Thursday, January 08, 2009

River of Email

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.

27 comments:

Terminal Degree said...

Have you seen this blog post on how to e-mail a prof? I've actually sent the link to students before, with good results. :)

http://mleddy.blogspot.com/2005/01/how-to-e-mail-professor.html

Rathna said...

I have forward this post to my friends,and bookmaked this for my own.This is really a good blog that everybody students should learn how to contact with prof.,simply.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

To all of these emails, I have sent a very brief reply with the relevant information, typically a link to a website.

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).

Why do you even respond to this kind of shit? Don't you have TAs to handle this crap?

I make it clear to my students that the only e-mails I will respond to are ones seeking to make an appointment with me. Ramping up the activation energy to ask dumbfuck questions by requiring that students make an appointment to do so has a remarkable clarifying effect on their minds.

You would be surprised how effective this is at reducing the number of student e-mails I receive. We are professors, not customer service representatives.

Aspiring FSP said...

Maybe (probably) this is a comment on what type of student (person?) I am, but I've always just waited until I attend the first class session to receive information about topic specifics, textbooks, work load, etc. Asking for textbook assignments wouldn't have done me any good anyway, since I rarely read them (pre- or during semester)...

R said...

Let's see if this gets approved by FSP...

This is BS. Of course I can't be sure since you blog anonymously, but my guess would be that you are hired as an professor, not a researcher. Again, I am not sure, but another guess would be that you do not get paid to do research (maybe the summers from your grants, but not by the university directly) but get paid to teach. And as such, you should respond to any question or email a student. I see professors as employees of the students, just like a see government employees to have to serve the people of their country. Whether you like it or not, doesn't mean you should try to get out of not doing your job.

PhysioProf... if I were your TA I would tell you to go f.. yourself for wanting me to do your job.

female Science Professor said...

I get paid to do teaching, research, and service.

R said...

FSP,

In practice that it true, you probably have to do research, teach and do some service to keep your salary increasing, but the contracts that I have seen only state that your responsibilities are to teach.

In my opinion, this is why tenured professors could get away with not doing research or service anymore, but they still have to teach their minimum yearly quota.

Maybe research and service are considered forms of teaching as far as the contract goes, if so, it is a loop-hole. Professors #1 responsibility should be classroom teaching, no matter what the pain in dealing with students is.

aceon said...

So R, how much time a person spends on teaching vs. research is really beside the point here. Research and service expectations are something that differ quite a bit from one place and position to another. I am actually hired just to teach. Teaching is 100% of what I am getting paid to do. My type of contract is certainly not the only kind there is, or even the most common. Anyway, I want to spend as much of my time as possible thinking of really great and interesting ways to present my subject area, and explain all the latest developments. I want to spend less time answering tons of emails about information I already posted on the website. I think everyone can agree it's better that way.

Anonymous said...

R must be a student. Many of them believe we are there solely to serve them, that research is a side show and that they pay our meal ticket. This is generally not the case in public universities.

In contrast, I've heard that at certain very expensive private institutions where student fees are the majority of the income, professors are told to be very accomodating to students in any issue that does not compromise academic quality.

Arlenna said...

R, we could send you copies of our contracts if you wanted to see them. We are usually specifically contracted to do those three things. In my case, I am specifically contracted to do approximately 30% teaching.

Yes, the university pays me to do research, too.

That means I should only have to spend about 3 hours of my day working with students. My grad students count as students, and I interact with them about 6-8 hours a day at least. So, technically, we are only minimally obligated by contract to interact with undergraduates in our courses beyond the lecture time and any official office hours we hold. Inevitably we end up giving students extra time beyond that in person, helping them with the course outside of official time. I also have multiple undergrad researchers who I am teaching on a daily basis to work in my lab.

So, complaining that professors should always respond to every single request a student makes for even the most inane of questions because we're paid to serve them is a ridonkulous thing to say. We already devote WAY more of our time to helping our students than is designated in our contracts. Do the math and stop being such a spoiled little whiny brat.

Anonymous said...

Dear R

I am paid to teach by the state in which I live and I love the job (I also do research and that is another great part of this job). Teaching is both a joy and a privilege. I also agree that I have a responsibility to my students, and agree that our friend comrade Physioprof loves to be a curmudgeon, and if he actually acts like that would not be my favorite professor. However, I am not paid to babysit. A college student who cannot be bothered to find the course website or who asks whether a course is going to be easy does not deserve the privilege of getting an education.

Best

Mark P

female Science Professor said...

I am also contractually obligated to do teaching, research, and service (not just teaching), but even if my only paid responsibility were teaching, that does not obligate me to respond to every email request from every student.

R said...

