It’s great that students can so easily email their lecturers, isn’t it? Except when, completely hypothetically of course, you have 70 students in a class, 20 of whom don’t feel the need to turn up to lectures (most lectures aren’t mandatory in Norway, it’s a remnant of the old ideal of the independent student who should have the right to learn as she pleases) yet they all email you questions – you know, the “I won’t be able to attend any of the tutorials. What’s the assignment? Can you give me feedback?” kind of questions. And the frantic “Did you get my email?” the next day if you haven’t answered.

As a student tells the New York Times in a piece they ran on this today,

“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?”

Yeah. That’d be awful, actually having to spend time thinking about whether a question was worth asking, wouldn’t it?

I try to plot out research time (50% of the job after all) and keep it sacred by not checking email, or if I do check email – sometimes I need email for research – I filter all the student emails into a separate mailbox to be dealt with later. I wonder if it’d be easier if I simply had “office hours” for dealing with student questions which were clearly communicated to students and that I kept strictly.

Oh, and after learning the hard way, I now try never give any indication that I read student emails outside of regular work hours – such as, you know, answering their emails in the evening. I think my worst ever student email experience was the SMS question about XHTML tags and browser compatibility I got on a Sunday afternoon while walking in the mountains. No, I hadn’t given out my mobile number. Yes, I removed it from the phone book after that.

PS: MA students are different. I have four or five MA students at a time, not 70.

23 thoughts on “student emails

  1. Scott

    Those kinds of emails drive me nuts. What did we do in class today?! We had class. We learned things. “We” meaning those of us who bothered to show up. I tend not to answer “what would I have learned had I been there?” emails and this reminds me that I need to provide an explanation of my view of this in my syllabi. Students need to learn to get notes from their peers if they can’t make it to class. It’s not the prof’s job to provide cliff’s notes for their laziest students.

  2. Mark Federman

    The answer (*an* answer) is a course blog or wiki for the students to provide mutual support. Many of the questions can be answered by peers, who will mete out tough justice to those who want a free ride on their backs. You can scan the blog/wiki, or follow the RSS feed, and add your comments, corrections to misimpressions and so forth.

    While it may not cut down on the email in, it certainly would cut down on the email out, as you could post common answers to many queries simultaneously.

    At the grad level, of course, the blog/wiki becomes a venue for the students to continue the in-seminar conversations, discussions of the literature, and mutual creativity.

  3. Linn

    I agree with Mark. And you could also practice the office hours approach here as well. You set a day or two off in the week (2 hrs tops, in my opinion)that you read the blog/wiki and any more than that…tough nookies – have a stop watch by your side! And also…wouldn’t this be a good course requirement in some way? I’m not sure how strict we are with such things – but how about 1 seminar group (assuming there are seminar groups, if not group up the class)has the responsibility of summing up stuff for their assigned week on the blog and also leaving space open for discussion. I’ve seen the InfoMevi students are good at discussing the stuff they’re having problems with (well…at least last semester). And next week…the next group. Although important to stress that they don’t need to write an essay…just topics and points of interest. It will teach them to think for themselves and independently reach some fascinating conclusions, I’m sure!

  4. Espen

    Jill,
    I have had classes like that, with 300 students, in the late 90s. I saw the stress this was for my colleagues, and worked out this solution:
    1. Have a web page (most universities have some sourt of course management software, but it is normally awful. The best thing might be to have a blog) for each class. This page is the only source of information about the class, that is where everything goes. No paper handouts, no emails, and so on. The first web page I did this way is still available (with all its errors) at http://infomgt.bi.no/courses/siv6013old/97-6013/, the Q&A page at http://infomgt.bi.no/courses/siv6013old/97-6013/q_and_a.htm
    2. Questions can be sent to you in email, but you answer them on the course web page. Just post the question and the answer. Make it clear that you will give good answers – on the web.
    3. Make it clear to the students that you will not answer – indeed, you will be rather irritated – if they ask questions that are already answered on the Q&A page.
    4. Some students do not like to have their questions shown to others. Tough luck. (Of course, sometimes students have personal concerns etc., in which case you don’t publish their questions.) The rationale is that for every student that ask a question, there are at least 5 more who don’t dare or bother to ask.
    5. Don’t have office hours, that is so 1980s. Accept questions only through email, and set up personal appointments only if the students have a) submitted their questions by email, and b) are not satisfied with the asnwers you give via the Q&A page.
    6. For feedback on term papers, etc., do this via the web as well (here is an example: http://infomgt.bi.no/courses/siv6013old/98-6013/sensur98.htm for the individual feedback, http://infomgt.bi.no/courses/siv6013old/98-6013/senskomm98.htm for overall comments.) If you use a spreadsheet as you read through the papers (and, assuming you have an external examiner, have him or her do the same) you can create a web page with individual feedback rather simply. I’ll be happy to send you my spreadsheets if you are interested. This kind of feedback cuts down the number of requests for grade explanation and complaints about grades dramatically.

