Kelly Harper Berkson

Linguist. Language-lover. Blogger about life in the Academy.

Year: 2015

Etiquette Tips for Undergrads: Email

Dear students,

I want to let you in on something I’ve discussed ad nauseum with my colleagues. When it comes to email, students and professors have different ideas about what is and is not appropriate. This is something that actually matters, because the way that you write to us can alter the way that we both think about you and respond to you. 

Now, here is my standard disclaimer: if you’ve had me as a teacher, you know that I am basically a cheer-leader for your awesomeness. I think that you guys rock. As a rule, you take school seriously and you work hard. You’re engaged, passionate, and more involved with the world around you than I was at your age.

At the same time, you have a different set of experiences and expectations than your professors, and I repeatedly receive emails from you that sound like this:

hey what will be on the test? thx

This is not a good email. It should never be sent to a teacher. It’s too informal, it fails to use proper capitalization and punctuation, and it uses texting lingo. And yet, I’ve gotten messages like this from truly exceptional students. I’ve gotten slightly more formal versions of it, too. Things like:

Hi. What will be on the test? Thank you.

Here we have better capitalization and punctuation, and no texting lingo, but this is still a very bad email. When I receive something like this, I feel immediately annoyed. (I’ve done an informal poll of approximately ten fellow professors of varying ages, and it’s not just me: we all find the above email annoying.)

I believe that you have good intentions when you write an email like the one above. I don’t think that you’re trying to be rude; I think you’re simply trying to communicate, and that you’re genuinely surprised when I react badly to messages like these.  The problem is that you don’t know what your teachers’ expectations are when it comes to proper email etiquette. For whatever reason, no one has ever taken the time to outline for you the ways in which language use should differ from the informal texting-with-friends domain to the more formal communicating-with-someone-in-a-position-of-authority domain.

I suspect that the difference in our expectations arises from a variety of factors. For one thing, you’ve been texting for most or all of your conscious lives, and electronic communication is relatively informal much of the time. For some of you, the concept of formal writing – of adopting different writing styles for different purposes in different mediums and different domains – may simply be foreign. And – perhaps most critically – no one seems to have told you about “the rules” in a clear and communicative manner.

As an aside, I love texting lingo. I’m delighted and impressed by human linguistic creativity in all its forms. The problem? Texting lingo is appropriate in some domains and inappropriate in others, just like swearing.

Swearing around your roommates is one thing, but around your grandma or baby cousin? Not cool. Same thing with texting lingo: use it when texting, or with your friends, but avoid it when communicating with your professors, your assistant instructors and teaching assistants, your employers, or others who hold some degree of authority.

In my experience, once you understand what I expect  from electronic communication you are perfectly willing and even happy to oblige. If I never tell you what I expect, however, is it fair to be irritated every time you fail to live up to my expectations? I think not.

So, dear students: this post is an attempt to be clear. I want to tell you what your professors expect when it comes to communication.

First, let me tell you that I felt embarrassed writing the above message even as an example on my own blog. It sounds incredibly rude to me. I would never write to someone who had even just the tiniest bit of authority over me with such a lack of formality.

When I write an email–certainly in a work or school setting, but honestly more often than not regardless of the setting–I expect basic rules of politeness to be observed. At a bare minimum, I expect the following:

  • a salutation
  • complete sentences
  • proper capitalization and punctuation,
  • an appropriate sign-off

That means that the most basic email I would ever accept is:

Hi Kelly,

Can you tell me what will be on the test? 

Thank you.

Student X

Truthfully, this still seems a bit off to me. For instance, why doesn’t the student know what will be on the test? Did they consult the syllabus? Talk to a fellow student? Did they miss class because of an illness, or an accident? Have they consulted the lecture notes to see whether any exam review was included therein? The email above leaves too many unanswered questions for me. It’s adequate, but it’s not great. Even better would be something like:

Dear Kelly,

I’m sorry that I missed class today. As I mentioned in my last email, I have been sick and do have a doctor’s note that I can bring to class with me next week if you would like it.

I have consulted the slides that you posted and the syllabus in preparation for the test next week, so I think that I am in good shape. I wanted to double check with you too, though, to be on the safe side – were there any additional announcements in class about the test that I should know about?

Thank you very much for your time.

Best wishes,

Student X

Now, I am assuming here that the hypothetical student X has been dealing with some sort of health issue about which he has kept me apprised. Clear communication is always helpful, and means that if I do receive an email like the one above I have some context. I know why the student missed class, why they are requesting information. I know that they have done their due diligence, checking the syllabus and the slides from class. I know, in other words, that they have done their part–so I am more than willing to do mine. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like communicating with my students. I want you to be in touch with me, to keep me updated on things that are relevant to your participation in my class. I want to be a resource for you, to answer your questions. I just also want you to use formatting that is more akin to letter-writing than texting.

Questions? Send them my way, at kberkson AT indiana DOT edu.

