Ummm, you e-mailed *me* for advice, remember?


From the Historiann mailbag, this time from a student at Baa Ram U. whom I don’t know and have never had any correspondence with before:

I was hoping you could give me some reading suggestions for a biography on these three people: A definitive biography on Washington, Franklin, Jefferson. Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated,


That’s right:  no salutation, no explanation about who he is or what his interests might be.  Just the one-line e-mail above.  My reply:

Dear <Someguy>,

Do I know you?  Have we communicated previously?  I have no recollection of having met you before, nor do I have any idea as to why you might ask me these questions.  Please forgive me if we have met before–you might perhaps remind me of the circumstances.  Your note is so informal, without salutation, introduction, or explanation that I’m afraid you have mistaken me for someone else.

I would be happy to help you if I had more context for understanding your interest in these topics, and why you are consulting me.

Yours Very Sincerely,

<Prof. Historiann>

Here’s his reply:

I’m sorry for the informality.  I’m a student at CSU with some interest in studying history as a hobby.  I figured your dept would be a great resource so I contacted Prof. <HistoryChair> about who in your dept I could contact about reading suggestions for some of my interests.  He gave me your name as one of those people.  I have a book on the American Revolution that I’m reading and was thinking ahead about biographies for some of the people I’m interested in.  I was hoping you could give me your thoughts about which biographies are best for Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin.



Still no salutation, but whatever.  My recommendations:

Dear <Someguy>,

There have been a number of recent popular biographies of these figures (as there always are!)  The major ones are by Joseph Ellis (who has written about Washington and Jefferson) and Gordon Wood (Franklin).  These are very traditional biographies, although they’re written for a wider audience.  I think there are more interesting biographies out there than just these, however.  For example, you might want to read Nancy Isenberg’s recent bio of Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s VP and the guy who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.  I think her approach and interpretation of the early Republic are more interesting than Wood’s or Ellis’s books.

Good luck, and I hope you find more books you enjoy.

<Prof. Historiann>

Someguy wrote back, again without salutation or signature:

What do you think of the biography of Jefferson “American Sphinx”?

My reply:

Dear <Someguy>,

I understand that it’s the custom in text-messaging not to include a salutation or a signature, but it’s not appropriate in e-mails unless you are an intimate or a family member.  I don’t answer your questions in that fashion.

I am not a fan of Ellis’s work, because I think he’s a hagiographer rather than a critical historical biographer.  His book came out the same year as a much better book about Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings and the Hemings family by Annette Gordon-Reed.  Gordon-Reed happened to be right about Sally Hemings and Jefferson, and Ellis was wrong.  (He
calls Sally Hemings “a tin can tied to Jefferson’s shoe,” or something like that,
as I recall.)  Ellis was inappropriately invested in “defending” Jefferson from charges that he was involved in a decades-long liason with a woman he owned, and that blinded him to historical facts.

Gordon-Reed has a new book out on the Hemings family that might be an interesting companion to your other, more traditional biographies of white, male “founding fathers.”


<Prof. Historiann>

You knew this was coming, right?

Thank you for responding, but at the same time it is not your duty to counsel others on how to conduct themselves via email.  I was never rude or inappropriate in any manner.  I’ve had many professors and others I’m not well acquainted with who email me in the same fashion.  There are many customs and practices and no single one is correct.  You are the first person I’ve had an email exchange with that feels the need to reprimand me about email etiquette.

I’m a 33 year old man who doesn’t need to be told how to conduct myself.  I do just fine.  Hopefully, in the future you will be more relaxed with not only students, but any person who may be interested in talking to you about history.  You will find that you shut out a lot of people in life by conducting yourself in this manner.

My reply:

Dear <Someguy>

Thanks for your frank reply.  I’ll bear that in mind the next time a complete stranger writes to me to ask for my professional advice.

<Prof. Historiann>

Oh yeah, you know it!  His extremely thoughtful reply:

Good.  By the way, using sarcasm doesn’t mean you’re justified in your response.  You’re the only professor I’ve ever contacted who views people that are asking a simple question about books as “complete strangers” as opposed to “someone I can help who has an interest in history”.  I wasn’t asking you to have lunch with me.  You’re response to this situation doesn’t match the context.  And don’t worry I won’t recommend that any other “complete strangers” contact you for any guidance.  There are far more personable people to talk to in this world. Please do not email me any longer.  I will no longer read any emails from you.  I’ve already wasted enough time on this nonsense.

