Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Partial Illumination

It may seem like I am obsessing about student email lately, perhaps because I am. The most likely reason for this obsession is that I am teaching a rather large class and I get lots of email, much of it strange or unnecessary. I realize my perception of strangeness is in part related to my point of view as a middle-aged professor person, and this view is very different from that of a typical undergraduate student.

The term is most definitely underway, and I am still getting email from students asking me to send them the syllabus (it's on the course website and available in class), to tell them what the textbook is (it's listed on the course website; it's listed on the syllabus that is available on the course website; it's listed on the university's website that has textbook information for every class), to tell them what I have talked about in every class they have missed thus far (review information is on the course website, the topics and reading are on the syllabus that is on the course website), to tell them what lab section they are in (I don't know, but once they get to the course webpages and/or acquire a syllabus, they will see the contact information for the right person to ask that question), and so on.

And then there are all the ill students who want to share the news of their illness with me.

I have been wondering: What's with all these helpless, clueless emails? Why are there so many this term?

Is it me? Do I somehow inspire helplessness in students? (One of my colleagues delicately proposed that since I answer any and all student email messages, no matter how obnoxious, I am perhaps enabling student helplessness.)

Is it This Generation? These students are so used to using texting, twittering, status updating etc. -- perhaps they think nothing of firing off a quick email to get information rather than exerting themselves just a bit to find the information?

Is it random? Perhaps the email deluge, which has continued unabated since before the term began, means nothing in particular about the student population or me?

None of those explanations is very satisfying.

Today I got a partial answer. During a discussion with the person who administers the Intro Science program in my department, I remarked on the remarkable number of emails I have been receiving from students this term. He said "Oh yeah, I was going to tell you something about your class. You have a lot of first-term transfer students and you have an unusual number of students on academic probation, so you have a lot of students who are either completely unfamiliar with This University because they are new here or who, for whatever reason, aren't functioning well at the university."

I was actually really glad to know this. It helps me to be more patient and understanding when I get all these 'help me' email message. It helps me to know that some of these students are trying to figure out how things work at this place. It's not that they are lazy, they really don't know how to find the information they need.

The Intro Science coordinator told me that many of the transfer students don't even get the equivalent of freshman orientation, so they don't know that every course syllabus is required to be online, they don't know how to navigate to the websites that have all the course information, and they don't know how to communicate in an effective way with a professor. One could argue that an enterprising student would think to look for the relevant webpages, but I can imagine that these students are dealing with a lot of confusing things right now.

And I will have to be a little more vigilant than usual for signs of academic trouble in my class this term and try to be proactive if there are problems.

I hope these emails trickle off in the very near future, and not just because it is disconcerting to get so many I haven't been to a single class so far this term have I missed anything emails, not to mention the Tell me how to buy a copy of the textbook online emails, but also because getting fewer of these emails will mean that more students are figuring out how things work and getting on track with the course and perhaps their academic life in general.

Well, that would be one of several explanations for a decrease in these emails, but it would be my preferred explanation. After this many years as a professor, I have found that an attitude of only-slightly-cynical optimism is the best way to stay sane when teaching a large intro science class.

22 comments:

Jennifer Imazeki said...

I teach a section of 500 and also get a ton of these kinds of emails. It's surprisingly difficult to ward off cynicism but every once in a while, a student says something that lets me know that he or she really is honestly confused. In those cases, I find I have a whole different attitude and get a lot of my patience back so I can completely understand that it would actually be a relief to find that students might truly be confused, rather than lazy or entitled. I have also had numerous students comment to me how much they appreciate my prompt responses and the effort I make to be accessible - I try not to think of it as 'enabling helplessness' so much as 'being approachable'!

Alex said...

Ah, this resonates with me. I'm teaching freshman physics with 109 students, and everybody seems to think that "I don't understand problem #3" is a useful email.

One time-saving strategy for homework questions: My policy is that if I answer an email question about a problem I post the answer on the course site so everybody can get the same benefit of that explanation. If everybody has the same question on a problem, I only get 1 email about it, instead of 109 emails.

Lately, student email is causing me to reconsider online homework systems. I believe in the pedagogical merits of some (but not all) of these systems, but they are highly conducive to email flood. Emails about homework problems are the least of the problem. Everybody who gets only partial credit (because they had to try a few times to get it right) concludes that there is something wrong with the software. And since I'm 99% on the software but not 100%, I have to check their answer myself so I can send a reply like "You lost points because your first answer was wrong."

