When Rude E-mail Responses Shut You Down, Say This to Get Back to Work

Posted by on Nov 13, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 13 comments

It's a happy little mailbox, but sometimes the message from a prof is a little quick and curt. Use professional communication to turn it around!

It’s a happy little mailbox, but sometimes the message from a prof is a little quick and curt. Use professional, assertive communication to turn it around!

(I’m checking on the student who missed three weeks of class to see if they met with the professor. I’ll update as soon as I know, but I hope there is a favorable outcome. Here is a recent write-in that I’m also escalating because as the term closes in on all of us, e-mails between student and professor become more abundant. It’s easy for curtness to become the norm… even when that may not be the intent. Here we go…)

Ellen,

I am taking a class where I don’t feel like I e-mail the instructor much at all. I don’t want to overreact, but I am very upset by the responses I’m receiving. I’m trying to be congenial in my e-mails. I am even apologizing in advance just in case I’m bothering the instructor. Recently, I had to e-mail to ask for clarification about an assignment. I wanted to make sure I understood what was expected of me. The response? “I said what I said.” That’s it.

I don’t want my grade to be affected because of poor communication. I am unsure of how to proceed and I’m thinking I might need to drop this class, which would be upsetting. I have never been in a situation like this before and I don’t know what to do.

Student

*****

As always, I appeal to you, my wonderful audience, for input first. Should the student continue to ask questions? Address the abruptness? In my opinion, I feel that both are in order, if the student feels that it is possible to stomach the latter. Here is my response: 

Dear Student:

Thank you so much for writing. You aren’t the first person to complain when profs behave this way via e-mail—online profs or otherwise. It’s not kind or civil. E-mail is a part of our jobs, like it or not. If a prof doesn’t want to be “bothered” communicating with e-mail answers, then honestly, office hours or phone access should be the only offerings on that person’s communication “menu” (unless otherwise required by their institution). If the prof teaches online, however, then e-mails are a required part of the job.

I can understand not being warm and fuzzy, but being curt or off-putting, in my opinion, is unacceptable. Sometimes, this is part of a person’s personality, or they truly don’t realize how they are coming across. I know these e-mails can be very, very upsetting and intimidating to students.

My first recommendation is to keep asking questions until your questions are answered. Do NOT apologize because you have the right to e-mail! This is a part of your responsibility as a student, if you will, particularly in an online course.

Think about it this way… if you did poorly, grade-wise, and you blamed the prof, the first thing the prof would say is, “Well, you didn’t e-mail me for help!” So, the blame would go right back to you, the student. This is why apologizing for “bothering” the prof is unnecessary. You are a student. It is your job to need help. It is the prof’s job to provide help in at least a civil and constructive manner, even if the tone isn’t overtly friendly.

From there, when your prof provides cryptic responses, you can say, “I understand ________ may appear clear to you, but this is not answering my question. I am trying to do my absolute best in class, and by my being proactive about requesting your assistance, I’m trying to meet and exceed your expectations. Can you please clarify what you are looking for so I can do that?” You can also say, “I am not the type of student who asks questions unless I genuinely require assistance. My grades thus far in  your class will show you the level of work I strive for.”

Beyond that, I hate to say this, but a phone call may be in order. It is very hard to be so direct to someone voice to voice. You can soften a stern prof easily with a kind and appreciative tone and that person may even feel badly for their poor online behavior.

I don’t know if you’d be at all comfortable addressing the tone issue in a non-grading period. You could see where this situation goes and then send a note just saying, “I need to talk to you about a problem I’m having so it doesn’t hinder the rest of my performance in this class. I try not to e-mail unless I truly need help. However, when I have e-mailed, the responses I’ve received felt like I was bothering you. While I’m sure this was not intended at all, I have felt uncomfortable about asking further questions. I even thought about withdrawing because of this. I wanted to talk to you first, however. I appreciate you reading.”

The key, of course, is to use “I” language, keep the feelings and observations completely to what is happening with you.

If confronting the issue is not at all something you feel you can tolerate, I understand. Many students would not feel comfortable addressing a professor about their tone, but I do think a prof needs to know. The prof honestly may not realize how they sound. I try to be very jovial in my e-mails, but as the term continues, even I get a little more “business” than I intend. Sometimes I have to catch myself if I sound sharp, particularly if I know I just e-mailed the entire class with very thorough instructions (Admittedly, I e-mail my students an almost ridiculous amount with reminders… but I’m a Communication prof!).

Just so you know, if it comes to the point where you need to talk to someone at the college about this, you’d go to a division chair/department head. They *may* ask if you talked to the prof about it first, or they may not. That person would have to decide if this is an issue a student could reasonably discuss with a professor (that would be totally based on the perception of the division chair/department head—they may handle the complaint, themselves, too). You also have the student evaluation to fall back on, at the very least, unless the person is part-time or tenured, in which case, you may not be offered one, but I would report it to the division chair/department head anyway—if you choose not to talk to the prof directly during the term.