That’s right.  Apparently, I have no right to set boundaries about contact with students.  I’m a mere female with a permeable body, and I’m just here to service the needs of male students, who of course can set all of the boundaries in our correspondence.  I don’t even know what my job is, apparently (“it is not your duty to counsel others on how to conduct themselves via email.”)  And did you like how he asks me to stop contacting him, as though I was consulting him for his advice?  Thanks, Someguy, for setting me straight!  I’ve wondered lo these many years why I have no friends, no family, and no meaningful relationships in my personal or professional life!  It’s all because I “shut out a lot of people in life by conducting [my]self in this manner.”  I was just waiting for you to e-mail me!  I have no other life or job responsibilities than to serve as an instant response help-line for people who want to read about eighteenth century America!

Fortunately, this is the first such exchange I’ve had with a student at Baa Ram U.  He’s 33 years old, and apparently doesn’t feel we have anything to offer him about how to conduct professional correspondence.  E-mail is no longer a de facto informal means of communication as it was in the 1980s and 90s.  I think it’s the standard in most industries for how business is done.  Good luck with that attitude, pal.  The next time I get an e-mail without a salutation or explanation from a stranger, I’ll just chuck it in the SPAM file.  Lesson learned:  no good deed goes unpunished.

UPDATE, 11/14/08:  I forwarded the correspondence to the Chair of the Philosophy department, who then wrote to say that she’d contact the student’s advisor and “see if we can’t have a chat with him about this.”  She said that she’s been addressed quite rudely by male students in the past too, “so I know exactly how you feel, and I assume that [a male faculty member] would never be spoken to that way, either.”

0 thoughts on “Ummm, you e-mailed *me* for advice, remember?

  1. On the age thing, I was in an extended summer seminar some years back, directed by a let’s say hands on, take charge and reasonably senior prof. The members were almost evenly stratified into young and recent Ph.Ds, early mid-career people, and several people horizontal with or even above the director in seniority, but not in distinguished accomplishment. And there were clear cut patterns in the ease with which colloquiality and deference to the authority structure of the seminar were intermixed. The very juniors went reflexively into “how you react to your advisor” mode. The seniors found the deference part very challenging. The intermedios, myself included, probably experienced the least status-related stress. None of these particulars specifically matches the subject of this thread, but yeah, age and seniority do function as behavioral triggers in these kinds of situations. As obviously do gender and other markers of identity.


  2. It’s not “sexual contempt” at play, it’s gender privilege, churl. Entitled students plague us all, but there is no question that women are imposed upon much more often and in more disturbing ways than male faculty are. That is my experience, and that of most of the female commenters here, as well as the experience of women academics I know outside of the non-peer reviewed internets.


  3. I’m a little surprised by how “peeved” I have become over this issue and a (very) few of the comments. I remember taking this kind of baloney from students, including females (women can be sexist too, right?) and then having male colleagues try to convince me that it was no different than what they often experienced from the rude youngsters. I’m quite aware that there are many things that can put a professor in a position where they may receive more than the ordinary amount of contempt from students, as you have noted Historiann. Some students are just contemptuous. But why is it that some men will not respect you (us) enough to believe that you (we) just might be the best interpreters of our own experience? Do we suddenly become irrational or unintelligent when it comes to our own, every day, well documented by many, many others over a great deal of time reality? I’ve been associated with the academy in one way or another for thirty-six years and I’ve heard this kind of story so often, my ears ache thinking about it. It doesn’t really matter that some of us have different “ettiquette” about e-mails, does it? You told the guy what you expected and he utterly failed to NOTICE? And then blamed you, in quite sexist terms, for the failure of his own communication with you. If someone tells me how they want to be addressed, I can’t think why I would ignore the request unless I had no interest in giving that person one small bit of respect. But I would also NOT continue to expect anything from that person. If he didn’t want to address you as you asked, all he needed to do was to LEAVE YOU ALONE.

    And now, all the instances in which I, or someone I knew, was treated in this demeaning fashion are flooding in. Has anyone written a book, specifically about this, Professor Historiann?

    In solidarity,


  4. Hysperia, I get the impression that a lot of people are suffering flashbacks because of this post. I’m sorry!

    My hope is that female faculty members will see their experiences reflected here and affirmed by others, and that male faculty will read through the comments and see how utterly mundane this kind of experience is for women faculty. It goes beyond the usual sense of student entitlement–the ONLY thing this guy knew (or knows, or thinks he knows) about me is my sex. He doesn’t know what I look like, how old I am, my status (gay or straight, single or unattached). But there are a lot of assumptions about our interaction embedded in his reply (as Dr. Crazy so astutely pointed out, and as I would prefer to ignore!)

