Editorial Pages – Ranting About Anonymous Emails

This little rant is not directed at anyone who has written me recently, and is not intended to isolate any individual student, but rather is aimed at those who use email in general, and specifically the majority of those who write to webmasters or computer helpdesks for assistance. I say this on behalf of myself, and all webmasters and support and help staff everywhere.

Readers may be aware that in addition to editing The Voice, I am also the webmaster for the websites of AUSU. I consider emails to my webmaster account to be of the highest priority. I even answer many over the weekend and holidays, because no one should have to wait too long to get access to their account and the services that AUSU provides (after all, you pay for them!).

Unfortunately, I can only immediately answer about 25% of the email I receive. Why? Because many students seem to feel that I’m psychic! I’m flattered, but…

The vast majority of emails I get regarding account problems go something like this:

Hi, I can’t log in to my account. Can you tell me what’s wrong? Bob.


Hi, I forget my password. Can you send it to me? J. Smith.

As many as 5-10% actually have no name or return address on the bottom at all.

I’m not sure how these people think that I know who they are, but I honestly don’t! Yes, in some cases the email header includes a name, but many times it simply includes an alias. Even when does include a name, and e-mail header is of no use to me. People very frequently use their spouse’s account, their parents’ account, or even a friend’s account. Often their account is only set up to show a last name, or initials. I simply can’t assume that the person named on the e-mail header is the one who has written. Never rely on an email header to tell people who you are.

This syndrome is curious to me, because it is prevalent only in e-mail. When people write letters with pen and paper they rarely forget to put their name on the letter, and often include a full address and contact information. As soon as they open an email program, all knowledge of how to format a proper letter goes out the window. Emails even to important persons (employers, tutors, etc) are written as casually as those to friends.

Here’s the thing: I can’t assist you with your account if you don’t tell me what is going wrong. I can’t access your account if I have no idea who you are. And, I cannot give out account information if all I have is your name, even if it is your full name. Look, any one of you could go on the AUSU forums and find a student post with a person’s name on it, and then write to me: “Hi, I’m Jane Smith, and I forget my password.” Were I then to send you Jane Smith’s login information, you would be able to access her account and find out her student ID number, her home address, and her email address. All of this information is protected in our account system by encryption, and stored in a database that is accessible only to the webmaster and AUSU office. If I were to give someone your account information based on them only having your full name, you’d be furious! And with good reason!

So please be understanding when I’m unable to give you information on your account without asking you to write back and provide your student ID number, or your address, so that I can verify your identity on more than one criteria.

And here’s some general advice for using e-mail, regardless of who you are writing. I know I’ve written some of this before, but I’ve had requests from the AU tutors to continue providing this information:

Every e-mail you send should include a signature on the bottom. Your signature should include, at a bare minimum, your name and your e-mail address. Don’t bother with poems, quotes, smilies or fancy stationery if you are writing formally. You can set up a signature file to be automatically added to the bottom of every mail before it is sent. Very few people think to include the e-mail address on the bottom of an e-mail. They assume that the user can simply hit reply. Well in some cases, your email may be forwarded to someone and header information might become lost. Also, not everyone understands how to properly read an email header. Sometimes people write from one e-mail address but wish a reply to go to a different address. Therefore it is good e-mail etiquette to always use the e-mail address at the bottom of a person’s email, rather than relying on the reply button. Your email address also helps confirm your identity.

Also, if you include attachments with your email — such as assignments or articles — put your name on the top of the file or in the file name. Otherwise, when the attachment is saved to the recipient’s computer, it is no longer attached to the email it came with. If the recipient does not immediately open the file and type your name on the top, they may not know who it is from when they read it later on. The majority of Voice submissions do not include any identifying information in the attached file. For assignments, it’s a good idea to put your name and student ID number in the header, so that it prints on every page of the file.

Make sure when writing formal emails, that your email account does show an alias, but something reasonable like your full name, your first initial and your last name, or just your last name.

If you are having a problem with a website, you have to explain what that problem is. What page were you on? Include the URL if you can, it’s a simple cut-and-paste. What were you trying to do, and what did you click? Did you get an error message? If so what did it say? If you can copy the text, or include a screen shot, so much the better. I don’t think most people would take their car to a garage and say “Hi, it’s not working right, can you fix it?” No, you’d explain that it’s stalling when you stop at a light, or failing to switch to a higher gear when you accelerate. Help staff need the same detailed info. Also, it’s often helpful to have a little information about your computer, such as what browser you are using, and what version of Windows. I wonder if tutors often find it hard to answer student questions simply because the student didn’t give enough detail. I can’t imagine having to answer something like: “I’m having trouble with behaviorism. Help!”

