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C'est la Z

Email Policy

I saw this tweet the day along with the ensuing thread:

I wanted to reply but as usual, I decided to reply in a blog post so that it doesn't get lost in the Twitterverse. This way I can go back and read this post in five years and say "what was I thinking!!!!"

I've never gotten an email like the one Austin described. The closest was back in the early days of email when kids had email addresses like koolwarezduud@hotmailcom. That didn't last long. Just ask what they would think if they were a college admissions person or an interviewer for a job and recieved an email from koolwarezdude.

That said, even though I haven't gotten emails with "u" or "plz hlp" I do have to train my students to use email correctly so there might be some parallels between my case and experiences and Austin's.

For years I've used a mailing list for class communication. I've tried alternatives like Slack and Piazza but always come back to an old school mailing list. For years I used Mailman but most recently I've been using Google Groups. I always give my students the rules at the beginning of the class:

  • The list can be used for anything related to class or CS.
  • Things that are interesting to the community but not class or CS related are also OK. Things like if a student is on a team that has a big competition coming up or that there are free or cheap tickets to a show or museum are also ok.
  • The usual rules for civility and respect.

It's all pretty low key, informal and open.

The big thing I tell them is that the only things they should email me directly about are things that are specific to the sender and me. Things like grade related questions, a request for a recommendation letter etc.. If it's a question about the class material, the tools, etc. I expect the email to go to the list not me. I give three reasons for this

  1. Other class members could benefit from the question and answers.
  2. If you email me only I can answer the question and only when I get to it. If you email the list, there are many more people who can potentially answer.
  3. If it's a tools question, particularly Mac related It's unlikely I'll know the answer but almost certainly someone in the class will,

I tell my classes that if they email me directly with something that should go to the mailing list, I'll ignore the email.

Predictably, at first students email me directly. The first couple of times, I'll answer the question by emailing the full list. I'll say something like "someone emailed me __" give the answer and also remind them that emails like that should go to the list.

This usually clears things up for most of the students but some will continue to email me. My next step is to reply to their email telling them to repost to the group. If they do, I'll answer (usually giving a bit of time to hope that a classmate chimes in first). If they don't then the question won't get a response.

Any emails that come directly to me after phase 2 go into the trash.

I'll also sometimes redirect questions I get after class to the mailing list. Particularly if I think that the answer can benefit more than the asking student or if the answer should remain accessible for a longer period of time. This came up just the other day when a student had an issue with their editor saving source files in RTF. I didn't have the answer and I also thought that the answer to this would be a good thing for more students to see and also for the answer to be searchable should it come up later. The student posted to the list and another one of the students answered.

All in all I think this works pretty well.

Now if only I could get more actual student engagement online…

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