Wednesday, February 22, 2006

To NYT: Students send dumb emails... duh

From the February 21 New York Times, page A-1 (with my comments in brackets within).

To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It's All About Me
By JONATHAN D. GLATER

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. [I've gotten that one, too.]

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!" [One email to me: "I'm running low on printing paper. Would you mind if I only printed my assignment single space?"]

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. [Sigh...missing boundaries.]

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.
[Downright! Damn right downright!]

"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."

While once professors may have expected deference, their expertise seems to have become just another service that students, as consumers, are buying.
[That's a line right out of The Phantom Prof, kids.]

So students may have no fear of giving offense, imposing on the professor's time or even of asking a question that may reflect badly on their own judgment. [What makes you think they care about imposing on a prof's time? Their tuition check buys your time. Didn't you know that?]

For junior faculty members, the barrage of e-mail has brought new tension into their work lives, some say, as they struggle with how to respond. Their tenure prospects, they realize, may rest in part on student evaluations of their accessibility. [Cue the sucking sounds!]

The stakes are different for professors today than they were even a decade ago, said Patricia Ewick, chairwoman of the sociology department at Clark University in Massachusetts, explaining that "students are constantly asked to fill out evaluations of individual faculty." Students also frequently post their own evaluations on Web sites like ratemyprofessors.com and describe their impressions of their professors on blogs. [And if we describe our impressions of them, we get fired. Remember, words hurt.]

Last fall, undergraduate students at Syracuse University set up a group in Facebook.com, an online network for students, and dedicated it to maligning one particular instructor. The students were reprimanded.

Professor Ewick said 10 students in one class e-mailed her drafts of their papers days before they were due, seeking comments. "It's all different levels of presumption," she said. "One is that I'll be able to drop everything and read 250 pages two days before I'm going to get 50 of these."

Kathleen E. Jenkins, a sociology professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said she had even received e-mail requests from students who missed class and wanted copies of her teaching notes. [Or they just want to come to your office and have you re-teach the class one-on-one. That's pretty common. The consumer attitude again. They paid. They'll use it when they have time to pick it up.]

Alexandra Lahav, an associate professor of law at the University of Connecticut, said she felt pressured by the e-mail messages. "I feel sort of responsible, as if I ought to be on call all the time," she said.

Many professors said they were often uncertain how to react. Professor Schultens, who was asked about buying the notebook, said she debated whether to tell the student that this was not a query that should be directed to her, but worried that "such a message could be pretty scary."
"I decided not to respond at all," she said.

Christopher J. Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied technology in education, said these e-mail messages showed how students no longer deferred to their professors, perhaps because they realized that professors' expertise could rapidly become outdated.

"The deference was probably driven more by the notion that professors were infallible sources of deep knowledge," Professor Dede said, and that notion has weakened.

Meanwhile, students seem unaware that what they write in e-mail could adversely affect them, Professor Lahav said. She recalled an e-mail message from a student saying that he planned to miss class so he could play with his son. Professor Lahav did not respond.

"It's graduate school, he's an adult human being, he's obviously a parent, and it's not my place to tell him how to run his life," she said.

But such e-mail messages can have consequences, she added. "Students don't understand that what they say in e-mail can make them seem very unprofessional, and could result in a bad recommendation."

Still, every professor interviewed emphasized that instant feedback could be invaluable. A question about a lecture or discussion "is for me an indication of a blind spot, that the student didn't get it," said Austin D. Sarat, a professor of political science at Amherst College.

College students say that e-mail makes it easier to ask questions and helps them to learn. "If the only way I could communicate with my professors was by going to their office or calling them, there would be some sort of ranking or prioritization taking place," said Cory Merrill, 19, a sophomore at Amherst. "Is this question worth going over to the office?"

But student e-mail can go too far, said Robert B. Ahdieh, an associate professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta. He paraphrased some of the comments he had received: "I think you're covering the material too fast, or I don't think we're using the reading as much as we could in class, or I think it would be helpful if you would summarize what we've covered at the end of class in case we missed anything."

Students also use e-mail to criticize one another, Professor Ahdieh said. He paraphrased this comment: "You're spending too much time with my moron classmates and you ought to be focusing on those of us who are getting the material."

Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he once received an e-mail message late one evening from a student who had recently come to the realization that he was gay and was struggling to cope.

Professor Greenstone said he eventually helped the student get an appointment with a counselor. "I don't think we would have had the opportunity to discuss his realization and accompanying feelings without e-mail as an icebreaker," he said.

A few professors said they had rules for e-mail and told their students how quickly they would respond, how messages should be drafted and what types of messages they would answer.

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor's response to an e-mail message.

"One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back," Professor Worley said. [But my question is, haven't we become the less powerful half of the equation? Add your comments below. Feel free to vent.]

36 Comments:

Anonymous alicia said...

as an aspiring faculty member in a junior college, all i have to say is this article just convinced me that my email address won't be made available to the students.

students should prioritize their questions and decide what is really important to ask. if they make the effort to come to my office or pick up their cell phone and talk to me, i'll be happy to respond, even if they want to know about school supplies.

as a secretary in a department office, i see many students, irrate that a professor hasn't responded to their emails instantly. even i'm annoyed if i don't get responses from the faculty. where did this expectation come from? i've never worked in an environment where every memo was handwritten, but i'm beginning to think it wasn't such a bad place to be. at least there weren't cosmic expectations, and there was some breathing room.

shouldn't we all have more of a real life and less of a virtual one?

oh, but i love my virtual life...it's so sad. :)

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Treat the email the same way you treat caller id. You know who is calling and can decide if you want to answer or not.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous jaq said...

I felt this one was too one-sided. As a student, I have had professors abuse e-mail. I will get an e-mail a few hours before the class begins about a new reading assignment or small homework assignment. I work every morning and go to school throughout the afternoon, and then assist scuba classes in the evening so sometimes these last-minute notices really stress me out. I make time every week to print out assignments, readings, and complete homework -- and when a professor springs something via email (which I don't always have time to check or respond to) on me I consider it unprofessional.

Whenever I send an email to a professor, I try to be as polite as possible, I thank them for their time in answering, I provide information about the course I'm in and I only ask when I really can't find the information elsewhere and can't go in during office hours. Still, I often never get responses or the professor will direct me to come in during office hours.

As the daughter and god-daughter of two successful professors, I have to say, I make an honest effort to be respectful of a prof's time outside of school.

Try to not be SO one-sided and cynical about students all the time!

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Becca said...

Entitlement of any kind never fails to shock me, and student entitlement is no exception. When I was in uni, the only time I would email profs was when I had to miss a class, and it usually went along these lines: "Hi, Dr. ______, this is _________. I'm in your _____ o'clock ________ class, and I just wanted to let you know that I'm suffering from a migraine today and that I won't be able to come to class. I apologize for the late notice, and I will get the notes and any other assignments from a classmate. If you have the chance to answer before next class, what would you recommend I read/look at/study to be fully caught up as soon as possible?

Again, sorry for the late notice; thanks for your time. See you next class!

~Me"

Of course, I'm a huge nerd who was usually on a first-name basis with most of my profs by the end of each semester because I went to their offices and got to know them! Shockhorror!

8:07 PM  
Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I have to admit that most of my e-mails are like Becca's above.

I've found some sanity by telling them that I do not accept e-mailed papers or accept papers via e-mail for pre-grading comments. They have to actually come in, which is more trouble than most are willing to go to.

Another colleague has instituted on-line office hours, saying he would be available in chat on the on-line teaching program. He also said that he would not answer e-mail outside of regular working hours.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Fired

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20060222.gtmath0222/BNStory/Technology/?page=rss&id=RTGAM.20060222.gtmath0222

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm thinking back to my college days when I was young and stupid and not quite knowing how to make the transition from high school (where you were told what kind of notebook to buy) to college. I remember classmates saying things like "I pay tuition here and that means they work for me." or "that entitles me to fill-in-the blank." I remember overhearing two professors complaining about the students who called them at home even though they had provided their home numbers on their syllabi.

The more things change, the more they remain the same?

8:04 AM  
Anonymous lucille said...

Well, there are a few ways to head them off at the pass. I write "Peer Contacts" below the info about classrooms, hours, etc. on the top left-hand corner of my syllabus. On the first day I ask them to fill in the e-mails of two people sitting close to them and to ask THOSE people questions about class notes, missed assignments, clarifications, etc. I tell them I answer e-mails about paper ideas before all others, and I get 24 hours to respond (sometimes 48, depending on my schedule). I tell them I don't read drafts sent to me by e-mail or accept papers turned in that way, and neither do my TAs. And I use a class distribution list, with some apologies for cluttering THEIR mailboxes, to answer questions I get from several students. It works more or less OK, and my evals. say I am very accessible. I think most students mean well, actually. They just come from the culture of the IM, where everyone has a message saying where they are and what they are up to, and cellphones where you can reach anyone any time.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Jacob said...

I don't mind getting and answering emails throughout the day, and my student are regularly surprised by the speed with which I respond. What always shocks me is the assumption students make that I won't judge them by what they say in their emails. A student who emailed me asking to get his grade bumped (by half a letter grade) justified it by saying he didn't start trying very hard until midterm. I assume he sent that email because he thought it might work, which means he didn't learn anything in my class about interpersonal or persuasive communication. His classmate who emailed me via a text message from her friend's cellphone, and took the time to tell me it was her friends phone and could I reply to her email address, but neglected to put her name on the message was angry with me when I didn't reply. I get the instant availability expectation, but whatever happened to the simplest of common sense?

