Five tips for dealing with inappropriate student emails

Set limits and model professional communication

Administrators and faculty alike can face the awkward problem of receiving inappropriate emails from students, so Natascha Chtena, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) doctoral student and TA, offers tips for responding to them gracefully.

"About once a week I will open my inbox and be greeted by an email that will leave me at a loss for words," Chtena writes in Inside Higher Ed. In some cases, those emails can be too informal, personal, or disrespectful of an instructor's time, as students are still learning to develop appropriate boundaries.

While frustrating, Chtena says inappropriate student emails also show that "many students just don't know how to communicate properly." She suggests five tips for keeping student communication on track and teaching good communication habits.  

1. Be an example: Chtena writes that she considers every communication with a student to be a potential teaching opportunity. Many students grew up in a world that that "treats emails less like letters and more like texts." Therefore, when emailing with students, model "professional email etiquette" to provide an example of what is expected.

2. Set clear expectations: It is important to have a clear email policy in a syllabus to refer to, writes Chtena. At a minimum, the policy should include the times when an instructor is available over email. However, instructors can also include more specific requirements, such as a ban on "internet slang" or guidance on subject lines.

3. Find teachable moments: In some cases, it may be useful to directly confront students about inappropriate emails. For instance, after receiving a number of inappropriate emails from students in the same course section, Chtena set aside class time to review her guidelines. Her presentation included anonymous examples from the class of inappropriate communication. By the end, "most of the 'culprits' were blushing, remorseful, and laughing at themselves," she writes.

4. Hit pause: In some cases, "no response is the best response," Chtena writes. In other cases, simply taking a while to respond can send a message. "This is especially true with angry emails, because it gives the student time to step away or, at least, calm down."

5. Set clear boundaries: It is important to be prepared for when a student goes too far, such as sending communications with "sexual innuendos or a romantic request." In those cases, "it's important to set clear boundaries from the start," writes Chtena. Make it clear you will only interact with the student professionally. If possible, do so in the presence of "a responsible third party who can speak on your behalf" and protect against future damage to your reputation (Chtena, Inside Higher Ed, 2/1).

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