February 21, 2006

Emailing the professor.

The NYT has a big front-page article about students emailing their professors!
One student skipped class and then sent the professor an e-mail message asking for copies of her teaching notes. Another did not like her grade, and wrote a petulant message to the professor. Another explained that she was late for a Monday class because she was recovering from drinking too much at a wild weekend party.

Jennifer Schultens, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of California, Davis, received this e-mail message last September from a student in her calculus course: "Should I buy a binder or a subject notebook? Since I'm a freshman, I'm not sure how to shop for school supplies. Would you let me know your recommendations? Thank you!"

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages — from 10 a week to 10 after every class — that are too informal or downright inappropriate.

"The tone that they would take in e-mail was pretty astounding," said Michael J. Kessler, an assistant dean and a lecturer in theology at Georgetown University. " 'I need to know this and you need to tell me right now,' with a familiarity that can sometimes border on imperative."

He added: "It's a real fine balance to accommodate what they need and at the same time maintain a level of legitimacy as an instructor and someone who is institutionally authorized to make demands on them, and not the other way round."
Hmmm... I don't receive much student email. Email is like a phone call, but less intrusive. Students almost never telephone, but they might use email in a casual way, like the telephone call that they wouldn't make. But what does this mean in practice? I get a few emails a semester from students apologizing for missing class. Occasionally, someone wants to know what the next assignment is. It's not a big deal at all. And I've rarely noticed an over-familiar or presumptuous tone, and this is even with me being a conspicuous blogger, endlessly displaying an appearance of personal availability!


Pete said...

When I returned to school in 2003, things were certainly different than when I earned my BA in 1982 but some things hadn't changed at all. For instance, I still got a syllabus at the beginning of the semester which clearly detailed the instructor's expectations and requirements. But I could download a copy from the instuctor's website, which could have been handy but not necessary. The professor invited e-mail communication but, being older and certainly more mature than most of my classmates, I used it sparingly - to report an upcoming absence or to clarify an assignment requirement. I was always careful to maintain a teacher/student relationship and tone in my communications. However, after the semester was over, I did use e-mail to send a more personal note, to thank the professor for the class, etc.

So, like most modern conveniences, a useful tool, if not overused.

Gaius Arbo said...

Why is that this piece makes the quoted professors sound more than a bit elitist? You know, keeping the rabble - er - students at arm's length?

MadisonMan said...

Oh Honestly, Michael J. Kessler (why do I get the idea that NO ONE calls him Mike?) needs to lighten up.

I would much rather have a student email me than call. That said, I do give them my home phone number, and occasionally I get a call. Students used to call my Dad too.

Of course, I'm in the polite midwest, a region not considered in the article. It only quoted professors on the east and west coasts. People are ruder there, I guess.

Anonymous said...

this is true

But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

where healthy :== dysfunctional

Robert Burnham said...

Regarding the absence of pestering e-mails, maybe there's a selection effect at work — you do teach law, after all.

Ann Althouse said...

Robert: You're saying law types have less of a tendency to pester?

I think maybe Madison Man has it right: it's a midwestern thing.

Freeman Hunt said...

Poo poo these horrid electronic messages that invade my sacred ivory tower on high.

Petulant was the correct word choice, but not widely enough applied to the people in the article.

The Commercial Traveller said...

I received near constant e-mails and a few phone calls a week. In general, I don't mind. In most cases, it is a conscientious, polite student that just needs clarification on something.

And I don't mind the appearance of some familiarity. (Since I'm a community college professor, I often get e-mails announcing the birth of my students' children.)

I do, however, get annoyed when (a) students expect me to get back to them right away and get indignant if I take a day or two or (b) when the e-mail address is something you wouldn't send in a professional environmens; I've had student e-mail from sexymama@-----.com, bigpimpin, and other ridiculous names.

I won't acknowledge student e-mails from addresses like that and I tell them I don't.

howzerdo said...

I am in the northeast and I get a lot of email from students. I tell them at the beginning of the semester that they are welcome to email me, and I also encourage them to submit assignments as email attachements rather than handing in paper. I prefer email to phone calls, and have found that very few students come to office hours (yes, I do sit there). Most messages are appropriate, but occasionally it they are a bit rude (ending with "answer this right away" or the more polite "I appreciate your timely response to this matter;" I assume this comes from emailing professors who do not answer very quickly). The other form of inappropriate message (and sadly this happens too much for my liking) is end of semester complaining about a grade. Rarely, it is warranted (I made a mistake, or it is an honest question), but usually it comes from students who put in little effort and are disappointed with the failure or D or C and want to know the reason, and demand a grade change.

The Commercial Traveller said...

Gina, have you heard of turnitin.com? I have all my students upload their essays there. It does a plagiarism check for me and it doesn't clutter my email. Plus, they can't say that the email got lost or something.

My college subscribes to the service and I've found it invaluable. A lot of my colleagues hate it for "big brother"-ish reasons, but I consider them to be tin-foil hat lunatics.

Robert Burnham said...

My point about law students wasn't so much about the subject as their status as grad students. (That said, I'll bet would-be lawyers probably communicate better than randomly chosen students from other fields.)