I hope I’ve been helpful to you. I know you will find the right way to deal with the issue that is comfortable for you. Don’t drop the class. You’ve done NOTHING wrong!

Ellen

(Update 11/16: Want to know how this situation turned out? Jump to the update!)

*****
Did you know that Say This, NOT That to Your Professor has quite a few chapters on e-mail communication with professors? You can look inside or read this awesome review about just that angle by OnlineCollege.org.

13 Comments

  1. This is a tricky situation and it feels as though there may be more information that would be helpful in responding to this student. The student doesn’t actually say whether this is an online class. If not, then e-mail may not be the best form of communication with this professor. A meeting in person is almost always preferable to an e-mail if possible. The student also doesn’t explain the question about the assignment. Although a rude response is never warranted, it isn’t clear whether the question was something obvious in the assignment or whether something else is going on. There may be another side to the story.

    As far as responding to the professor and asking for more information, it might be helpful if the student explains his/her understanding of the assignment and then asks if that is correct. If the answer is yes, it’s set. If the answer is no, hopefully the professor will explain.

    Unfortunately, some basic reminders about good communication skills seem in order here. Ellen, perhaps your next book should be “Say This Not That to Your Student!”

    • Hi, Vicki,

      Thank you so much, as always! Of course, I sanitize student questions in a big way, so I purposely left it vague as to whether the student was in an online or F2F course. Suffice it to say, however, that this is a strong student who was genuine about not asking numerous, unnecessary questions. This issue seemed to be a repetitive one that had been going on throughout the course in the student-professor dynamic. Then it came to a head.

      I actually know the outcome of this situation. Stay tuned!
      Ellen

  2. I’d agree with the advice if the Prof is just being difficult. Two alternate possibilities came to mind (I’msure there are others too).
    1. The Prof could be bad with email. It still would be a good-enough email, but it might have come off worse than intended, so do try in person first.
    2. Is there any chance that the assignment is intentionally vague? It’s hard to guess without knowing what “he said”. Is there any chance he was trying to say like a puzzle.
    I know that’s a stretch and my point is really just that I suggest first assuming that it was poor judgment on the profs side and not meant to be as mean as it can be take. Either way, you have done nothing wrong, but do try talking to the Prof. Also, is there anyway to ask another student what they think the topic is?
    Good luck

    • Hi, Layla,

      Nice to see you again and thank you for responding. I know what you’re saying about being bad with e-mail, though I feel like in these times, profs just don’t have that luxury. The communication medium is a necessary part of our lives. I think a lot of students end up going to other students, but they should not have to do that–particularly if the other student is just as confused.

      I have the outcome for this situation. I’ll be sharing in another couple of days!
      Ellen

  3. The advice to state your understanding of the assignment and ask for confirmation is the best thing the student can do to try to resolve the issue. All the professor has to do is say yes or no. If the answer is no, the teacher knows exactly what the misunderstanding is.

    If the professor responds rudely to the request for clarification, it might be time to consult an adviser. At the institution where I taught college comp, any complaint by a student about an instructor’s lack of responsiveness would have been taken seriously.

    Why go to an advisor or the dean instead of the professor? In this situation, the teacher has far more power and the student has concerns that the relationship might worsen. In addition, questions of tone are difficult to handle by email. In this case, the student’s first priority should be protecting the final course grade, not calling the teacher to account.

    • Hi, Cecelia,

      Thank you so much for writing. As I stated to Vicki, there are elements I have to leave out of these posts at times for anonymity sake. The student had definitely inquired about the specifics of the assignment; the problem had become an ongoing issue. Also, I definitely recommended that the student go to the professor first because even if the student goes beyond that point, the next in command will typically ask if that step was taken. I agree with you that the instructor’s lack of responsiveness should be taken seriously. At some colleges, it is. At some colleges, sadly, it is not. This depends entirely on who is receiving the complaint. I’ve heard from students all across the country and the reactions differ based on who is in charge.

      I agree that conversations of this type are hard to handle via e-mail, though many students are intimidated to pick up the phone (consider how few students are even talking on the phone these days, though I wish more were.). I think that would be an ideal course of action, though. It is so hard to maintain the same sharp tone in an actual discussion as it is in writing.

      One thing that I will add is that the course grade and the relationship between the student and the prof should be exclusive of each other. If the student deals with the tone issue, this should not negatively impact the student’s grade from the professor’s point of view. Conversely, it seems like the student is having trouble succeeding because they are so flustered by the professor’s perceived harsh tone. Therefore, the grade is already threatened, so in my opinion, from the student’s side, both have to be handled.

      I know how this one turns out and I’m going to report before the end of the week. I very much appreciate your thoughts!
      Ellen

  4. This is such a difficult situation and one I wouldn’t have handled well when I was in college…. of course when I was in college I would have never used the word “congenial,” so this teacher should be grateful (unless all college students have an unexpectedly advanced lexicon). Great piece, Ellen!