Anonymous said...

Would be appropriate and/or useful to spend 1-2 minutes of an upcoming lecture telling students where to find the course webpage etc.? Or to send a mass email to the entire class with this information? Surely it would help to cut down on the most trivial emails you receive. Or would you consider that to be unprofessional?

Alex said...

And as soon as I submitted that comment I got what is quite possibly the most EPIC FAIL email ever:

I kept getting the wrong answer because of a small calculator issue. I was hitting the wrong function on my calculator which gave me a huge number. I unfortunately resorted to asking for the answer but i was able to get it afterwards when i double checked my calculations. It boiled down to some missing parentheses. I was hoping you could maybe give me some partial credit for the problem. I was using a(centripetal)=v(sqrd)/radius.
I got the velocity correct in the previous part of the problem.


So, he's already getting partial credit because he got the previous part of the problem correct, but he wants me to give him even more partial credit on the basis of his solemn assurance that he's a college freshman who can't use a calculator correctly.

Sorry, needed to vent. Student email is a touchy subject for me this quarter.

quasarpulse said...

I hope you'll be kind to your transfer students! I get the impression you're a professor at a large R1, and if that's the case, I can assure you that they are very confused right now.

The community college transfers in particular are lost. They've likely never had anything like the standard orientation (or the equivalent information from parents who have been through the experience); they may never have been in a class with more than 30 students or a separate lab section; they may never have had to deal with administrative stuff online, as there was probably always advising staff helping them in person; and they may never have encountered online course materials, as many community college professors don't bother for 30-person classes. And to top it all off, they're probably accustomed to instructors who encourage them to e-mail whenever they need help, because community college faculty deal with a lot of students who don't have basic college survival skills and they would rather answer e-mails than have a class full of lost and stressed-out students.

It also doesn't help that this group transferred in spring. Much of the outreach and guidance for new students tends to peter out by the end of the fall.

I don't know if you have the time, but if you have perhaps ten minutes to talk to your entire class about the different behavioral and independence expectations at the university while also pointing out some places they can go for help, all your students (and their other unfortunate professors) would likely benefit.

Anonymous said...

my students are driving me absolutely insane. big intro class. lots of juniors though.

i don't give makeups. emails about makeups after 3 weeks of class: 7

i don't take attendance. emails about absence: 15ish

what's on the test?: 10

do you have office hours? 3

are you gonna give out a study guide? 5

just wanted to let you know that what you said bout my country was offensive: 2 (same person twice), priceless

Gingerale said...

Hi FSP, Could some FAQs help here? You could save the PDF to your desktop and attach it with replies. What the hey.

Manduca said...

Can I recommend a boilerplate reply? "The majority of email I receive regarding this class concerns the following questions. If the answers below do not solve your problem, please send your question again with 'not in FAQ' in the subject. Thank you." You could even set up a rule to reply to any email containing the course name or number. Your rule could exclude administrators and TAs.

This approach might not meet your standards of communication.

Anonymous said...

I too teach a large intro science class. This semester's class seems particularly high maintenance. (My first email for the spring semester arrived on Sep 15!) I send detailed emails to the entire class (with useful subject heading for future referral) to try to head off the incessant emails. Instead of replying by copy/pasting my old emails, I now just say, "read my emails on this topic." They are driving me crazy this semester and it is STILL January!! ;)

Anonymous said...

What you need is a FAQ email saved in your drafts folder, which you can then fire off quickly in reply to any student who asks you such questions. Maybe this caring attention will boost your "rate my professor" ratings!)

I have certin admin duties in my dept and have built up such stock e-mails in my mail drafts folder to cover these matters. If I get a query I can fire them off asap.

This does not help me with one certain colleague though, whose finger is ever-hovering over the delete button before he has even read the mail and thought whether he would need any of the info!

This is also useful when I get applications from overseas students (Dear respected professor) asking about PG and PDRA research in my group. This email directs them to PG applications and job web sites for my Uni and also politely acknowledges the fact they have noticed my (modest) research contributions.

Anonymous said...

Why not spend 5 minutes in class and directly ask, in a non-threatening but inquisitive way, why they send the email they send?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

(One of my colleagues delicately proposed that since I answer any and all student email messages, no matter how obnoxious, I am perhaps enabling student helplessness.)

