Teachable Moments — Modern Communication & Today’s College Students

Jenny Woodman
Oct 25, 2015 · 5 min read
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Sunset over the Potomac River, fall 2015. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

As an older college student myself, I often struggle to understand my students and colleagues in my own classes who don’t seem to get the etiquette and norms of modern-day communication. Then I remember that I used to write letters regularly, because this is what we did in the not-so-distant past. We sent letters to our friends over summer vacation, to our grandparents, and occasionally to pen-pals in far off lands. Many of today’s students have never encountered the format and conventions of a written letter. They grew up texting, creating their own languages, and using cartoon characters to represent emotions and intent. This week, I spent too many hours fielding hundreds of emails from students as I helped them coordinate their first team meeting for a group project in an online class. I probably don’t have to say much more since you all read those dreaded words: group project! After responding to these emails, granting extensions, and pouring myself a stiff drink to numb the pain, I realized that I wasn’t being fair. I hadn’t given them the skills or advice they needed to master this oh-so-important part of adult life. So, from now on, I will be incorporating this lesson early on each term.

Here’s what I drafted as a starting point for an ongoing discussion of the ethics of communicating in a modern world:

Email Communication 101

- Jenny Woodman, 2015

Generally speaking email is a great form of communication for specific purposes, but not always. There are times when this medium is highly problematic. Did you know that a pretty large percent of communication is nonverbal, meaning your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language all add context and meaning to what you are saying? Without this information to confirm or clarify the textual information, misunderstandings are likely.

Additionally, research has shown that the anonymity of the Internet erodes trust and often empowers people to communicate with others in ways that would never be acceptable in a face-to-face interaction. Some have called this the “technological imperative,” which suggests if the technology permits the behavior, then the behavior is acceptable (Johannesen et al., 2008, 125). The unfortunate byproduct of this concept is that individuals are dehumanized, which has “permitted many hate sites, gender biased chat groups, Holocaust denial locales, and so forth” (125). To be clear, this is not to create an equivalent between thoughtless and hate-based communication, but to point out that the consequences of failing to understand the potential problems inherent in online communication can be dire.

From a strictly professional perspective, there are things that are never acceptable in the workplace, and it is a good idea to learn these standards early as failing to understand what is proper (and not) can lead to serious consequences like failed projects, lost wages and work, and potential legal action.

Here are some tips:

· Do not communicate highly emotional materials via email, and do not hit send in the heat of the moment. Walk away for at least an hour or two — calm down. Then, reread what you have written, edit it, and make sure you are communicating what needs saying with intentional awareness that you are speaking to another human being. If you are working on a time sensitive project, send the requested information right away, and address the situation as you see it when you’ve had time to think.

· Be mindful of your audience. How you email your friend to make plans for the weekend is absolutely not an acceptable style of communication for a professor or employer. For example, this is not an acceptable style for your professor:

“What is the assignment is about? Can U help me? — j”

This is a better way to communicate with an instructor or boss:

Dr. Smith,

I’m struggling to understand the guidelines for next week’s assignment*. I have referred to the syllabus and asked classmates, but I am still confused. Do you have any time available during office hours this week? If not, would you be willing to provide clarification about the timeline and recommended starting point.

Thank you for your time!


Guy Smiley

[*Notice how this student is looking ahead? If you email your instructor to clarify instructions about an assignment the night before it is due, chances are it’s too late for help!]

· Subject lines are very useful. Remember your instructors and employers have many students, multiple classes, and a large workforce. It helps them scan an overflowing email box and instantly assess which messages are important and need immediate attention. Vague subject lines don’t convey much (i.e. FYI, or just the name of the class). Clear subject lines like “Important question about WR 121 week 3 assignments” or “Family emergency for WR 121 student”

· In the examples provided above, one reads more like a text and the other includes a greeting and sign-off. These are important components of a message that convey your consideration for another human being’s time and general respect.

· Finally, in this day and age with the vast majority of the population owning and permanently attached to a smart phone, failing to respond to time-sensitive emails is a big faux pas — especially when you are coordinating and working with a group. If your instructor or team mates see you with a cell phone in your hand every time they pass you in the hall, then it is disingenuous to say you never received the email(s). If you know that you are working back-to-back doubles on Tuesday and Wednesday or you are going to be on an airplane or hospital table, this is useful information to share when working on a group project. It is totally acceptable to tell your team that you will likely be out of communication at certain times, but it is not okay to disappear for 2–4 days.

While it has already been stated clearly here, it bears repeating: you are speaking to another living breathing human being. If you are a stressed out, underpaid, over-worked, sick, and hurting college student, it’s a good idea to assume that the person you are communicating is all that and maybe more. You never know why things aren’t going the way they ought to be, and you will get better results if you assume the best of the people with whom you are interacting.

Related Links & Citation




Johannesen, R., Valde, Kathleen S., & Whedbee, Karen E. (2008). Ethics in human communication (6th ed.). Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press.

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