When you teach a large class (> 100 students), it is to be expected that you will receive a lot of email from students, even before the term starts. Last fall, I wrote about how I received my first email 77 days before the first class, and in that particular case the email was of a very non-urgent sort. Although some commenters criticized me for my apparent lack of understanding of why a student might need to email a professor in advance, in fact I understand quite well the myriad reasons for such communications and was not in the least upset about getting this t - 77 email. Bemused, yes. Amazed, perhaps. Upset and critical, no.
The small stream of emails that started with that first one started to gush over the winter break. What strikes me most about these pre-class emails is that most of the messages contain questions or requests that the students could figure out themselves (Examples: What is the textbook? This information is available online at a central website for all classes, not just mine. What is the format of the class? This information is available online for this intro science class, which is taught every term, every year, day and night).
Some students have written asking me to send them reading assignments in advance so that they can get a jump on the work for the course. It's nice that these students are organized and serious about the course and want to take steps to do well. If it were me, though, I'd just start reading the textbook and wouldn't write to the professor asking for specific assignments.
Other students want the syllabus in advance so that they can see what the assignments, format, schedule etc. will be. Some of this information is online. From the available information, students can easily get an estimate of the amount of time that the course will require each week, so they can make an informed decision about whether to take the course or not. The syllabus, which I never have ready until just before the term starts even if I've taught a course 17 times, just has details such as my office hours and which specific topics will be discussed on which dates.
To all of these emails, I have sent a very brief reply with the relevant information, typically a link to a website.
More difficult to answer are the ones like this:
Hi my name is Caitlin and I'm a bit skeptical about your INTRO SCIENCE class and how well I would do. I've never been a person to do well in sciences and I was just wondering if you could give me a little more information on the class in regards to what will be covered, the work load, etc. Please respond a.s.a.p, Thank You and have a nice day.
Why this is difficult to answer:
- Caitlin and her fellow students have to take a science course to graduate from this university. Is she wondering if this science course is easier (or more difficult) than other science courses? Am I the best person to answer that question?
- I'm not sure what level of detail she wants about "what will be covered". More than what is written in the course description available online?
- My instinct is to encourage her to not be afraid of Science, but I know absolutely nothing about this student other than what she wrote in her email. I'd like to encourage her to take the course and my hope is that my course would be The Science Course that at last convinces her that science is interesting and not impossible and this experience would inspire in her a lifelong fascination of the physical world, but it's kind of hard to promise that in advance. And I can't promise her that she will pass. Every time I teach INTRO SCIENCE, some students fail the course. If she takes the course, however, I think she will be pleasantly surprised that science doesn't have to be inaccessible and scary.
I replied with a brief, friendly, semi-encouraging email, and I sent her a link to a webpage with information about the course (topics, work load, format, textbook).
Memo to students emailing professors: It's probably best to avoid writing things like "respond a.s.a.p." or similar. Even if you say please, it is kind of annoying and probably doesn't result in a more rapid response. First make sure that the information you are seeking is in fact unavailable to you, and then, if you do need to write a professor and ask for something during the vacation, before the course even starts, a simple, polite request is sufficient in most cases.
8 months ago