    Ick, double-ick, and triple ick with hot fudge and salted pecans on top. (Why couldn’t I get a job teaching at a women’s college?)

    I don’t know if anyone has written about this–perhaps my learned and widely-read reading audience will know? Most of the advice for academic women is along the lines of Ms. Mentor, who is all well and good, but who isn’t super helpful when one finds oneself in a real jam. Ms. Mentor writes as though any intrepid individual can finesse her way out of problems and get to the top. I know that’s how you sell advice books, but I also know (from bitter experience) that most problems are not so easy nor so clear-cut.


  5. I’ve been reading this thread with great interest. I never knew it was etiquette to use a salutation and signature in emails. When people have written that way to me, I thought it was some quaint holdover from the days of letter-writing.

    When I read DG’s comment, I realized why I had that interpretation. My background is journalism, where emails are supposed to be direct and concise. This post has educated me about what people in other professions may expect.


  6. Suzie, thanks for stopping by to comment again. The issue really is one of familiarity and context. I don’t mind informal, brief, direct e-mails from friends, family, and regular correspondents. But for complete strangers, I need more context and an introduction. It will make a difference which books I recommend to a correspondent, depdending on if one is an eighth grader, an undergraduate student, a graduate student, or a history “buff” in the community. For his own good, I needed to know where Someguy was coming from. (And boy howdy did I ever get that, eventually!)

    However, I think it’s the standard practice among people in academia to send e-mails that start with a salutation, proceed to the business at hand in clearly written sentences and paragraphs, and then conclude with a signature. (At least that’s how they do it where I work, and I work in the Western U.S., which is not a place that is really hung up on rigid etiquette or dress codes, etc., to say the least!)


  7. Gr. I just went through instructing a student that he should *never* use Mrs. to address his female professors. Fortunately he took it. But my personal favorite: I’m the VP of a major professional society and when I issued a call for papers I also invited people to attend a pre-conference workshop by RSVP. And it was pretty clear, RSVP to Dr. Judge, VP. I got the following response:

    Dear Miss [Judge],

    I would like to attend the workshop. Please send me a reminder closer to the date.



    Gr. Send you a reminder? Do you normally ask senior faculty to be your personal assistants? And he doesn’t even have the excuse of being an undergrad.


  8. Ha! I’m laughing through my tears about that one, Deborah. I *so* feel your rage!

    Your experience intersects with something I’ve been thinking about posting on, which is the transformation of the value of work when women are doing the work. Just to take your case as an example, the work you’ve done on behalf of your professional society becomes merely secretarial because you, a female body, is doing the work, whereas a male VP doing that work would be
    evidence of his stature and outsized influence in the field, and correspondents would not dare to ask him to perform secretarial duties. (And moreover, his work might be valued more highly and compensated as such in his annual salary exercise…)

    I think this is something that women faculty need to think about when it comes to working for professional socieites. I’ve noticed in recent years that the American Historical Association presidency has gone to women increasingly. On the one hand, this is all to the good. On the other hand, is this the new way that gender hierarchies will manifest themselves? (After all, being president of the AHA is “only service,” not research…) I need to think about this some more.


  9. Thank you hysperia for noting that Historiann isn’t simply misreading this guy- I have no doubt that part of his treatment of Historiann is due to the fact that she is a female.
    I’d also like to note that Historiann isn’t a stuffy etiquette Nazi- she asked him to address her in a certain way and he refused. I’m a high school teacher and given the amount of time I spend with young people and the fact that I am quite young myself, students will often address me with informal titles (ie: dude, homie, missus *without my surname* etc) I then tell them what they may call me and we move on. Even though I have colleagues who are fine being called any/all of these, would anyone fault me for setting MY boundaries? Further, once I’ve gotten to know a student and we’ve developed a working relationship I’ll relax these boundaries a bit, but I still insist on a certain professional distance. Again, I can’t imagine being told that this is unreasonable just because other teachers don’t do the same. Historiann’s boundaries may not be the same as everyone’s (as many of noted here), but once she has asked that HER boundaries be respected there is no excuse- particularly since he was asking her for a favor.


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  13. Yes, this is absurdly rude behavior on his part. I don’t know that I’d attribute it to anything to do with your gender, though; I (am male and) have had students write to me in that sort of surprisingly informal way, too. Then again, I’m also pretty young; maybe that’s relevantly similar, in the minds of such assholeish students.