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I often get email saying a student missed something (class, test, etc.) because of "personal issues".
I think the assupmtion is that this is a legal excuse and that I won't ask what the "issue" is. That and some profs must accept this as an excuse.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel that a part of the duscission is an ego trip for the professors. I do agree that asking stupid questions via email is wasting valuable time of the professors. Life is not perfect so why expect technology to be perfect. Every thing has its drawbacks. And consider on the positive side that increased students - teacher has its positive ends too. And yes education is a consumer product and i believe the instalation of that feeling in todays students is by people who also were students - taught by professors. What goes around comes around.

A concerened student at SMU.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Kgrl said...

Dear concerened student at SMU,

You've just given The Professor the ultimate reason to be delighted that she no longer teaches there.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And yes[,] education is a consumer product and i believe the instal[l]ation of that feeling in today[']s students is by people who also were students - taught by professors.

I think that more than professors, it's parents who put these ideas in their kids' heads. It's the parents who pay the tuition, and somehow instill in their children that these people are here to serve YOU, and hence you do not owe them any respect.

What we are seeing is a widespread loss of respect in this culture. It is seen as perfectly NORMAL to not respect people who work for you (employees, maids, fast food workers, teachers, etc.) If money is flowing from one person to another, that's the only important thing. Civility, deference to elders, and simple respect have all just flown out the window in a cash economy. Respect goes to the one with the most dollars; everyone else be damned.

It's harsh and cruel, and goes against what MY parents taught ME as a child: if you respect your elders, they will respect you back. "What goes around comes around" indeed; if people are dashing off thoughtless emails, no matter who they are, they will be exposed for it.

4:45 PM  
Blogger SuperHolmie said...

Two things. From both sides of the desk.

Most of my profs just didn't answer email when I was doing undergrad and grad work... it wasn't really the most popular form of communication for them or us, and if we wanted to talk to them, we just went to their office. It really was shocking how few people per class actually bothered to get to know the professors.

Now that I'm teaching, I get a shitload of email every day, most of it from parents, most of it polite and well-meaning. I really get pissed off, though, when parents ask me, "What can John do to pass your class next six weeks?" Well, DUH: take notes, study, come to tutoring sessions, do his homework... basically all the shit that he hasn't been doing. I get lots of stupid questions via email.

It's also frustrating because so many people are functionally illiterate: can't spell, can't compose a sentence. Their emails have you scratching your head as you try to decipher what they meant to say.

Occasionally I'll get mail from an angry parent bitching to high heaven about something... the bravado some people take on in email is really laughable. I've been threatened, called names, accused of things... and when that happens, I either make a phone call to the person (and when they have to speak in real time, their attitude usually doesn't smack of asshole like in their email) or I just disregard the email entirely.

I also get parents who want me to email them every time their child does something wrong or gets a failing grade. Or they want me to email them every time we have an assignment due or a test. WHEN am I supposed to put together these dossiers that they want? I always respond with, "Due to the volume of email I receive plus the amount of students I teach, I regret that I cannot comply with your request." I guess some people's image of a teacher is that we sit behind a desk all day, dreaming up ways to become better public servants.

One thing we are warned about over and over again at my district: email is of public record. Anything you send is public record. Anything you say is public record. Our district saves all email and I'm sure there is someone spying and reading the stuff. I don't particularly like that, but it does help me focus when I'm really angry and want to tell someone to fuck off. Instead I picture that email being read at my trial or pasted all over Channel 8's website. And then I choose my words carefully.

The email piece of my job takes up several hours a week. I imagine I spend over an hour or two per day sorting, filing, answering and contemplating it.

Overall, though, I am glad for email: it has saved me from sitting in hours of useless meetings. Admin just sends a list of stuff we need to know or do. Fine by me. I also like having access to a kid's parents if I'm working on grades at midnight. I can shoot them an email at any hour, instead of trying to catch them on the phone at work or at home.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Morgaine said...

Entitlement is endemic to the sociopathy we've created in our young. Teach them some manners - correct their spelling and grade their grammar.

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Response: "kgrl sain...
Dear concerened student at SMU,

You've just given The Professor the ultimate reason to be delighted that she no longer teaches there."

I would prefer had The Professor given that reply. At least she would be able to clarify the exact reason for that. Was she tired of students like me? Or tired of coping with the increasing demands of her profession? Please don’t try to think or speak for others. I would have preferred to read her comment saying that she is happy to get rid of students like me.

Most systems come with only 2 options 'Retry' or 'Cancle'. It is only rare to get a third option 'Abort'. And not all are fortunate enough to get that option.