My main thought, however, was a guess that an inappropriate e-mail is much more likely to come from an undergraduate, probably in the first year or two. This is a time when a student is trying to sort out a lot of things, socially and intellectually. Finding some rough edges doesn't surprise me.

I wish the article had specifically addressed the qustion of how prevalent the phenomenon is at undergrad and grad levels — but we're left guessing about that.

And as you say, maybe it's just a midwestern thing!

froggyprager said...

My wife was a professor at a smaller midwest state school in education and did not mind the emails from students and got many. The problem was the expectation that they would get an instant reply. She did not check her email every day since she was busy with young kids. I think the 19 year old students could not imagine that their professor may not have time to reply to their message for a couple of days.

howzerdo said...

C. Schweitzer: thanks for the tip. Not sure my university subscribes, but I will look into it. I don't mind the email attachments (I could have them turn in assignments via WebCT if I did), but the automatic plagiarism check is appealing.

Beth said...

I get emails from students every day, and have had many of the negative experiences described in the article. They make up only a fraction of the email students send, but they do annoy and seem based on a flawed presumption about student-teacher relationships.

The "I missed class, please send me the notes" one is common. I don't comply. That one ranks up with "did I miss anything important?

The grade complaint is more and more common, as there's a growing consumer mentality about school. I failed a paralegal student who then set out on a 6-week campaign of email complaints to get me to change her grade. She did not succeed, and the long, ranting, poorly argued emails were a good support for my original assessment. Each time I issue grades, I get at least two or three emails per class, from students demanding an explanation of their grades, even for Bs, for goodness sake.

I received a question from "tinypinkdancer" at whatever ISP, and had no clue who it was. It turned out to be my muscular Marine ROTC student, using his sister's account. I now require students to use our university account.

But during the weeks right after Katrina I got emails from students all over the country, inquiring about my safety and just needing to find someone they knew. I get emails from students having an "aha" moment with their writing, or about a piece of literature. Those experiences make the annoyances minor in comparison.

vbspurs said...

At Oxford in the mid-to-late 90's, one was given the prof's email, telephone, and home address, if he lived off college.

At a pinch, you could ask the college porters where such-and-such prof was, and they'd find him or her for you.

But of course too, you could run into them many times per day, since that is the whole point of a self-contained University town.

With Medical School profs, it's a little different. You get a service number, rather than an email, although that's available too.

But I've yet to email a prof for anything here.

And for the record, American professors here seem much more elitist than the ones I knew...at Oxford.

I thought long and hard about why, and then I realised, Americans perhaps have such a egalitarian society at heart, that they need this stratification and distance, to maintain respect.

Whereas in our elitist, class-bound society, if you're not approachable at least, you're seen as impossibly, snobbily boorish -- and that's no good either.

P.S.: The one time I emailed a professor here though, I got a prompt reply back. It said, "ok".


john(classic) said...

I can think of nothing more stultifying to the culture than an effort to formalize emails.

Thank heavens that spam filters started giving html emails high weight as possible spam. Many lawyers were hiring people to make their email just like their letterhead. One giant step for mankind...

And, do I detect a decrease in the tedious formal warnings attached to the bottom of emails which shout "Hey I am an incompetent lawyer who thinks he accomplishes something by giving you a warning after you have read the substance of my email"?

Hmm. how does one disassemble this soap box to carry it away?

Beth said...

geo, I got one from "bigblackstud," too. I was too embarrassed to say anything specifically to him, but I did later reiterate my preference for our .edu email.

I'm fine with the informality of most of my students' emails. It's the sense of entitlement that isn't really email's fault that gets to me. The rude emails come from the same students who, 24 hours after submitting a 7-page paper along with 20 other students, are appalled that I haven't graded it yet.

knox said...


"...Americans perhaps have such a egalitarian society at heart, that they need this stratification and distance... Whereas in our elitist, class-bound society, if you're not approachable at least, you're seen as impossibly, snobbily boorish..."

do you prefer one over the other?

just curious...

vbspurs said...

do you prefer one over the other?

just curious...

Knoxgirl, I prefer American social interaction by far.

When you have an egalitarian starting premise, all things are possible.


Finn Alexander Kristiansen said...

...appearance of personal availability(Somebody is such a tease).

I don't think it makes any sort of sense at all to demand that students use or not use certain email names. One need only visit sites like myspace to see that everyone between the ages of 12 and 25 is pretty much using all sorts of semi-sexual or otherwise inappropriate email addresses.

What professors should do, however, is advise the students about how to prevent their "worlds from colliding".

That is, tell the students that they should have their professional email (for dealing with jobs and school), their personal emails (one for friends, one for family) and their business email (for ordering stuff online and other activities that might bring unwanted spam).

But to refuse to accept mail from certain names(like bigblackstud or chulaboricua) seems a rather quixotic approach to student stupidity. Young people like their delusions of sexiosity (uhm, yea I know that is not a word).

(P.S... If any bang'in honies like my post, hit me back at myspace.com/studsexyallthatandabagofchipsahoycookiesandmilk.)

Finn Alexander Kristiansen said...

(Oh, and the P.S. in the above post is in jest).