. We all know how big a push there is these days in creating an exceptional customer experience. There are roles and responsibilities on both parties but the customer often does things that frustrate the vendor but usually the vendor values the customer’s business and does what is necessary to secure it.

    • Hi, Mario,

      I appreciate your comment. Does college have to be a business in order for students to treat the work as a job? I have definitely seen some professors around the country refer to grades as a form of “payment.” It’s an interesting way to refer to grades, isn’t it?

      Professors have a responsibility to be in class on the first day. They are contractually required to be there. Students are not contractually required to attend class, but from a work ethic perspective, shouldn’t they strive to be there? Business, college, or other type of venue… accountability is accountability. Do behaviors necessarily change based on context? I say not always, which was the point that I was trying to make.

      Thank you for your point of view!

  4. Ellen,
    I appreciate your post, and can certainly understand your disappointment in the students, especially on the first day of class.
    I will say as someone who went back to school for my Master’s Degree 20 years after getting my undergrad degree, I looked forward to going to class, learning from the professors, and interacting with the other students in the program. I was also very conscious of getting my money’s worth since it was a financial sacrifice for me to go.
    But as a student who had a high-pressure, full-time job, and a family to care for while simultaneously obtaining my degree, sometimes “real life” did get in the way of me attending class.
    My classes were also in a hybrid format, and believe me, NO ONE was more disappointed about me missing class than I. I LOVED going to class, and loved learning.
    But there were times my job and my family absolutely HAD to be the priority for me, and my professors also received an email telling them I couldn’t be in class.
    I guess–right or wrong–because I was paying for it, I didn’t stop to consider how the professor might feel about me not being there.

    • Hello,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! Yes… as a non-traditional myself when I returned to school, I can totally relate to what you are saying. I was absolutely committed to being in class and I hated missing anything. Even when I was deathly ill or had a truly good reason, I couldn’t stand it. And I have many students like that, as well: Students who are about to give birth, students with cancer, students with gravely ill family members… they will fight heaven and earth and drag hell behind them to get to class. Then there are other students who will skip class for any reason or take their attendance in class very lightly. I don’t know what to do about that. I can’t instill a work ethic if there isn’t one or if there is a questionable one. That is something that comes with maturation, as we both know.

      I’m definitely not saying that a student cannot miss class. I don’t want to give that impression. Professors have an absence policy and it is there for a reason. In my book, I even recommend that students save absences for a time when they really need them. However, missing the first day due to faulty scheduling of a vacation or “just because” is not a good reason, in my mind. Also, the sheer number of these requests is what was starting to concern me.

      Again, I appreciate your words :-) .

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  1. What Would Your Boss Do? | Davis English Addendum - [...] What would your boss do if you sent emails like these? [...]

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