Anon - I am a grad student, at a public university. Like I said, at the two R1 universities that I have been at, the contracts for professors only state teaching. Research is expected, actually required, but that is a known fact, not a contract responsibility. The fact that departments at research universities require a lot (in terms of research) from professors, particularly at the assistant level is/should not be the students' problem.

Mark P - A college student who cannot be bothered to find the course website or who asks whether a course is going to be easy does not deserve the privilege of getting an education. I agree, but that is not the professor's decision. If the university and their (mysterious) admission system decided the student was worthy of their education, then who are we to say no, particularly in those courses that have nothing to do with the student's major.

Arlenna - I didn't say all of the contracts were the same. I said the ones I have seen only state teaching, and I've been at R1 universities. We already devote WAY more of our time to helping our students than is designated in our contracts. You think you are spending more time than your contract states? Maybe you already forgot when you were a grad student and your "contract" said 20hrs/wk but you ended up putting in 80+ hrs instead. The fact that we have better things to do with out lives doesn't mean you can decide whether a question is dumb or not. Sorry your assistant professorship is treating you as bad as to think you are putting to much time into teaching.

Will you be able to answer all student's questions? Maybe not, but you should at least try. I think professors should even be more understanding when a non-major student is asking if a class it's easy, but this might have to do with the fact that I think it is stupid for a business major to be forced to take science classes in college.

Anonymous said...

I'll point out what a few others have already mentioned with regards to R's comments:
Answering email is not teaching, particularly not when the questions being asked are already answered on a course information website.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This is BS. Of course I can't be sure since you blog anonymously, but my guess would be that you are hired as an professor, not a researcher. Again, I am not sure, but another guess would be that you do not get paid to do research (maybe the summers from your grants, but not by the university directly) but get paid to teach. And as such, you should respond to any question or email a student. I see professors as employees of the students, just like a see government employees to have to serve the people of their country. Whether you like it or not, doesn't mean you should try to get out of not doing your job.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!! ZOMFG!!! Dude, thank you for providing the best laugh I have had all fucking day!

C said...

R, if you are still reading and haven't been turned off by previous intelligent comments, I am NOT a professor (yet), but am a just starting out graduate student. I was recently an undergraduate, and I must say I am appalled by how you are making undergrads look.

You pay money to go to college to GET AN EDUCATION. That education is only as good as you make it. If you constantly waste your professors' time asking questions you are more than capable of answering yourself, you are decreasing their ability to teach you and other students.

Professors are employees of the students ONLY in the sense that students trust the professors with their money because they, the STUDENTS, believe their education is worth it. Your version makes it seem like you believe professors are there to coddle students, which is a shameful statement about our education system in general.

One last thought: I would like to point out that FSP was nothing but polite about her response to these ill-advised emails, making your reaction that much more hard to believe.

Anonymous said...

I am under the impression that SOME students in this country are spoiled brats who really think professors are their private servants and they could treat them as the wish. Many don't bother to say Hello when they see a professor, which continues to amaze me, even though I've been here for about 10 years. Many students are are in general less than respectful, not to say plain rude. You don't treat a professor the same way you treat a clerk at the supermarket.

These being said, I personally answer ALL students' questions, no matter how stupid, disrespectful or annoying. That's because I don't need drama and problems. I'll do what I have to do, whether I like it or not.

Arlenna said...

I said the ones I have seen only state teaching, and I've been at R1 universities... The fact that we have better things to do with out lives doesn't mean you can decide whether a question is dumb or not. Sorry your assistant professorship is treating you as bad as to think you are putting to much time into teaching.

I have to do a Physioprof here: "Hahahahahaaaaaahahaa"

Kiddo, you have no idea how foolish those statements make you look. You are displaying incredibly pompous, naive and ill-informed opinions. Let me know how many of these contracts you've seen, and I'll tell you about how I'm at an R1. (Ooops, I just told you anyway)

There's no need to turn this post into a troll about how those lazy professors never know their place and treat students like mealticket meat. Why would we be in this business if we didn't expect to devote our lives to training and teaching people in various ways? You presume to know anything about our motivations from our rejection of and sense of insult from your viewpoint that we all want to minimize our student interaction, but when you grow up, you'll probably look back and see how silly you look right now.

R said...

C - I am still here.

I am also a grad student, in physics in case it matters and I am in a very good PhD program. I have TA'd a lot and I know what kind of emails instructors get, specially from freshman or non-major students. I am not saying I sent that type of emails when I was an undergrad, nor I am saying I agree with them; all I am saying is that I feel it is the instructor's responsibility to answer to all the emails and/or questions, whether they (we?) think they are dumb or not.

Professors are employees of the students ONLY in the sense that students trust the professors with their money because they, the STUDENTS, believe their education is worth it.