  14. My husband, a math professor, sometimes gets very informal emails from strangers asking off-the-wall questions that often have nothing to do with math. He usually just deletes them.

    One guy emailed him asking for help determining what Myers-Brigg profile a typical math major is, and my husband did not respond (the guy should really be asking a psychologist). A week later, he emailed my husband again, telling him ‘thanks for nothing’ and then cursing him out.

    I agree with you that when using email for business, or to communicate with strangers, it’s much better to write it formally, as one would write a letter. Anything less is rude. People like this often get hostile when confronted with their rudeness because they are either embarrassed or have an entitlement complex.


  15. I thought your first reply to the example presented was quite rude.

    From another perspective, when attending college, I thought most professors were very rude. Most of these were men so perhaps that passes as the norm.

    Perhaps emailing insults back and forth will be more rewarding than keeping a student waiting for 45 minutes outside the office during one of the few open office periods while carrying an obviously personal conversation with someone who is not a student.

    As you see, I do not have fond memories of the courtesy of professors.


  16. Well Gail, when someone e-mails you for professional advice without introducing himself or explaining himself, I think you’re entitled to answer him any damn way you please. I’m sorry if you believe you were maltreated in college, but that doesn’t mean that students aren’t presumptuous about faculty women’s time and attention now.


  17. Ah, yes. If they’re rude then that is reason enough to be rude yourself. I certainly have fallen into that mode myself but I don’t think that I’m somehow entitled to be rude. Perhaps it’s part of the faculty mind?


  18. I applaud Historiann’s handling of the encounter, and her interpretation of it too. I myself would probably ignore an e-mail message like the one she received, although I sometimes write back “Do I know you?,” sans signature and salutation when my correspondent omitted them.


  19. Thanks, Lady Prof. I suppose I should have just hit the “delete” button instead of “being rude” and trying to answer the student’s question. What a terrible, terrible person I am, actually trying to help while also instructing someone in how to conduct professional correspondence!


  20. Is that the choice? Being rude OR ignoring a request for assistance that is presented in an ‘unacceptable’ format due to its lack of formality (and reverence?)?

    I’m sure some of my reaction to this comes from working many years in casual technically oriented environments.

    I do understand that in some circumstances the lack of key words or phrases can signal a deliberate lack of respect.

    When I moved back to the US in the early 70’s after living in a very formal, stratified society for 3 years, the fact that almost everywhere I went everyone, from an entry clerk to doctors and highest managers, assumed they could use my first name without even asking. It was quite a shock, not quite the cultural shock I expected after only three years absense. If may sound like something inconsequential now but that automatic use of my first name signaled ‘lack of respect’ though the intent, in most cases, was far different.

    I still think your first reply to the requester was rude. I think rudeness is a choice (one I don’t claim to be innocent of) and not an entitlement. The alternative to rudeness is not automatic silence nor compliance.


  21. As adjunct faculty, I am very careful of my position as the university denigrates us with pay and sharing an office with 8 people and 1 desk. Standards of behavior are posted in my syllabus and include my right to fail anyone who doesn’t follow them. I wouldn’t have answered the guy after the first reply because he assumes he is more important than you and that he is entitled to your time. That said, I am also available to my students when they need me via email and by phone between regular hours. I seldom comment on the appropriateness of the communication. In the future, I will post “Rules for email communication” as well. They are so slack with spelling and punctuation that it constantly irritates me. Since I teach writing, It is probably my responsibility to instruct them in this genre as well. Thanks for the needed addition to my curriculum.


  22. Thanks, Olga–you’d be doing your students a favor if you did instruct them a bit. In my experience, until this guy, I’ve never had a complaint that I asked a student not to call my by my first name, or corrected them on their note. They usually apologize–at least over the e-mail. They may have had their own other opinions which they didn’t share with me, which is their right, and if so I appreciate greatly that they didn’t share these other opinions with me. As you note, it’s all about setting the boundaries and enforcing them, isn’t it?

    The working conditions you describe are appalling. I’m very sorry. Is there an Adjunct Council or some organization at your university that you could appeal to for some assistance? This is not to excuse the department you’re working for, but sometimes they respond to some friendly requests and a kick in the pants.


  23. Strange. Typically, when I write emails to professors, I start off as formally as possible (irregardless of gender :P). If the professor then responds without a salutation, or type in all lowercase, or what have you, then I assume the bar has been lowered, and don’t necessarily reply with all the formal flourishes. Someguy has it backasswards – it does seem very entitled and rude.


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