Unintended E-mail Consequences

A short article titled “Dear Students With Unprofessional E-Mail Handles: Your Professors Notice,” in the Wired Campus section of the Chronicle of Higher Education website calls attention to the importance of e-mail: not just what you say, but the account from which you send your message.


The article highlights an entertaining thread in the Chronicle of Higher Education Forum in which professors share both the often inappropriate and error-filled content of the messages and the peculiar address from which the messages are sent — one post elaborates on receiving an e-mail from an address titled “Shortysexy!”

This article caught my eye because I’ve experienced my share of odd e-mails from students. Mostly they are harmless oversights, but I have also  received some more “interesting” messages.

Once a student invited me to read his/her blog  (gender obscured to protect the innocent), telling me I would think it was funny. However, when I got there, I found several expletive-filled rants berating this person’s significant other for repeatedly cheating on him/her with someone my student proclaimed was a drug addict.

The posts were full of obscenities, uncomfortable personal details and description, on the injuries my student had and intended to inflict on his/her significant other. I was shocked and have since felt very awkward around this student.

Generally, I get what I call “ghost mail,” which is mail with no clear identification of who sent it, what school the sender attends or the class about which they are inquiring. Usually a “ghost mail” will include a message that reads something like “Mr. G : How come I didn’t get credit for that assignment from the other week?” — which of course does nothing to help that student receive points where they might be due.

Aside from forgetting some basic rules of written communication, I don’t think the senders of these “ghost messages” fully realize that, as an individual earning my income entirely as an adjunct instructor, I could potentially be teaching several classes in addition to theirs. Usually I am simultaneously juggling anywhere from four to eight on-line courses and two to four traditional classroom-based courses — so things can get a little confusing!

To minimize the occurrence of these misguided missives, I stress to my students the importance of not overlooking the obvious when sending an e-mail or even leaving a voicemail for someone. I tell them to always include their name and contact information while making sure to identify the school they attend and the course in which they are enrolled. Usually that helps, but I still get an errant e-mail now and then.

I also encourage students to think about what their e-mail address says about who they are — and to realize that on some level it communicates their “personal brand.” With e-mail commanding such a vital role in how we communicate with each other, having an immature or otherwise inappropriate e-mail can sometimes cause a problem — while a student is in school or, worse, when they are making the transition to a job in the “real world.”

I remember that e-mail was just starting to become more widely used during my undergraduate days at UC Santa Barbara (1992 to 1996). Back then the school automatically assigned e-mail address to students — with undergraduate accounts starting with a “u” and graduate accounts starting with a “g.”

Eventually the naming convention was standardized with some amalgamation of a student’s first and last name, but early-on you could request a specific name (though the “u” and the “g” were still used).

A friend of mine who has a sarcastic sense of humor requested the name “suck” so that his account was “usuck@…” Of course, this sounded funny when he gave his e-mail address to friends, but when a professor asked him for his e-mail address and he had to say what sounded like “you suck,” suddenly the joke was on him.

Likewise, during my tenure in human resources recruiting, I’ve seen some questionable e-mail addresses. I remember one address in particular: the applicant’s last name was “Kaul,” which by itself is just a typical-sounding surname.

However, this candidate wanted to be clever and, leveraging the phonetics of his/her last name used the e-mail address “kaul girl@…” – which is humorous when used with family and friends, but not as agreeable in a professional setting (well, aside from the “oldest profession” I suppose!).

So, what is the moral of this story? Simple: when it comes to e-mail, watch what you say and the address from which you say it!