Students send emails that read more like text messages or "drunken late-night Facebook posts." Or send messages from personal email accounts with uncomfortable names.
Or they call faculty and staff by their first names. Or call only the women and minority faculty by their first names.
These are some of the issues that drove Molly Worthen, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to the New York Times last weekend to call for a little more gentility and professionalism on campus.
Today's students have pushed the boundaries of informality too far, several faculty members told Worthen. Increasingly, faculty find themselves in the position of tutoring students on what professional communication looks like. Worthen cites a sociological survey that found the number of college syllabuses that included etiquette guidelines doubled from 2004 to 2010.
What's at stake is much bigger than "fragile ivory tower egos" or "misplaced nostalgia," writes Worthen. She argues that teaching students to respect boundaries actually reinforces egalitarianism and the value of higher education, while also preparing students for the workforce.
Related: You were right: Your students will interrupt anything to send a text
Insisting that students call faculty by their titles—Dr. or Professor So-and-so—can help younger, nonwhite, and female faculty fight the prejudice that they still face.
Angela Jackson-Brown, a professor at Ball State University, told Worthen that "most of my students will acknowledge that I’m the first and only black teacher they’ve ever had." This creates an "extra burden of having to go in from Day 1 and establish that I belong here," Jackson-Brown says, adding that asking students to call her "Professor Jackson-Brown" helps her do that.
Jackson-Brown says the formal title also helps establish an atmosphere of respect and civility in her classes, something she says her students appreciate in today's political climate.
Also see: 5 tips for dealing with inappropriate student emails
Reinforcing the "professor" title also sends a subtle message to students about why they're on campus, Worthen writes. It can remind them that college is not a "business transaction," as Mark Tomforde, a professor at the University of Houston, puts it.
A veteran teacher, Tomforde says students in recent years have gotten sloppy and casual, calling him by his first name and sending emails that look more like texts, with abbreviations and no closing signature. He says it reflects students' changing mindset towards higher education.
"More and more, students view the process of going to college as a business transaction," he says. "They view professors in a way similar to the person behind the counter getting their coffee."
Tomforde adds etiquette guidelines to his syllabus. The recommendations include tips about how to make requests politely and how to avoid embarrassing your professors with your email address: "if you're still using email@example.com," then you may want to "retire that address."
Worthen argues that the crisis of informality is truly a knowledge gap, more than a desire on the students' part to have a more causal relationship with their mentors. "They just don't know they should do otherwise—no one has bothered to explain it to them," she writes.
Instilling students with a stronger sense of formal etiquette can help prepare them for the workforce, says Anna Lewis, who left a doctoral program for a tech company. She says many interns struggle with basic professionalism, such as showing up on time for meetings. They see the casual atmosphere of the tech company and mistake that for an excuse to be unprofessional, which can hurt their careers.
Tomforde agrees that teaching etiquette helps students learn to be adults. "This isn't just curmudgeonly complaining," he tells the Houston Chronicle, who followed up with him and other local professors about the story. "If students don't learn to do it, they're handicapped," Tomforde says(Ellis, Houston Chronicle, 5/16; Worthen, New York Times, 5/13).
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