    • Hi, Jim,

      I bet you would have found other good words :-) . “Advanced lexicon” isn’t exactly rolling around my tongue everyday, so I’m pretty impressed right now!

      Ellen

  5. Yesterday I made a student cry. I had been holding office hours for five hours, a constant string of 15 minute appointments, and she was the last one. The student’s presentation was long and convoluted, with every side alley taken, and still no sign of a question. I interrupted and asked her to speak in shorter paragraphs. Again she started taking me on a long backpacking trip through her problems in finding a paper topic. Finally I said, “This is driving me crazy. Can you talk in shorter paragraphs?” at which point she started to cry and left. From this I learn: don’t have such long office hours, I become an unhelpful monster at the end. Maybe the prof was just having a bad moment, or a bad day. But if this is a pattern, and he’s had a bad forever, my advice is to run as far away from the prof as possible and not take him on as a project, because he probably can’t be fixed or even constrained.

    • Woody,

      Wow. I appreciate your candor and I’ll match you and tell you that I’ve been there, too. Haven’t we all, if we’re really honest with ourselves? I mean, we have how many students… and they all need a piece of us… and yes, it’s what we signed on for… and we want to give it to them (and I know I have a ton of ellipses at this point), but it becomes too much at times.

      I know recently, I’ve really had to catch my own e-mail tone, particularly when I’ve just sent instructions out about where to submit an assignment (and I’ve even included a link to the drop-box right in the e-mail. It says “Click Here”). Then I inevitably get three e-mails that say, “Where do I turn this in?” I so know that feeling you are talking about.

      You are right: Some people are just terminal. They can’t be fixed. But in other situations (and I write a lot about the professor side of what we really go through in Say This, NOT That), students have to see that we aren’t just monsters. We do deal with a lot. It isn’t a good excuse to make students cry or to be nasty, but sometimes we just have to look at what each other is going through, take a breath, and be compassionate.

      I very much appreciated you sharing this. You really made me think.
      Ellen

  6. I just had an issue with my Professor today and I addressed him directly asking him to address with respect as I do him, he was very curt and did not follow any of the email protocols that he list on his instructions. He responded again with what I thought was another rather rude comment telling me I should reconsider taking master classes at all. I have taken two so far and passed with A’s. I am a very respectful person, hold much esteem for my professors, I take the rules very literally, am very excited to learn and I may too be a bit sensitive. But then I thought, well I am ultimately paying for this service, I mean Graduate school isn’t cheap and because his information is unclear is no reason to snap at me. So, I responded with what I hope will smooth things over, and although I apologized if I misread his tone, I didn’t back away from the idea that I deserved a certain degree of respect when addressing me and that I was not about to not take any more classes. My stomach though is sick over it and I feel like I could throw up. Any thoughts?

  7. I am having to deal with the issue of curt, disconnected online professors at the moment. I arrived here after Googling the issue. I won’t go into details about my own situation, but I will say that most of the pages Google returned were from faculty-related webpages lambasting students in a host of ways. And even in this article (I agree with Ellen’s assessment and advice–very tactful), I find that most of the comments make excuses for rude faculty. An online teacher (math, computer science) for the past six years who finally acquired a junior faculty post at a traditional university, I’m no stranger to problematic students. However, that is a separate issue from my–or any other faculty member’s–comportment towards students. “I said what I said” in reply to a polite student email is inexcusable. If email is an inappropriate path to communication or clarification has already been offered, both concerns can be very quickly addressed in a professional reply. Perhaps one might even then suggest meeting during office hours if the class is F2F. But the power differential between faculty and students ought to be cause enough for faculty to be vigilant of tone when addressing students.

    And for the record, most breaches of civility I’ve witnessed over the years in online course correspondence between faculty and students sit squarely in the faculty camp. It’s telling that visiting any faculty lounge when the subject of students arises what I often hear is an adversarial position against students. “They” don’t follow instructions. “They” can’t think critically. “They” waste our time. It’s no wonder some of us can be unintentionally (giving the benefit of the doubt) rude, given the unconscious us-versus-them dynamic often contextualizing our interactions with students, among whom just a few years ago many of us numbered.

    • Dear Tom,
      Thank you so much for that response. I, too, arrived here for the same reason as you. I am also a junior faculty at a University, an online and onground faculty, as well as an online student seeking advanced degree. I have encountered the same types of uncivil interactions from my professors and I have been shocked at the types of responses I have received. I have actually directly addressed the profs on their tone and, very respectfully, informed them how it made me feel as well as other classmates (who were afraid to speak up). The result in both instances was more rude responses, never an apology or anything close to it. I am in complete agreement with you that we have to refrain from making excuses for poor behavior even if we face struggles in our roles as faculty. Kind of like in parenting, I think we have to take the high road with our kids and with our students because ultimately they are in the vulnerable role.
      Best,
      L

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