Again,
A concerened student at SMU

12:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerned student at SMU,
I believe that the comment was referring to your incredibly poor spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

For example, it's cancel, not cancle. Concerned not concerened, discussion not duscission, and installation not instalation. The grammar was so poor that I couldn't even translate it into to something that made any sense.

A concerned SMU Alum.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerned student should be concerned that he or she has not learned to spell words that were on my FIFTH-grade vocabulary and spelling lists 30 years ago.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Ms. Charisma said...

I used to go to my professors' office hours so they would get to know me by name. I figured I'd get a better letter of recommendation if they knew who I was among the hundreds of students they meet each semester. I also figured if they were grading papers and it came down to an A- or B+ that they might realize I was trying and give me the A-.

As a TA, it has consistently surprised me how students send emails as if they don't realize that each word they type will influence their professors' views of them. You don't want to piss people off right before they read your papers.

8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that I feel this phenom is not entirely awful. A standard 3 hour class at SMU costs over $3000... I expect value for my money, and unfortunatly I do not always feel like I am getting what I paid for. I have never asked as much of a professor as this article suggests... but it brings up a good point. As a student you're paying for the professors guidence... They should be more accessible than 2.5 hours a week. (3 hour class = 50 minutes.) More than once I have felt like I should get a refund for my tuition.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunatly (ha!), it sounds like you need a refund not from SMU, but your elementary school for not giving you enough guidence (ha!) and teaching you basic spelling skills.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a comment section of a blog (which by nature uses more a informal writing style) with no edit function to correct grammar and spelling mistakes once a post is made. So lets stop this pencil neck "your spelling and grammar isn't top notch so your argument isn't valid" pettiness.

[Back on Topic]

To TA's and Professors:

If you put on your syllabus that email is the "best" form of communication (which many do), then it should come as no surprise that you're going to receive a lot of emails with lots of questions, suggestions, complaints, excuses ect. The least you can do is reply to them within a reasonable time frame. If not then why should students waste their time writing to you?

I find this analogous to professors who encourage their students to come to their office hours only to act uninterested and annoyed that their time being "infringed upon" by students who bother showing up.

3:28 AM  
Anonymous Ben Alexander said...

I teach at a major state university in Maryland. I am absolutely appalled by the behavior of mathematics professor Jennifer Schultens of UC Davis who ignored a student's request for advice on how to select a notebook, and then commented on it in a New York Times interview. The student was so obviously perceived Prof. Schultens as someone she could trust for advice, and it was such a missed opportunity for Prof. Schultens to give that student a reassuring word about the student's own judgment being best. The fact that Prof. Schultens felt above offering such reassurance and support to a freshman who was feeling lost and unsure of herself in her first university experience is sad. I always assure my students that I will never ignore their E-mails, and it hurts me very much that a member of my profession could behave that way. Perhaps she feels so deep in her identity as a mathematician that she feels above being a professional educator, because giving that student a respectful response to that E-mail is part of what being an educator is all about. It is very sad that this student received such mistreatment from this professor.

Ben Alexander
Department of History
Towson University, MD

11:30 AM  
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8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I've got everyone beat. Earlier this week, I received an email from a student upset with the grade he earned on an essay. In about an 8,000-word email, he told that I was incompetent and that I had an axe to grind against him because he's 28 years old and Navy retired. What bothered me the most about the email was that he copied the head of my department, as if he cares about what freshmen think about their profs. His email insinuated that because he's a Navy veteran, he should receive special treatment, and his poorly-done essay should have earned him at least a B, but he really believed it was an A essay. The astounding thing about it, after I checked on his attendance with the TAs, we discovered that he's not even enrolled in the class. He's a student, but not enrolled in my class.

10:23 PM  
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1:40 AM  
Anonymous sports handicapping software said...

is much the gall of these students!

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my issue with you academics is this. you guys lack the emotional connection that people should have with other people, assuming that people know what you're all referring to or even just downright viewing people as dumb for not know what random article you speak of.

secondly, professors in uni are paid to be there by students. if students did not pay for tuition, you guys wouldnt be employed. based on that, you guys are obliged to do your best to teach them and help them through, that is the role of a prof. not just coming in and read some slides on ppt that can be just read in a textboom. how is that teaching? you academics need to get off your self entitled high horses and come back to ground. know whos paying for your job and respect that. i would cite some phd and masters students incidences where they display nothjng more than thr ability to follow orders, but its not worth my time. thats why the majority of business leaders and company founders, the real RICH people, are the REAL smart people. academics just knoe how to do whats asked of them and nothing more. i know this js a generalization, from my experience, this is a large % of those ive encountered.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are paid by your students to teach. not to read then the bolded print from a text book. you are also obliged to respond to their emails because you are employed by them. your income is from them. know your role.

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