    This may seem a bit harsh at first, but I got excellent evaluations for the course – especially, the students thought me responsive to their questions. I think this is because when they read a question from and answer to a fellow student, they feel like they have asked and answered that question themselves.

    Another bonus is that you get a record of questions and answers, and for the next year, you can bake these things into the course web page. I did this course for three years, and could make the course page better – and the assignments clearer – each year. So this method is actually like a piece of feedback for yourself.

    Happy teaching,
    Espen

  5. Espen

    Checking old pages….. Actually, I got better (or less bad) over the years, straighter layout and fewer mistakes, these might be better examples:
    http://infomgt.bi.no/courses/siv6013old/99-6013/
    http://infomgt.bi.no/courses/siv6013old/99-6013/q_and_a.htm
    http://infomgt.bi.no/courses/siv6013old/99-6013/Sensur1999.html

  6. Espen

    …and, of course, if you do a blog, you can have the students ask questions in the comment field. And sometimes other students will answer for you. Technology is great!

  7. Christian

    I have been pestered with this kind of questions too. This year I’ve chosen a radical solution. I don’t answer emails from students unless it is about a personal problem.

    Until now none of my students have had a problem asking in class instead. They actually respect my inbox. That also means that they might find the answer themselves and I don’t have to answer the same question 10 times.

    It’s actually a win-win situation. I get more time and the students don’t get sarcastic or offensive answers from me when they ask a question which is answered in the course description, on the homepage, in my slides or when they ask an administrative question which I clearly can’t answer.

  8. Anne

    Jill – last term a student called my home phone around 9:30 the night before an assignment was due, asking for an extension. Although several colleagues give out their numbers, I really prefer not to and I found the call a most unpleasant (even shocking) intrusion. But then again, I also dislike talking on the phone. Email and in-person conversations suit me best, and I get a lot of email from students, with office visits clustered around assignment due dates. I respond to their email within 24 hours, including weekends. (Most of them work part-time and, as I experienced myself as an undergrad, that means doing school-work whenever possible.) Until reading this post and the comments, I’ve found it an adequate solution.

    But I find Espen’s suggestions to be incredibly interesting. I use a course blog to post everything class-related, excluding lecture slides and handouts. Students are told repeatedly in class to consult the blog, but the volume of email I receive (and their questions) suggest that they rarely, if ever, use it as a resource. Unlike last year, there has not been even one comment posted to either class blog (one class has 70 students, the other 25) so far this term. I can’t figure out why, but now I’m wondering if it might be because they’re not ‘forced’.

    I love the idea that email questions can be responded to on the blog – and the idea that students would be encouraged to check to see if the question had been asked (and answered by me or another student) before they email me. In fact, I think that when we go back to class next week, I’ll tell my students we’re going to try that out (with Christian’s comments about personal emails noted).

    But I’m all for office hours (maybe because they’re so 80s ;)) and I can’t justify making my students pay for copying/printing course-related materials. (It’s bad enough that one of my classes’ course readers is $70 and that there are substantial printing costs associated with their assignments.) I also attach detailed evaluation sheets to each returned assignment. By making my expectations crystal clear, and providing a detailed breakdown of the marking scheme, I’ve been able to almost entirely eliminate clarifying questions and requests for grade changes.

    In any case, I’m not sure how any of the solutions given above eliminates stupid and/or annoying questions from students who never come to class. It seems to me that is just one of my duties as a teacher: to facilitate learning, and especially for those who seem most challenged by it all. But then again, some days students like that just suck 😉

  9. MarkH

    Jill, you’ve always been more than giving of your time in the past, particularly when I was researching my Masters thesis and not even at your Uni. I’m sure your students can learn to deal with any limits you put on their access to you. The feedback you give is always top notch anyway. Can I have my fiver now please? 😉

  10. Jill

    Lol! Just in time, Mark, as the latest student emails have a “I know I’m not supposed to be sending emails” attached to them. Sigh.

    Espen and the rest of you, THANK YOU for all those great examples! They all bear thinking over.

  11. torill

    Each group has one hour each week when we gather and talk about stuff – give messages, reply to questions, the students use it to nurture their different student political representation, we use it to discuss the structure of the education. Any messages given there are considered known to all, any students who were not there have better dig up the information some other way which does not include the staff. We have a lot of student contact but the weekly meetings take a lot of the stress off all of us.

    Some weeks there are nobody at the meetings, and we put the messages up in Classfronter, our management program, if there are any. The students do however know that if they were not on the meeting, asking us later about thing they should have asked there is not something they can expect us to be happy about.