Almost true. I agree with the statement except with the ONLY. Without students professors would not exist, there would be researchers, yes, but not professors. The professor's responsibilities towards students, in my book, are much more than just being trusted with the education.

Anyways, my point was that whether or not the info is available online, the professor SHOULD respond to all emails from students, if only to direct them to the website. FSP seems to handle these situations appropriately, but others, like PhysioProf don't, and it is the latter ones that bother me.

Lastly, You pay money to go to college to GET AN EDUCATION., true. But I have found that the students that send me those emails trying to find out whether the course is easy or not are typically liberal arts majors that are forced to take science courses. They went to college to learn about business, or theather, or whatever, not physics, chemistry or math. I don't see a problem with them trying to stay away from the difficult science courses by sending "annoying" emails.

Anonymous said...

There are two types of "stupid questions" here, one of which is more interesting that has been lost sight of.

The type of question people are focusing on is "How can I get specific information X about the class" when X is easily available if the student bothered to look. I (and FSP, I believe, and many other professors) generally forgive students for asking such silly questions with a polite "Please check the web site"; it's simple, relatively quick, and tends to avoid future problems. If a student repeatedly asked such questions (to me or my TAs), I would at some point have to point out to them that they've reached their limit and have to work things out for themselves. Otherwise it's not fair to me (I have other work -- research -- to do), or the TAs and other students (one student should not monopolize the limited time of the teaching staff, especially for questions that can be self-answered).

The other type of "stupid question" FSP brings up is a student (who is not otherwise known to the professor) who asks a variant of "How hard will your course be for me?" When students ask me this, I simply respond honestly, "I don't know." Strangely, from an e-mail (even one that would list previous courses and grades, which such students never actually provide) I can't tell how a student will do in my class! I admit I'm amazed how often I get this question. I assume the student is looking for some sort of guarantee that they'll pass the class if they make some nominal effort, which I unfortunately can't provide. I do invite the students to attend the first few lectures and decide if the course is for them.

A MSP

Anonymous said...

R, I've been in Academia nearly 20 years, and I have yet to hear of a contract that does not explictly state a division between teaching, research and service. Distributions of 40-40-20, 30-30-30, 40-50-10, 50-40-10 for teaching, research and service, respectively. are more or less the norm.

Principle Investigator said...

Just wanted to jump in about the contracts - I am a new professor at a liberal arts college, and although I have been informed about the expectations for research, teaching, and service here (40/50/10 respectively), my contract only specifies teaching load per year, not percentage of time/effort for any of the areas.

But I recall from my postdoc days at a state R1 that these ratios can be formalized. In fact, faculty had to track/report the percentage of effort they spent on each grant, not just the percentage of effort on research vs teaching or service.

Anonymous said...

"You don't treat a professor the same way you treat a clerk at the supermarket."

Why the hell not. Not that professors shouldn't be treated with respect, but so should the clerk at the supermarket.

EliRabett said...

I have found that students, even graduate students when they start have no idea about what goes on wrt faculty. First, most places have workload policies and faculty handbooks which are contractual by nature (generally written into the contract as in "duties as set forth in") You can almost always find these on the web site, and they always state ranges for teaching, research and service. Most often there is a range of possibilities, as the teaching load will vary between research active and non-research active faculty.

Second, the students NEVER pay the faculty, the privat dozent system did not make it out of Germany, and it is dead their too. They pay tuition to the university/college.

Third, at most places, especially R1s, the students do not pay for the faculty, the faculty pay for the students as stipends both graduate and undergraduate. A useful faculty member will also bring in substantial overhead equivalent to his or her salary.

It helps to explain this to the freshman on the first day, along with asking them to address you as Prof. or Dr. but never as Mr. or Ms.

AnthroBabe said...

FYI

"...liberal arts majors that are forced to take science courses"

This. This is what I dislike about some conversations about college. If you wanted to just.learn.one.thing. then go to trade school. A university is a place to learn to be an educated person, isn't it?

R said...

AnthroBabe,

The point of those classes, I've been told, is to make the student's knowledge broad. The idea is good, but I think it is done at the wrong level. To me, anything not related to your major should be taught in high-school or before with the exception of a foreign language.

If you still want students to take courses outside their area of study, then they should be designed for them and not just follow the same teaching methodologies used for major students.

I have not yet seen the benefit of liberal arts majors solving projectile motion, or mass balance problems.

Gingerale said...

I see professors as employees of the students, just like [I] see government employees to have to serve the people of their country.

Maybe there'll always be some with this mistaken notion. But it is still a mistaken notion. And it's a good thing the notion is mistaken.

We are there to serve the general good. If we work at a state institution, ultimately our boss is the state constitution. But it was never the student(s).

This means we use our time resource carefully, including, we limit our responses to inanities.