The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Anyone wishing to communicate with Americans should do so by email, which has been specially invented for the purpose, involving neither physical proximity nor speech”."....  ...Auberon Waugh.

Commentary of the Day - March 1, 2006:  Email Etiquette an Oxymoron?  Perhaps Not.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

It is no secret that technology has had its impact on teaching, but it is also no secret that there are times when the "impact" is unwelcome, if not downright unpleasant.  I am referring to the habit, by now well established, in which students email their professors at the click of a mouse -- and then expect the professor to respond in a heartbeat.  No request is too outlandish, as a recent article in the New York Times demonstrated:  One first-year student emailed a calculus professor asking "If I should buy a binder or a subject notebook?"; another explained that she was late for Monday's class because she "was recovering from drinking too much at a wild weekend party."  The war stories rattled on and on as the article explored the ways in which student e-mail have made professors not only "approachable" but also "on call" 24/7.

Untenured professors have good reason to worry if students perceive them as not responding swiftly enough -- no matter how inappropriate or downright outlandish student requests might be.  After all, most students fill out evaluation forms at the end of the semester and woe to the professor who is perceived as dragging his or her heels when replying to student email.  As a person who was once chided for not returning student papers promptly -- this, long before email became a fact of academic life -- I was glad that there was room on the form for the student to explain that he expected his paper returned at the end of the class in which he had turned it in.  That, for him, defined "promptly," and I didn't meet his definition.

No doubt every professor who skimmed the New York Times article had an example or two drawn from personal experience.  I am hardly an exception.  I remember, for example, the first-year student who email me -- this, before our first meeting -- that she was a member of the field hockey team and that she would be leaving class early on a number of occasions (they were listed) and missing class altogether for away games.  No doubt she thought this was thoughtful of her and only thought otherwise when I informed her that, at the college she was now attending, academic work took precedence over athletics, and that we ought to discuss the matter further in my office.  I am happy to report that my reply got her thinking but unhappy to report that her "solution" to the problem was "make-up classes," ones I'd teach her  privately during moments when she wasn't chasing a ball with a stick.

Ironically enough, the last email I received from a student had to do with the grade he got on a term paper (B-) that was headed “A Grave Injustice.”  I resisted the opportunity to tell him that, if this was the largest  'grave injustice ' the world handed him, he was a fortunate young man indeed.  Instead, I began with the formulaic, "I'm sorry you're upset but. . ." and went on to explain that it is my job to assign grades and that is what I'd done, to the best of my ability, in his case -- as my typed, half-page comments made clear.  My point in relaying this exasperating tale is to remind professors not to get exasperated  themselves.  Volleying emails back and back is, well, unseemly, something that immature students do but that professional teachers don't.

My hunch is that the student email problem will only get worse.  That's why it will, I believe, become crucial to establish an email policy -- call them guidelines, rules of etiquette, whatever you will -- and add it to course syllabi.  I was hardly alone in making it clear on my syllabi that "Adults do not like to be called after 10 PM" (some prefer 7), and if I were still teaching I would add email to the mix.

Further, I would discourage students from emailing me drafts of papers not only the night before they are due, but also two or three nights before they are due.  My policy, one that usually worked well, was to inform students that, under normal circumstances, I would be happy to comment on a one-page summary that included a working title, abstract, and up to three paragraphs -- if the single page document were turned in a week before the paper itself was due.  "Unusual cases" (papers with grades below a C-) were dealt with on a case-by-case basis.  Sometimes I would require that the paper be rewritten after an office conference, sometimes I would ask that a draft of the next paper be submitted  at a mutually agreeable time.

Moreover, I think my etiquette rules would vary depending on the class.  First-year students are often  nervous Nellies; they want to do well but they lack confidence, sometime  for good reason.  My advice would be to cut them some slack, at the same time that you make it clear, in class, that some behavior is cheesy rather than classy.  Because I'm something of a ham,  I'd ham it up from time to time in my first-year seminar with tales, some real, some just made up, about what I called "students from hell." Everybody laughed but got the point about what not to do.  If I were still teaching, I'd probably borrow the example about the student who emailed about what binder to buy.

Students in sophomore-level courses (in my case, Survey of American Literature) need to be told that they are not attending a correspondence school, and that their professor would much prefer talking with them during office hours or at the student union over a cup of coffee.  Students in a senior seminar should, by then, know what email missives are acceptable and which are simply embossing.

Let me hasten to add that each college or university has its own milieu; moreover, there is likely to be a great deal of difference between advice meted out to an introductory chemistry class and that appropriate for advanced physics.  My point is simply that, whatever rules you wish to govern student email should be spelled out -- in advance and  in writing -- in the syllabus.

I can imagine some people murmuring that syllabi are too long already, and that they have taken on the dismal character of a legal document rather than a way  to inform students about what readings will be discussed on April 11th and when papers are due.  True, all true, but in the same way that student insist on knowing how final grades are weighted , it makes for happiness all around if students understand that that professors expect email to be thoughtfully written, clearly focused, and, yes, respectful.  I would even remind them that a "thank you" is expected when a professor takes the time to answer their email.

© 2006 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College.  He currently resides in south Florida.  After learning how to master email, Professor Pinsker is  trying hard to make his MP-3 player work.

The IP comments:  As Sanford notes at some colleges and universities including Krispy Kreme U. syllabi have taken on the trappings of legal documents.  That can be a major annoyance to instructors, but in some cases including email policies that actually can have a beneficial effect.  I go to some lengths in the syllabi for my own courses to spell out in detail my email policy.  Actually, my policy is relatively simple.  I invite students to send me email, but I make it clear that I often cannot respond immediately.  However, I do state that I will endeavor to respond to their email messages within 24 hours.  I also point out that it often is not possible because of time constraints for me to provide detailed responses to specific physics questions that they might ask in an email message, and like Sanford I would much prefer that they come to office hours to discuss those questions.  However, many of my students have to work to support themselves, so if I have the time I often will provide a few hints in response to email asking for help with homework problems, especially if their message shows that they have thought about the problem.  I also have an unstated policy.  Though I don't demand that students show an excess of obsequiousness in their email correspondence, I do tend to respond more quickly to respectful ones as opposed to those that start out "Hey teach!"

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