Thank you, and be well,


thoughts on self defense and safety

We’ve had a number of traumas and tragedies strike the college community in the last few weeks, and so I want to make a quick post about safety and self defense. I will come back to this again in the future, because it is a huge topic and is something I think about regularly, but for now I’ll say the bare minimum:

Sometimes there are dangerous people in the world, and I wish that every single one of my students would sign up for, take, and internalize the lessons from a self defense course.

I want this for both my male and female students, because knowing some self defense skills can help you walk through the world with more confidence. I especially want it for my female students, though, for the very basic reason that the statistics about sexual assault on college campuses–which are grim–tell us that females are more often the victims than males.

Assault is something I think about because, as a college professor, I come face to face with the consequences of assault very regularly. Students come to me in crisis. I keep the contact information for on-campus support services, counselors, and victim advocates close on hand. (By the way: the Clery Act outlines the responsibilities of those who serve as an “official of an institution who has significant responsibility for student and campus activities” with regards to the reporting of crimes. My understanding is that as a professor here, if I hear about something then I *must* report it. I am obligated by law. I cannot protect anonymity. I voice this immediately to anyone who comes to me, and direct them to people who *can* protect anonymity if that is desired. Anyone who knows more about the ins and outs of the Clery Act are welcome to chime in in the comments.)

What I have heard time and again from people who come to me in crisis is that they feel there might have been a different outcome if they had been prepared, in any way, for what happened to them.

This is NOT–and should not be misinterpreted as–any commentary on who bears responsibility for an assault. In my world that is not even a question to be discussed: the perpetrator does. The end. 

The fact is, though, that many of us walk through the world unprepared for a situation in which someone else compromises our physical autonomy. Preparation may or may not influence future outcomes: whether it will is un-knowable. But truly, how many of us have thought about what to do in a scary or threatening situation? How many of us have spent time considering questions like:

  • What if someone approaches me in what feels like a threatening manner, but might not be? Do I trust my instincts? (YES, ALWAYS.)
  • Do I make a fuss when I might be mistaken about someone’s intentions? (YES, ALWAYS. Better to make an unnecessary fuss than to be abducted.)
  • What if someone grabs me? (More complicated, and here training will REALLY help, but even if you have no other training you can still YELL. Don’t scream; YELL. Yell NO, repeatedly and with as huge a voice as you can muster. Screaming can be interpreted as playful; someone repeatedly yelling NO is not playful.)
  • What parts of my body can I use as a weapon?
  • What parts of an attacker’s body are really vulnerable?

Et cetera, et cetera.

I’ve thought about these things because of krav maga. Krav is an Israeli hand-to-hand combat technique, and it is billed as being an excellent form of self defense.  I am a novice, with a lot to learn, but I took krav for perhaps 12 months and I feel both stronger and safer in the world because of it. (I’m not taking classes now, but will again when I am in a place where I can find a school that I like. I miss it–it’s just not feasible for me at this point in B-town.)

What I can attest to is that I have never been stronger, safer, or more fit than when I was doing krav. (Bonus: I was drowning in graduate work when I started krav. Turns out kicking things and throwing elbows is an excellent stress reliever!) I find the below video mortifying, and anyone with real knowledge will see how sloppy my technique is, how winded I get, etc., but I’m going to share this anyway because it does give a sense of some of what I learned when I studied krav (click here to see the video on youtube).

I recommend Krav to anyone and everyone, and if you have young or college-aged daughters then it is definitely something you should check out.

I would love to see my students take years and years of krav maga (or any other martial art): I would love for them to develop so much physical training that they could simply respond, if thrust suddenly into a dangerous situation.

I hope they never need it, but the reality is that shit happens. I don’t know what the future holds, and I hope I never have to deploy what I learned in krav or in any other self defense course. Certainly bad things could happen, and what I learned might not be enough to stop them. But knowing that I have spent time *thinking* about it: knowing that I have developed some muscle memory that makes me snap into a fighting stance if threatened: knowing that my body  knows how to react if someone grabs me from behind: all of these things increase my odds if I ever do end up in trouble.

More than that, though, they make me walk taller. I feel safe in the world. That counts for a lot.

This gets back to mental preparation: the truth is that we do not know what the future holds, but I am mentally prepared in a way that I wasn’t before. I have thought about what I will do if someone tries to compromise my physical autonomy. I have given myself the benefit of some training–not enough, but some.

To that end, I encourage anyone who wants a little bit of training but cannot (or does not want to) enroll in regular martial arts training to consider a RAD course. RAD stands for Rape Aggression Defense. The basic self defense course is just 12 hours, usually taught over 4 days (3 hrs each on a Tues/Thurs of 2 consecutive weeks, for instance.) The course is an excellent blend of mental and physical preparation, and participants learn some very basic but very effective self defense techniques. Check out the RAD homepage here, and the site for the basic self defense course for women here.

Check it out. Learn some things. Investigate krav for yourself, your daughters, your sisters. For your sons, your brothers, your friends.

Be safe in the world.