Maximizing Success for Undergraduate Anthropology Majors: Missed Manners

Reblogged from Anthropology News “Missed Manners” (Part One) & (Part 2) by Ty Matejowsky & Beatriz Reyes-Foster:

Hey Tye,

Sorry I missed class last week. My parents bought me a cruise.  Did I miss anything important. If you could send me the missed lecture notes that wood be great. Thnx!

Faculty routinely receive hastily written emails like this one – unsigned messages laced with poor grammar and overly-familiar tones that make inappropriate requests without so much as a “please” or “thank you.”  Many professors are inclined to attribute such breaches of etiquette to a growing sense of entitlement among today’s undergraduates –“I pay your salary, therefore, you should do x or yfor me.”  While these faculty sentiments are certainly understandable as many students are inculcated with a consumer mentality, there may be something going on besides a deeply ingrained sense of privilege.  For all the legitimate concerns about treating our students as customers, these faux pas may simply reflect a genuine lack of familiarity about basic protocol, (n)etiquette, and letter-

If students and professors maintain some level of symbiosis whereby each depends on the other for support and advancement, there is still a good deal of asymmetry that characterizes this relationship. Rather than interacting with one another on mutually equal terms, a professional distance has, or until recently, generally insulated the two parties from the other.  As the ubiquity of email and social media makes interactions with faculty all the more feasible, the formal lines between instructors and undergraduates have become less and less rigidly defined.  Within this new context, where student tendencies towards informality and nonchalance seemingly prevail, professors are often left slack-jawed as this erosion of established academic boundaries shows no sign of abating.  Indeed, these problems may simply represent the new reality of academia.

In our last contribution, we discussed the importance of undergraduates seeking out faculty and others for professional mentorship.  This month, we would like to offer students some friendly advice on how to make a lasting positive impression on professors or potential employers by highlighting some basic rules of thumb to keep in mind when engaging them.  As such, we solicited from our colleagues working around the country some of their top pet peeves regarding student etiquette.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, their responses reflected certain common themes.  At the risk of coming across as too pedantic or sermonizing, we hope this contribution spotlights the ongoing importance of observing certain protocols when dealing with others in office, classroom, interview, and online settings. 

