Professors, beware: Your nasty eMail could go viral

A Georgetown professor found out last week how fast the blogosphere can spread a rumor.
A Georgetown professor found out last week how fast the blogosphere can spread a rumor.

The prospect of an eMail bouncing to every corner of the internet has college professors measuring their words carefully after a New York University (NYU) professor’s acerbic eMail to a student went “viral” last month and drew worldwide attention.

Scott Galloway, clinical professor of marketing at NYU’s business school, responded to an eMail sent Feb. 9 by a student complaining that Galloway had dismissed him when he came to class an hour late.

Galloway, founder of personalized gift web site, responded with a 424-word message reminding the student that “there is a baseline level of decorum … that we expect of grown men and women who the admissions department have deemed tomorrow’s business leaders” and urging the student to “get your [expletive] together.”

“For the record,” Galloway continued in his eMail message, “we also have no stated policy against bursting into show tunes in the middle of class, urinating on desks, or taking that revolutionary hair removal system for a spin.”

Other faculty members from campuses nationwide said the direct and inflammatory response was rare in higher education.

Erin Claudio, a health instructor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, said even if Galloway’s stance was reasonable, the use of curse words and exaggerations will make educators vulnerable to students who can share the message with the click of a mouse.

“You have to be sensitive to the fact that it could spread around and it could go viral,” he said. “But you would hope that people are responsible and understand the basic rules of courtesy and how to be polite to someone.”

Galloway declined a request from eCampus News to be interviewed for this story, saying only that “the eMail speaks for itself.” A spokesperson for NYU’s business school did not respond to an interview request.

Few, if any, colleges and universities have spelled out eMail and text-messaging policies for faculty and staff, because there is an unspoken etiquette to which professors are expected to adhere, educators say.

The rise of eMail as a primary communication tool for teachers and their students has always raised the specter of unseemly eMail messages making their way to campus administrators, but the advent of social networking on sites like Twitter and Facebook means students can share private messages with thousands of friends and followers, who then can share the message with thousands more—creating an internet sensation.

Jeremy Hyman, co-author of The Professors’ Guide to Getting Good Grades in College and a University of Arkansas professor, said college faculty members have always been wary of students bringing their complaints to campus higher-ups after a contentious exchange with a professor. But professors using eMail, he said, should be careful with what they put on the permanent electronic record, even if the student’s message begs for a stern response.

“Professors should remember that they are agents of the university. They represent their school … and most professors realize that every eMail [message] he or she writes is a public document,” said Hyman, a blogger for U.S. News & World Report. “And I think [Galloway’s] response was a little over the top.”

Many college professors—especially those who teach online courses—now communicate with students almost exclusively through eMail or web chat services built into course management systems. Claudio said he writes up to 100 eMail messages a day to students and colleagues that are part of a civil exchange, not a diatribe that would draw the attention from millions on the internet.

“That instance [at NYU] is one eMail among how many millions that get sent by professors and students every single day?” he said.

The speed of electronic messaging was underscored again last week when a Georgetown University law professor told students that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would announce his resignation by the end of the day, according to the legal blog, Above the Law.

The law students texted and eMailed friends and family, and within minutes, gossip site trumpeted a headline about Roberts leaving the land’s highest court. Popular sites like DrudgeReport and Huffington Post followed suit, and Supreme Court spokespeople had to deny the rumor that started in a lecture hall.

Educators and experts in internet etiquette, or “netiquette,” agreed that there are “unspoken rules” about how to communicate with students in person and via the web.

Michelle Cimino, author of Netiquette: Tips for Adults and Teens, said that while college faculty should be careful with eMail messages, students also should be expected to exercise manners when communicating with their professors, even if they’re lodging a complaint about class rules.

It’s easy to feel a “sense of bravery because you are in the comfort of your own home, in your jammies, writing a mean eMail … when in fact, you wouldn’t have the guts to say the same thing face to face,” said Cimino, who also writes about cell phone etiquette.

“Would that NYU student have been able to talk to Galloway in person? I personally applaud Professor Galloway. I love the fact he sets this young man in his place and reminds him about manners.”


Scott Galloway’s NYU page

Professors’ Guide blog

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