Tuesday, February 21, 2006

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Before you e-mail your prof, you may want to read this

Jonathan D. Glater has a front-page story in the New York Times that will amuse many professors and send a chill down many students' spines. Here's how it opens:

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.

Glater has a one very odd quote on the implications of all of this. For example:
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no longer deferred to their professors, perhaps because they realized that professors' expertise could rapidly become outdated.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.

Well, any belief I had that Dede was an infallible source of deep knowledge has gone right out the window. I'd suggest, rather, that e-mail is simply a less formal means of communication, and students raised in an Oprah-fed confessional culture don't see a downside in sending them.

Because, most of the time, there isn't a downside -- stories like these inevitably pick on the 5% of emails that are annoying, tedious, or just plain stupid. And, I might add, the story contains the best response to these kind of electronic queries:

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.

Oh, and for the record -- all of my students are required to purchase Trapper Keepers to attend my classes.

UPDATE: Ah, it appears that the Times is behind the times -- Kathryn Wymer had a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month suggesting that e-mail is on the outs with the student body:

I pride myself on keeping up to date with the latest technology. I regularly use computers in my classroom, and have long been a fan of the educational potential of online discussion groups. So I was completely taken aback a few months ago when a colleague informed me of something she had recently learned from her students: Teenagers no longer check their e-mail.

I confirmed that in a subsequent conversation with a 16-year-old. "Yep," he said. "It's way too slow. I never check it."

The immediate gratification of instant messaging, commonly called IM, has superceded the possibilities of e-mail for teenagers and college students. My colleague commented that her students found e-mail to be "dinosaur-ish," good only for communicating with parents and teachers.

Intriguingly, Wymer's experiment with I-mailing students didn't work out so well: "I wonder if other students resisted the impulse to use instant messaging in order to keep their personal and professional modes of communication separate."

Wymer also touches on a problem Kieran Healy raises: "sometimes the students pick the kind of addresses for themselves that arenít exactly professional-quality. Frankly it feels a bit odd to correspond with, e.g., missbitchy23 or WildcatBongs about letters of reference or what have you." Be sure to check the comments thread for some other amusing examples of poor e-mail choices.

ANOTHER UPDATE: See this comment on Tim Burke's blog on whether one of the profs in the story was accurately quoted.

posted by Dan on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM


Wow...that has to be one of the funniest things I have read in a long time! I am currently working on my MA and this doesn't surprise me at all. It never ceases to amaze me how unprofessional students can be toward their professors in and out of class, even at the graduate level. I was always taught to treat my professors as a sort of "employer" and maintain a strict employer/employee relationship. I don't know what some of these kids were thinking. I would never dream of emailing a professor with a personal problem.

posted by: Carrie Gheen on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

I respectfully disagree with Professor Dede's conclusion - that professors are no longer looked up to as "infallible sources of deep knowledge." Students still think of professors as wise, but the instant communication factor makes them also seem like approachable, peer-like sources of all knowledge, no matter how trivial. It's easy to fire off an e-mail, and there is response equivalent to a cold stare or raised eyebrow. Except, perhaps, a lack of response altogether.

Professors, too, must adapt to this new technology, and let students know what's appropriate and what's not. It's comparable to student citing Wikipedia - they'll only stop when they're told it's not acceptable.

posted by: b. phillips on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Last year I received an email from a student on a Friday at 8.30pm with a trivial question about lecture handouts. On Sunday at 5pm the student sent another email, asking why I had not replied.

I did reply, eventually, on Monday morning at 7.30am, asking the student to come to my office hour at 8.30am to collect the handouts. The student never showed up.

Of course, I could have tried IM'ing my student...

