Students, profs reveal horror stories of e-mail mishaps

E-mailing professors can seem like a daunting and lengthy task, full of hidden pitfalls and booby traps. How often have you sat at your computer, writing and erasing and working diligently on the perfect scholarly e-mail? How often have you debated between formal and informal, checking and double-checking and checking again even after you have sent the message? Well, probably not that many times. But maybe you should start. At least, judging by the following stories, it wouldn’t hurt.


Making a mistake over e-mail is extremely easy to do, and practically everyone does it. Some mistakes are bigger than others, though, and probably the most serious catalyst for those is the “reply-all” button. Robert Bell, professor of English, recounts a particularly awkward situation with a past student of his: “Oh God, I felt so sorry for this girl,” he groaned. One of his classes had gone really well, and the professor had soon started receiving e-mails from his students requesting a reunion.

Bell tasked the students with organizing and getting the word out, but things quickly took a turn for the embarrassing. “So this wonderful student in the class was sending out an e-mail, and then I got an e-mail that was also sent out to everybody else in our former class that was clearly,” he winced, “Addressed to her best friend or her roommate who was away in Rome or something, describing her love life and – I think she was a senior – how she had hooked up with a freshman, and she went on and on about this, and oh, God…” Unfortunately, this student happened to have another class with Bell that term, too.

Another popular reason for e-mail mistakes is the ever-popular overenrolled class, which, in Professor of Political Science James McAllister’s experience, can be the source of various ill-written messages. “Students send me e-mails trying to get into one of my classes, and they almost always are along the lines of, ‘Hey, I’ve tried to get into 10 other classes and I’ve been dropped from all of them, but I really want to take your course, can I do that?’ Well, you know, it would’ve been better if you hadn’t told me I was number 11 on your list rather than the number one.”

Seniors? This one goes out to you: “Another good one that I get all the time is students who want to get into my class, usually in the spring semester, and they say, ‘I’m a graduating senior, and I really want to get into your course before I graduate,’” McAllister said. “And then I write, ‘Well, have you ever tried to register before?’ [They’ll answer] ‘Well no, I haven’t.’ You couldn’t have really wanted to get in all that badly if you waited until your last semester of senior year.”

Professors at the College are known to be friendly and approachable, and so it’s understandable that their students feel it safe to be open and honest with them. However, as Magnus Bernhardsson, professor of history and chair of international studies, can attest, there is such a thing as too open. “In my syllabus I state that I don’t grant extensions unless [students] have a documented medical emergency or a family emergency. So a paper was due and a student wrote an e-mail saying that she couldn’t hand in the paper that day because she was having stomach issues, and then she started describing the effects in great detail,” Bernhardsson laughed. “A little bit too much information.”

When organizing tutorials, most professors ask if students would prefer not to be paired with another student. Some students feel the need to explain why: Bell tells of a case in which another professor, who was organizing a tutorial, asked his 10 students, “Is there anyone on the list with whom you’d prefer not to be paired or matched?”

“And one of the guys wrote back and said, ‘I can’t work with Joe Smith. He screwed my girlfriend,’” Bell said. “And he didn’t even say screwed. So that’s under the category of way too much information. So I usually say when I’m running a tutorial, no explanations necessary.”

Sometimes, though, it’s just not your fault. This was certainly the case with Daniel Kurnick ’15 in his first year, when he inadvertently sent out a mass e-mail containing questionable content. “So I was checking my e-mail one day, and I think it actually started because I noticed an out-of-office reply from somebody that I didn’t remember sending an e-mail to,” he said. When Kurnick checked his sent box, he found a long list of e-mails addressed to his parents, professors and classmates. To his shock and horror, the e-mails contained links detailing the benefits of male enhancement drugs.

“It was one of those situations where it was just so bad, that I wasn’t even worried. I was sitting there and there was really nothing I could do. I sent out an e-mail, saying, ‘Anybody who recently got a virus, I apologize for any inappropriate e-mails you got,’ but past that it was so clearly inappropriate that it can only get so bad. And I think that my econ professor actually responded, ‘Hacked much?’ So they were all fine with it,” he said.

Advice for other students? “Don’t panic,” Kurnick said. “This does happen, so I think people, including professors, who are people, will understand that you obviously didn’t mean to send them information about genitalia.”

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