  12. Espen

    Anne,
    great to see that you like my ideas, but you are missing an important point: You say, “In fact, I think that when we go back to class next week, Iíll tell my students weíre going to try that out”. I think it should be “In fact, when we go back to class next week, Iíll tell my students this is how it will be from now on”. As a teacher, you are in command of the class. Students are not looking for suggestions and experimentation, they are looking for rules and guidance. As a teacher, you have authority. Use it, or lose it. And face personal emails and calls at night, no matter how often you have “suggested” the students use the blog (or whatever unfamiliar technology you suggest) instead.

  13. Que Universidade?

    Manter (ou n?) o contacto?

    Uma entrada de BTrayner relativa ao que se podia designar como “As mensagens “urgentes” dos alunos na v?pera dos exames” resultou numa “excurs?” at Noruega. Recomendo a leitura de [student emails]; os coment?ios s? parte essencial da leitura. Bo…

  14. Jill

    Torill, how big are your groups? And what is a group like that? Is it a cohort of 20 students doing the BA in information studies, for instance?

    One of the problems at our university – or at least at the arts and humanities faculty – after the “quality reform” is that students take such a mishmash of different courses, and we really don’t know which students are planninng to take the whole “BA in history and culture with a specialisation in humanistic informatics”, which is the closest to a clear program we have. I mean, I’ve asked for the student emails and stuff and the administration say there’s simply no way of GETTING this info in the current system, because students change programs every semester, I think. Obviously we could just set up meetings anyway and see who turns up. We should probably start doing that. But most of our courses are taken by students who don’t plan to take the whole “BA in history and culture with a specialisation in humanistic informatics” program – we’re extremely popular as an addon subject, but have fewer students following our whole program. Partly because people don’t know what the heck a “BA in history and culture with a specialisation in humanistic informatics” is. This is one of the challenges we’ll definitely be working on in the next years.

    We’re not alone though, other departments have the same problem. Whereas some other faculties have very clearly defined programs with a clearly defined 20 new students each year. Much easier to handle, I guess. Yet I guess there are advantages to the flexibility of our system too.

    Does anyone know what the Spanish trackback says?

  15. diane

    I like Espen’s “use it or lose it” approach to pedagogical authority but I’d add that this approach works better for men than for women. For better or worse, students bring their gender biases into the classroom. While they may accept limits from men, women instructors often take it on the chin from students, in the form of either in-class pushback or in end-of-semester evaluations. If your job depends on the quality of the latter (and often it does), it’s not good to have students complaining about an “authoritarian” pedagogical style, and the complaints can be especially strident when they were expecting Ms. Professor to nurture them, not — heaven forbid — set and enforce limits.

  16. Jill

    Interesting. Fortunately in Norway student evaluations do not determine your future career as they seem to in the US. Here they’re simply supposed to help us improve our teaching, and they’re often only seen by the teacher of that specific class.

    I haven’t counted, but my impression is that I have more emails from male students than from female students. I wonder if gender plays into it?

  17. Linda

    Doesn’t it speak volumes about how little students often talk to each other. A lot of these questions could be answered by someone else, who takes the class rather than having to involve the teacher/lecturer. Maybe encouring stronger class communication would be an idea.

    Having said that as a student it is incredibly hard to figure out individual lecturer’s communication preferences if they do not state them clearly. I used to think writing my advisor an e-mail was less intrusive cause she could read and respond to it whenever she had the time, rather than me interrupting her when she’s in in her office. I now know this is not the case…with other lecturers it’s different again.

  18. ssenyonga samuel

    To be a goog student .you should be able the get every thing your tought.

  19. Anonymous Prof

    Hi, Jill. You can tell who I am from my address, but since my students know that I read your blog, I’m not going too public here.

    See http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/wayman/poem5.htm

  20. Jill

    Ah, hi anonymous – and I was hoping someone would link to that poem! One of my favourite teaching poems…

  21. The Salt-Box

    Teaching Carnival #7…

    If you’re reading this, it means that the wordherders.net server is up and running again . . . Sorry for……

  22. Kathryn

    Dear Jill –

    You’ve just saved my sanity!

    Kathryn – an assistant professor at UCLA (and incidentally a proud member of the Horde)

  23. Pruneface

    This brand spanking new year, I’m trying to check stu* email after class rather than before so I can avoid wasting 10+ hours per week trying to tell absent stu* what they missed. I’m also vying to avoid answering stu* email as often as last year to save me from dying before I retire. Email is yet another nickel-and-dime on time that has rendered my research + personal time to 10 hours per week maximum. Many people here didn’t teach in the comparatively golden 90s era, when a professor might answer one to ten calls per semester rather than 50+ emails per month. If you value your own family, learning time, profession, peace of mind, and quality of life, please don’t feed the monster. The rest of us would like to actually have time to call a friend without hurry, see a movie, or schedule conjugal visits.

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