See http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2006/02/2006020701c/careers.html

posted by: ab on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Ms. Schultens missed a teachable moment. The right thing to do would have been to politely inform the student that in college, these types of decisions are left to the judgment of the students, who are presumed to be adults. Of course, instant reply is not required, just because somebody sends you an e-mail, does not mean that it must be replied to ASAP. You can always wait until business hours tomorrow.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Like ab, I've had to set boundaries. I tell my students that I check my email once a day, at 7 p.m. . . . and that I don't check it on the weekend. That way they have to plan their schedule around mine, and I don't have to feel guilty if I don't email them back immediately. Otherwise, as Wymer indicates, my train of thought would be derailed every ten minutes. Every day. (Of course, I do sometimes check it more frequently, and do sometimes respond outside the designated period, but they can't count on it; and because I've made my schedule clear to them, they aren't annoyed. Many an email sent a 9 p.m. begins "if you happen to look at this before tomorrow . . .)

posted by: Scott Eric Kaufman on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

When I was a t.a. in the eighties, I heard the same type of excuses and questions (I couldn't come to class. I had to go shopping for clothes) orally -- now they just email them.

posted by: roger on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Dan -- any comment on Lawrence Summers' resignation ?

posted by: erg on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Why doesn't IM work for communicating with faculty? For all the reasons that Professor Wymer lists, but i think she misses the biggest reason of all: IM's are an instant hit sort of application. You can make a date to see someone at a restaurant but it's very hard to conduct a serious discussion using IM.

Email also has serious problems compared with an office visit but at least one can formulate a serious argument (assuming that one is capable of making an argument). So IM can be said to have all of email's drawbacks without it's advantages.

When I was in school I visited professors during their office hours. Sometimes over a beer afterward. It was an underutilized resource then (I rarely had to wait more than 5 minutes) and it's a superb way to get a little personal tutoring. There is nothing like a face to face session with all the nonverbal and verbal cues for picking up information.

Not bad for your grades - if you can perform. Funny thing is that if you visit the professor, she gets to know who you are! Do good work and I found that most profs will bend over backward to treat you well.

posted by: Don Stadler on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Larry Summers resigned - it's true. Harvard's loss. It's a crying shame....

posted by: Don Stadler on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

I suspect part of the problem is kids who have always overrelied on their parents to help them with their homework, find books in the library for them, google up online resources for them, and buy their school supplies for them. They probably just transfer their dependency onto their professors in loco parentis.

I'm not a professor. I work at a publisher, and I'm surprised by the occasional spoiled kids who email me to ask whether we've ever published something about subject X, or ask if I could supply them with a "document" whose title matches the title of a book recently published by another press. Too lazy to google, even! Maybe they got through school writing too many personal reaction papers and never learning the mechanics of research.

posted by: Joel on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

The Chronicle's take is on the mark. E-mail as a communication platform is in great need of a major upgrade. It's slow, clumsy, difficult to sort search or store and above all, its filtering capabilities are next to non-existent, thereby giving all emails the exact same status. This will change when social networking and other trust mechanisms are integrated into the application, but Outlook, yahoo, gmail etc are a long way off from that. IM is far more convenient for such filtering and also allows storage and retrieval of threads.

posted by: thibaud on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Let me play devil's advocate for a second here:

I am enrolled in a 600 student Economics 101 class. In this class (as in many large classes) the "face time" with students is done by PhD teacher assistants. While the professor will give the lecture, the tests will be given by PhD T.A., the discussion section will be run by PhD T.A., and the tests will be graded by PhD T.A..

Considering this (1) I will never talk with the professor and (2) he will never grade my test, and (3) he will never know me well enough to write a recommendation.

Now if I miss a class, what is the incentive to NOT email the professor an email asking for the teaching notes?

The possible outcome is either she is annoyed at some student she will never meet (me) but does not care enough to go out of her way to ruin my grade (unless the email is truely offensive) or she emails me the notes. Sounds like the students might know more economics than everyone is giving them credit for.

Incentives make the world go round.

posted by: Chris Albon on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Let me play devil's advocate for you, Chris.

First what are you doing in a 600 student Econ 101 section? Those things are factory style education. My experience is that a class like that was so easy to game it was like falling off a log. Usually pretty much worthless as education unless you luck into a good TA. I'll admit I had choices which perhaps you don't because I started at a medium sized Jesuit School (Marquette) which didn't have many factories and by the time I transferred to a larger school I was a junior taking mostly 300 level courses or above.

Why don't you try some tricks? I'm not sure how the system works at your school, but I got out of the second semeseter of my first factory class (History of Western Civ) by enrolling in an honors section. Lot's of work and a lower grade were the cost, but I easily learned 3X as much by working with a real prof with 20 other students.