This all may seem really basic, but I continue to hear from AU tutors and the AU Tutor Services department that people continue to write to their tutors without including a name or their student ID number. I’ve also spoken with members of the Athabasca University vhelpdesk for computer students, and they report the same issues — especially students reporting that they are having a problem, but providing no details as to when or how the problem occurs. Sometimes we suggest a remedy that you have already tried. This wastes everyone’s time, and makes us seem less effective. Tell us what you’ve tried to avoid this.

I really have to wonder, how do you think we know who you are and what the problem is? This is especially problematic if you’re writing from e-mail account that uses an alias. There really is no way in the world for an email recipient to track down the owner of cutiepie@emailservice.org”. Believe it or not, many people write formal letters to their tutors or other professionals with this kind of email address! Do you think the tutor even opens that email? If they are really scared of viruses and spam, they might not. I’ve been told that some tutors don’t like opening emails that don’t have an identifiable name right in the sender field.

Some have suggested that AU ought to give all students an email account to avoid these problems, but this is a very costly and complex solution to a problem that is solved simply by students being a little more formal in their writing, and making sure they have an email account set aside for formal email.

This is not really a problem for me in terms of how I do my job. When I receive e-mails without any identifying information, or with vague comments about unspecified problems, I simply hit reply and ask for the information that require. I know the vhelpdesk sends out similar request all the time. The problem is simply that you have to wait longer for assistance, and I really like to be able to solve your problems quickly. I hope to address this problem in the near future by implementing a form on the AUSU web site which users will have to fill out in order to contact the webmaster. This is probably inconvenient for some people who would rather e-mail directly, but with a form I can ask for the information I require. I understand the university is considering a similar approach. It seems like a shame to have to do this simply to get people to include their name on a letter, but that’s the state of email these days.

Students also need to keep in mind that if you use a free email service like Yahoo or Hotmail, you cannot rely on that service to the same extent that you might be able to rely on the email account provided with your internet service. If you have internet service at home, you almost certainly have several email accounts included with your internet. AUSU.org sends out mass email to a subscriber list about once a month. I get about 150 bounced emails each time. About 90% of these are from Hotmail and Yahoo accounts (if you subscribe to AUSU updates and don’t get them, now you know why). Often the problem is that the user’s box is full, as these free accounts have very small limits. Sometimes hotmail just seems to screw up and say an account is invalid when it’s not. I know that the AU tutors are having this problem, and many are quite upset to hear that students are accusing them of not replying to their emails, when in fact the tutor is unable to reply because these free accounts are bouncing replies. Also, large organizations like AU — and many home users — use spam reducing services and “black hole” lists to reduce unsolicited email. Freebie accounts are more likely to set off spam filters, especially if your freebie service is including little ads in the footers or if you are using animated smilies, and other add-ons. AU Tutor Services has asked that students please use their home ISP account when emailing their tutors, and not a hotmail or other free account.

The AUSU Study Buddy program also suffers from these problems too. I get about one bounced mail each week from someone who is trying to hook up with a Study Buddy, but the listed person’s email account is bouncing the request. I never know what to do, because the person who is listed probably really wants a Study Buddy! If you haven’t had any replies to your Study Buddy post, are you certain your account is accepting replies? Remember, I can’t email you to let you know when this is happening. I wish I could!

If you are not getting responses, consider that it might be a problem on your end that is blocking your email, and ensure that you consider this before contacting tutor services stating that your tutor will not reply (and before contacting my employer to say that I won’t reply!). Avoid Hotmail unless you want to set up a second account for entering contests and posting online. Also, make sure that you check if your spam filter has deleted replies before assuming that no one responded. Lots of users tell me that they have never set up an email account through their ISP! Why wouldn’t you? Some say it’s because they want to use webmail rather than downloading email to their home computer, but you can use webmail to access your ISP account as well. Keep this in mind. Try web2mail.com if your accounts don’t have webmail built in.

Please remember: to get prompt and effective service in response to an email request, ask yourself before you hit the send button: Will they know who I am? Have I described my problem accurately? Have I made any attempts to solve the problem which did not work? And most important: “Do I understand what it is that I want from this response?”

I think I can speak for the tutors, vhelpdesk staff, and all helpdesk staff everywhere when I say that we really want to help you as quickly and effectively as possible, and that it’s very rewarding to be able to give people the information that they are really looking for. That is, after all, what we’re here for.

Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief


Students in need of scholarship dollars should check out the front page of http://www.ausu.org for information on a brand new batch of scholarhsips and awards, courtesy of your students’ union.