  1. Unless specifically directed to do so, never address your professor by his or her first name. Cognizant as we are about how standards of appropriate behavior may vary by faculty and departmental culture, these determinations cannot be assumed by students out of hand.  That is, until students have established a working relationship with a professor, it is far better to err on the side of formality than to presume this faculty member is open to such casualness or over-familiarity.  The usually unintentional audacity of some students – calling professors by their first names without prior consent, demanding access to lecture notes for missed classes – may lead to regrettable misinterpretations of intent or feelings of disrespect.
  2. Always use proper writing etiquette when addressing emails to your professor or others. Proficiency in negotiating the social media landscape gives students real advantages over older anthropologists in both online networking and collaborative interaction.  Yet, this knowhow must be applied sensibly in professional contexts.  When dealing with faculty or prospective employers online, good manners and respect are essential.  Always sign your email and be sure to identify what class you are referencing. Students should always preface emails with “Dear [blank],” employ proper grammar, avoid text lingo such as “OMG” or “LOL,” and end communications with “Sincerely, [your name].”  Such practices go a long way in creating positive impressions for those who may ultimately serve as professional references or employers.  Undergraduates should also be mindful of social media postings.  Ill-phrased Tweets or images carelessly uploaded to Facebook can have lasting repercussions that undermine long term educational or career aspirations. For this reason, it is probably a bad idea to become “friends” on Facebook with your professors.
  3. Never electronically request a letter of recommendation without first meeting with your professor and making sure he or she agrees to write it.  One of our colleagues was surprised when she unexpectedly received an email from a graduate institution requesting a letter of recommendation.  Although she knew the student seeking the letter, he had never asked her if she would be willing to write it!  One of the realities for aspiring anthropologists looking to advance within the discipline is the need to procure faculty letters of recommendation.  As graduate school or fellowship deadlines rapidly approach, it is easy for students to feel overwhelmed by the entire application process and be tempted to cut corners.  Stressful as such undertakings may be, it is still incumbent upon students to personally request reference letters in advance before moving forward with their applications.  Assuming that professors will simply draft a letter because they know a student is inadvisable and may work to dampen whatever enthusiasm a faculty member held for a particular student.
  4. There are some things that can’t be unsaid.  Yes, you worked hard on that paper. You studied many hours for that exam.  So when you are disappointed by the grade you earned, it is natural to feel angry.  Maybe the professor wasn’t as clear about what she or he wanted as you’d expect.  Maybe one or two exam questions seemed purposefully tricky.  So in the heat of the moment, you shoot off an email with a few choice words about your opinion of the professor’s ability to design a fair assessment.  As cathartic as this may feel, the next morning you start thinking that maybe you could have expressed your disappointment a little more diplomatically.  The problem is that the email is now long gone and your professor’s estimation of you as both a student and person have very likely been irreparably damaged.  There are some things that simply cannot be unsaid or unemailed.  Realistically, no amount of lost exam or assignment points is worth risking the respect and potential support that can come from your professor.  Much of this regrettable conduct could simply be avoided by taking a day or two to cool off or just expressing things a little less confrontationally.  If you feel strong about the matter, perhaps, politely scheduling an appointment with your professor during office to review the paper or exam in question is the best way to go.  Rather than accusing your professor of incompetence, phrase your request as one of seeking help.  Professors are much more likely to respond generously to genuine requests for help than indignant demands expressed without careful consideration.
  5. Try looking in the syllabus first.  Yes, really!  Students sometimes have no idea how many of their questions could be answered with minimal fuss if they simply first referred to their syllabus.
  6. Don’t assume work submitted late will be accepted.  Many professors realize that life sometimes throws curveballs that cause students to miss class or assignments.  While some faculty are more understanding than others when it comes to dealing with these unforeseen events, students should never just presume that all professors are accommodating to such matters.  If anything, students should not submit late work without first conferring with their professors.   If the faculty does indeed accept it, keep in mind that he or she is pretty much doing you a favor.
  7. Don’t blow off your face-to-face appointment, especially if it is outside of regular faculty office hours.  As professors at a major research university, our workload goes way beyond time in the classroom.  Many of us either teach multiple sections or have robust research and publication responsibilities, not to mention service on multiple committees and time spent grading, mentoring, and writing letters of recommendation.  Our time is likely one the most valuable gifts faculty can give students.  When asked for a face-to-face meeting outside of regular office hours, faculty are literally taking time away from other important matters to spend it with you.  It is just bad manners to blow it off or expect to reschedule at the last minute.
  8. If you like something, tell us!  So far, we have devoted considerable column inches advising students on how to judiciously avoid conflict with faculty.  However, a good way to make a lasting positive impression –and to effectively enhance your undergraduate experience—is to communicate with your professor when she or he is doing something right. If you enjoyed a particular assignment, a friendly email conveying such sentiments can help make your professor’s day.  It can also encourage her or him to use that assignment or ones like it more readily.  Believe us, many professors want to know what works to ensure that their students are enjoying class.  Positive feedback is a great way to build a good professional relationship with faculty. Just make sure you really mean it.

While the above advice is by no means definitive, such guidance hopefully helps aspiring anthropologists negotiate both the successes and setbacks that are inherent to university life, graduate school, and, ultimately, the anthropological profession.  Establishing effective rapport with faculty may necessitate students adhering to a few simple rules of thumb when it comes to etiquette.  Attention to such matters can help students develop a feel for not only how to best approach those who currently supervise their abilities, but also those who will end up vouching for their future performance as graduate school candidates or job applicants. At the end of the day, this advice won’t just help you negotiate your relationships with your professors.  It is a best practices list of basic professional courtesy, the kind of thing your future employers will simply expect you to know.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster, PhD is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the U of Central Florida (UCF). Her current research interests focus on issues surrounding reproduction in Central Florida, particularly on the ways in which women seeking vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) make decisions about their medical care, and peer breast milk sharing.

Ty Matejowsky is an associate professor who specializes in cultural anthropology. He received his PhD in 2001 from Texas A&M U. His research interests include fast food, economic anthropology, globalization, urbanization, culture change and development, disaster studies. Ty currently conducts his research in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines.

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