Later on (at the factory school) I had to make up science requirements. Instead of taking the 100-level lecture classes I simply skipped and took 200 level lab courses. Borrowed an old copy of the level 100 text from the library and read the chapter summaries, digging in where it looked important. For the cost of about 20 hours of preparation for each course I learned enough to get through the 200 levels. It was harder but worth it. Asked the professor first in a few cases, and they were usually more than willing to give advice about what was important and what was not.

There can be big advantages to knowing the professors. I was a working student self-financing from work, and my profs usually knew the score. Once I overslept a final exam (after a night shift) and arrived with 15 minutes left in the exam period. The prof sent me off in 'disgrace' to his office to await his august presence. When he arrived he handed me the exam and sat me in the secretaries office 'You have an hour'. No penalty.

posted by: Don Stadler on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Just to be clear, the situation was hypothetical. I attend Uni. of Miami and most of my classes are 5-20 people, but having attended Boston U. I am familiar with the dynamics of large classes.

But the point of the situation I presented is still stands, that students are simply weighing the incentives and in large class sizes the incentives for not emailing are minimal.

Make each email sent to the professor a graded assignment and you'd see far more students coming to see the professor face to face simply because the incentives have shifted.

posted by: Chris Albon on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

I wrote my prof asking him a reference for my graduate studies in the States. Since it was he himself to suggest me to study in the States, it seemed to me pretty logical.

No response.

I wrote again, after a few weeks saying "probably the mail did not arrive". His whole response was: "Sure."

I graduated (he was co-advisor: I did not even notice it) and after a few days I wrote him again. Response: it seems obvious to me as well to you that I have to decline your answer. Ask someone else.

greetings, aa (from Italy)

posted by: aa on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]


The risk (and incentive) is that the prof might just decide to make a special case of you, look you up in the class roster, and send an acerbic email to your TA. In which case something or nothing might happen. Surely nothing favorable.

I've seen the same kind of reasoning applied to the job search, with poeople sending illiterate text message style communications to employers. No it probably does no harm because you had no chance anyway. But if you did have a chance, wave it goodbye. So why do it?

posted by: Don Stadler on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

About the job search, the comparison doesn't hold. I am not talking about sending illiterate text message style communications but rather emailing professors annoying/frustrating questions because the reward outweighs the risk.

A better comparison would be job searchers spamming 1000 companies with your resume and a decently written letter.

If they reply negatively there is infact no loss to you because you didn't lose anything (except the time to send the emails). BUT if even less than 1% of the companies say yes then you win.

posted by: Chris Albon on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Best student email ever:


HOnest -- I told her to change it!

posted by: ann on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

I got a good laugh out of that, thanks Ann.

posted by: Chris Albon on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

A better comparison would be job searchers spamming 1000 companies with your resume and a decently written letter.

Pardon me, Chris but you just hit a bit of a peeve with me. There is no such thing as a mass-produced properly written cover letter!

The resume is normally a generic document (although I will customize even the resume). The cover letter's purpose is particular to the intended target and cannot be generalized over even 5 companies much less 1000. The notion that one can 'spam' a job search (and be successful) is beyond words....

posted by: Don Stadler on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Good point Don, my mistake.

Just to be clear I am not suggesting this method and Don brings up some great points.

posted by: Chris Albon on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Hi ! Your site is very interesting. Thank you.

posted by: Kir on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Update: Lately I have been getting many emails about my comments on this thread.

I want to be clear: (1) I am in no way suggesting the spamming of professors and/or companies, (2) I do not do it myself and never have, and (3) no I do not have any tips on how to do it!

My examples were HYPOTHETICAL! I apologize for not making this clear in my previous comments.

posted by: Chris Albon on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

Red Hot Chili Peppers

posted by: Diesela on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

It seems to me that professors could improve their own situations by responding with thoughtful emails. It seems silly to look at an email, laugh, and say "poor, silly, stupid student..." without using the opportunity to teach the student.

There seems to be at least some call for boundaries, such as weekends; however, I believe that an instructor who laughs at and ignores emails is also shirking his/her calling as a teacher. Why not reply with an email to encourage change and growth? As an instructor, be the adult in the relationship and guide the younger students. An attitude of "email degrades my status as instructor/employer/emperor" or "by emailing me, those filthy undergraduates bring me down to their level" shines poorly on the character of the instructor.

posted by: Keith Rimington on 02.21.06 at 11:16 AM [permalink]

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