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.
8 years ago