That's ridiculous. I ignore all student e-mails except for ones asking to make an appointment to see me. We are professors, not customer service reps or human wikipedias. These little twittering, texting, lolzing pissants need to learn how the real world works: it ain't like motherfucking Facebook.

female Science Professor said...

I spend a few minutes at the beginning of every class - every single class of the term so far -- explaining how to access the webpages, what information is there, and I discuss common questions. I have a FAQ page. I also answer questions on the course webpage for all to see. None of these efforts have decreased the number of confused emails.

Alex said...

None of these efforts have decreased the number of confused emails.

A good friend refers to this crop of college students as "Generation Veal."

I don't know what to do about it. Last quarter, I told them that if they bought the book new it would come bundled with access codes for an online homework system. I showed them what the access code would look like. I put it on the syllabus. I posted the syllabus online. I emailed the class about it multiple times. Despite that, every day for the first 3 weeks I got questions about whether a used book would come with an access code kit. Every. Single. Day.

Anonymous said...

I just got my first such e-mail from my student in a team-taught class. As the new prof I didn't know the answer and forwarded on to the lead prof. Who replied with where it was on the syllabus (I later noticed it on an agenda for one of our meetings as well). DOH!

Alex said...

Wait, I have it! I know how to get them to pay attention to something that I announce!

I'll text it to them. And put it on a Facebook site as well.

Scientista said...

Some people just don't care. As such, it doesn't matter how many times you tell them something and in what format. These people have the mentality that when they NEED to know something, someone will be there to offer it to them. In this case, FSP, that someone is you. Why should they pay attention the first five times you say something when they can have it personally delivered to their inbox?

Eve said...

I'm confused about this as well. I've TA'd a few courses now and it was only in a course last semester that I was inundated with emails of the sort you're describing (around 10 per day). It was also relatively large for a 3rd year course, and because it was for 3rd year I highly doubt it's because of lack of familiarity. I've TA'd other large courses and required courses, and I never had such a problem. I believe it's because it was a required course that appeared to be (but certainly wasn't) easier than the alternative. So maybe we got all the lazy students? I have no idea. I would have thought that by 3rd year all the lazy students would have failed out, but I think our department has a way of coddling probationary students so they can push them through the program.

Anonymous said...

I understand how stressful the emails are but you are merciful and wise to answer them by directing the students to proper channels (i.e. online syllabus). I am now a successful graduating senior math major that will be going on to graduate school, but five years ago when I returned to community college ten years out of high school, I didn't even know we had a computer lab at the CC. My first quarter, I asked my poor political science professor how to get access to PowerPoint (which I hadn't heard of) since I didn't own a computer. He had to tell me where the computer lab was, which wasn't his job. I did figure out, rather quickly, how to find out the necessary info without bothering my teachers, but the fact that he humored me sped that up quite a bit (unlimited internet access). Going back to school or transferring can be terrifying and it's less scary to ask dumb questions of a teacher in your class than pissed off admin types at the end of long lines. However, I hope you tell the students bugging you about what they missed to ask another student.

flit said...

I got a keeper from one of my students just this week (week 4 of the course)- Hi miss...I haven't been to class yet nor have I bought the textbook - so can we meet so that you can teach me what I need to know for the test next week?

I responded suggesting that he should buy the book and come to class the following day and I would talk to him during the time provided at the end of the class period.

To which he responded that that was not convenient; he had to work the night shift and could not possibly be expected to make it for an 8 a.m. class. But he has downloaded some pdfs about databases so he will read those and then I can just show him the parts he doesn't understand.

Uh huh... yup...I will get RIGHT on that.

Anonymous said...

A friend got this email from a student in his lab... it deserves uh, mmm, a trophy!

Paraphrased to protect the stoodent:
I'm in your lab this Friday but I have to miss due to the unfortunate same scheduling of two major events in my life, 2nd lab and the Super Bowl. I'm a Steelers fan and I have tickets to the historic game which could bring the Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh.
Can I make up part or all of the lab next week?


srsly.

Doctor Pion said...

At our CC, some of that behavior results from someone from the college !! telling new students that they should let their prof know why they were absent. Idiots. If it matters (mandatory attendance), then they need documentation, not an e-mail. And if it doesn't matter, I could care less.

"Did I miss anything?" Yes.

"What did I miss?" Read the course calendar in the syllabus.

I love the irony that this web-enabled generation can't find the course web site.

And to Anonymous at 12:36AM - It doesn't do any good to show where the course web page can be found on the first day of class if the student didn't show up for the first week of class ....