Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Email and Student-Faculty Communication

Apparently, student-professor email communication is a big deal, according to The NY Times.

I love email, and I especially love it as a way to communicate with my students. I don't mind when they call me at home, but email is usually more convenient for all of us, especially when one of us - and it is often me, believe it or not - thinks of something important at 1am.

Generally, my experience has been that students are very respectful in their emails to me. Even some of those who call me by my first name in class will address me as "Professor" or "Dr." in their emails. And while they will, as mentioned in the article, frequently attach drafts of their papers and ask for my comments a day or two before the final paper is due, it is often at my invitation and with the understanding that my comments at that point will be cursory.

In fact, as someone who often does not have the time and who is generally too distracted to respond thoughtfully in my email communiques, I feel a bit hypocritical complaining about the quality of my students' emails. And further, as a recent graduate from studenthood, myself, I can tell you that some of my professors to this day often do not acknowledge my emails to them. I chalk this up to their busy schedules, and I don't take it personally - well, mostly, I don't. But over the last 10 years of grad school and teaching, I would say that my email exchanges with my professors have been far more problematic than those with my students.

The worst thing that my students have done via email is to not know quite how to approach me, and so they are sometimes overly informal ("Yo, Teach!") or formal but insecure ("Would you by any chance have the time to meet with me? If not, I totally understand."). Neither of these bother me (though I hope, for their sakes, that they figure out a more respectful or less self-deprecating way, respectively, to talk with their instructors). Or sometimes they don't respond at all (which is one of my pet peeves, but more on that later). Sometimes they will email me a paper instead of giving me a hard copy, and while I confess that I get easily confused by having a stack of hard copies and a few electronic ones, so far, it has been nothing that I haven't been able to figure out eventually. Sometimes they will make demands that I feel are inappropriate, particularly when it comes to grades and why they got them and whether or not they think they should have a different one. But I can't really blame them for this, as we put so much emphasis on grades and then often don't adquately explain how the grading process works.

The worst thing that professors do is to completely ignore emails from their students, and I have been guilty of this, myself (not intentionally!). Sometimes it's just a matter of forgetting, and sometimes it's easier to address the issue in person (for example, when one will see the student in class in a matter of minutes). I'm not talking about those instances. I'm thinking of more hardcore cases. These are the same professors who don't bother to show up for office hours, who don't return phone calls, who see students entirely in terms of how much time they are taking up that the professor could be using for something else, and who basically communicate disrespect to their students. I firmly believe that students should not be made to feel that their time is worth less, or that they themselves are worth less, than the professor. Routinely not responding to a student's email is just shitty, plain and simple.

But I do have a couple of email expectations, whether I'm communicating with a student, an employer, or an old friend:

I expect that, if I ask a question, or for specific information, it will be answered/provided and not ignored in the response. I hate when I ask a question only to get a response on a totally 'nother topic. I'm happy for the new discussion, but I wouldn't have asked my question if I didn't want an answer.

If I write a thoughtful message, I expect a thoughtful reply, or at least some acknowledgement that my correspondent is not holding up his or her end of the conversation for whatever reason ("I'm sorry I can't write more - I'm insanely busy at work"). (But I don't always measure up to this expectation, myself.)

If I send a message that deserves/requires an answer, I expect an answer, eventually. Or even just a "thanks" for the link I sent - just some small acknowledgement that I exist. Because the thing about email is that it can feel an awful lot like you are sending your thoughts out into the void: you don't always know if your message got through, you can never be sure that you haven't inadvertently offended someone, and you always wonder if you sound as inarticulate and unsophisticated to others as you do to yourself. (It's a little like blogging in that respect!)

Academics, particularly, have our own rules about email. For example:

Always suck up to famous academics, particularly those in your field.

Never write the way you would actually talk. For example, instead of saying, "I loved your book - I really related to the experiences you write about," say "I confess I was moved by how well your book described my own experiences." No, there's nothing wrong with writing this way; it's nice writing. But it puts a lot of pressure on us to be articulate all the time, and no one wants that pressure, believe me.

Don't hesitate to take someone down publically when they make a dumbass comment, even if you could easily write to them privately and communicate your critique. This is a standard academic rule, and one that is both entertaining and terrifying for bystanders (because, hey, it's fun to watch, but you could be next).

I see that I am moving into an analysis of academic social interaction, here, so I'd like to open this up for discussion. All you lurkers: what has been your worst/best interaction in academia, and/or across the lines of student/professor? Leave a comment. I'm curious to see.

No comments: