Friday, February 27, 2009

What Do Students Want?

This term I have gotten to know a lot about the medical and personal situations of some of my undergraduates. I have received scanned reports with the details of appendectomies, I have heard very dramatic accounts of the symptoms of stomach flu, and I have observed the tragic ritual of grandparent quiz-death. Some of this information has been necessary, and some of it has been a bit too much.

At the other end of the information spectrum, recent email messages from students have contained requests for a decision or action by me, but have not provided enough information for me to understand or evaluate the request and to provide a meaningful response.

Am I becoming less able (or willing) to decipher student email with time (=age)? Is an increase in vague email related to the increasing use of cryptic text-message-like rapid communication? Will I reconsider my philosophy of sending a prompt and polite reply to all email, no matter how annoying?

The answers are: probably, maybe, and alas yes. I have been crazy-busy this month and will be for the foreseeable future, and that certainly affects my patience level, especially if the email is especially vague.


Hi FSP, I'm a student at X University and I will probably be applying to work with you this summer. What do you think my chances are?
Unknown Student

OK, so I know two things about this student: his name and his university. If I were feeling ungenerous, I would say I know at least one more thing.

Hi, professor I am in your BIG SCIENCE CLASS and my doctor thinks that I should rest as much as possible this semester. Are you willing to accommodate me?

What part of accommodate don't I understand? Most of it, actually. I could guess, but I'd rather be told specifically.

I am a student in your BIG SCIENCE CLASS and I did not do well on the last quiz. I think some of the questions were about things you did not talk about in class.

And the point of this email is what exactly? To ask for help? To complain? I wrote back to the student and asked in a non-confrontational way what specific questions/topics she believed I did not discuss in class so that we could talk about these and so that I could help her with the concepts she was finding difficult. She did not reply. Perhaps I should have sent her a vague email.

FSP, I am a student at ANOTHER UNIVERSITY and next year I want to apply to do graduate studies with you. Can you tell me about a research project that I can do this year so that I am well prepared to work with you?



Anonymous said...

The last one's my favorite. I'll take "signs you shouldn't go to graduate school" for $1000, Alex...

Niket said...

I wonder what is to blame: (i) sense of entitlement, (ii) SMS-culture, (iii) face-to-face or phone conversations (as was the norm when I was an undergrad 10-14 years back) are more conducive to sharing of important information.

Holly said...

Just yesterday, I received an e-mail that read, "Hi. My name is Joe. I am at X in the Y department. I was wondering if you have a postdoc available."

I don't. But if I did, it wouldn't be yours.

No CV. No description of his research.

In the end, I answered the e-mail with a "sorry, I don't have any postdoc openings."

The e-mail was from a (well respected) US university. Let's not even talk about the spam that comes from foreign countries.....

C said...

I wrote back to the student and asked in a non-confrontational way what specific questions/topics she believed I did not discuss in class so that we could talk about these and so that I could help her with the concepts she was finding difficult. She did not reply. Perhaps I should have sent her a vague email.

Oh, you did exactly the right thing! Sometimes the "smother them with helpfulness" technique is doubly the right thing to do: (a) it makes them go away and not create bother over things that should not be bothered about, and (b) protects you from complaint in the future. After all you offered the student every opportunity to address the issue but the student didn't take you up on it...

Anonymous said...

don't they just want you to fix the world for them?

Anonymous said...

Maybe could you explain about the last excerpt and what's wrong with that? It seems to be a valid (if not brief) email from a prospective graduate applicant.

catgirl said...

It's hard to know how much detail to go into when explaining a health problem. For example, I didn't do so well in some classes freshman year of college due to undiagnosed hypothyroidism. My grades drastically improved the following year when I could actually stay awake and focus for longer than 12 hours a day. However, when I went on interviews and discussed my transcript, I never knew if I should just say 'health problems', which sorta sounds like an excuse, or go into more detail, which seems unprofessional. Fortunately, I'm past the stage in my life where my transcript is one of the most important factors in an interview, but those were some awkward times.

Scientista said...

I don't blame the SMS-culture for these vague emails but, rather, I think it's a flaw in the American education system. Having been educated in France, I can tell you that the idea of effectively communicating a point was engrained in us and always constituted a major section of any evaluation grid in written work.

In America, vagueness seems to be the gold standard. It's as if people cannot embrace the idea that others are not in their heads and may not be able to necessarily follow their train of thought unless clearly articulated.

John said...

These posts are great for focusing us readers' attention on relevant issues so mundane that we rarely take a long view.

My (tentative) conclusion is that all emails are good, and we're under no obligation to respond, but quick, equally terse and effortless responses can often help identify which correspondents warrant further attention. Class-related emails are particularly informative for how the class is going.

If someone makes a vague inquiry about working with me, I Google them, then most often point them to the dept graduate studies application web page. Post-docs inquiries are also worth a Google, but rarely a response unless their advisor is a friend or they have a specific post-doc advertisement or program in mind.

Anonymous said...

Christ on a pogo stick. I get these emails all. the. time.

"What Do Students Want?"

An A for their transcript
Their hand held
Their mommy
An A for nothing

chall said...

I think some of it is a "generation gap" thingy... funny for me to say since i think of myself as young, but clearly i am not ;)

People today are not asking questions as much as stating their side of things and then you can bargain and they see what you might offer. If they ask for something right away, maybe you will a)don't give it b)give less than they could've gotten in the first place.

And what they want? You to give them a good grade without having to do much. THe last course I thaught involved many of the students telling me that "I have been to every lecture so therefore I should be able to pass the exam with lfying colours and get an A". Actually learning the things we talked about didn't seem to be part of the Grade A in their minds.... (more less actually work hard and study in the evenings&weekends)

akahn said...

Two responses:

1. I think it's fair to not respond with a prompt, polite email response to messages that are written without care, but I hope that clear emails that are respectful of your time would still get prompt responses.

2. Difficult-to-decipher emails can sometimes be because a student's first language is not English. It's good to be mindful of that.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Re: the health problems. Assuming that they are genuine it is difficult to discern the appropriate amount of information to share.

In my own case, as a grad student early in my career I had some lady health problems. Treatment involved hormones, and while still adjusting the dose to accommodate my personal physiology, I also had to take my qualifying exam. The stress of the exam wasn't enough to rattle me, but that coupled with wacky hormone exposure triggered an anxiety attack. My advisor witnessed this and to this day considers me emotionally unstable although my hormones have since stabilized and there have been no other anxiety attacks.

I can't blame my advisor for his judgment of me - I didn't tell him anything about my medical issues because I wasn't comfortable talking to him about them. Would that information have helped him make a more informed judgment of my emotional stability? Probably. but I just don't feel comfortable talking to him about my lady health (and I don't think he'd be comfortable with that either).

Sometimes it's too much info, and sometimes it's not enough.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Will I reconsider my philosophy of sending a prompt and polite reply to all email, no matter how annoying?

Do it!! The vast majority of e-mails should be ignored. The only e-mails that I will respond to from students are those seeking to make an appointment to see me. I make this policy clear, and it's fucking great. By increasing the activation energy for the student to actually get to engage me in dialogue, I avoid a shit-ton of absurd narischkeit.

amy said...

I just got one today: "Hi Amy, Sorry I wasn't at the exam today. I wasn't feeling well. Let me know when I can take a make-up exam. Thanks!" Clearly this student has the customer service mentality.

I had a prof. in grad school who refused to use email (this was back in the early days when you could get away with that). He said email turned him into what Heidegger called a "standing-reserve": a never-ending resource to be called upon at will. Sometimes that's exactly what I feel like.

Amber Lynne said...

I am an undergraduate student and I have been doing genetics research with the same mentor for 2 years now and she often has to remind me that I send her to many e-mails. She is older and would much prefer that I call her, email is just overwhelming to her. On the other hand email is the accepted communication amongst my peers, everyone is emailing constantly from their blackberries. Furthermore, I think the problem with undergrads today is that college is the proper next step to take, and those that would usually get a job are now expected to go to school and often it isn't the right choice for them.
Lastly, I HATE taking classes with pre-med students. They are the first to complain about the grade they recieve! GAH. I just want to be in a class where people really enjoy learning.

John said...

I find this discussion discouraging in its implications for the communication skills of teachers, if these are their behaviours.

Email, as is the case for texting, the spoken word, and eye contact, has a range of uses and levels of engagement. To make a blanket rule such as only email for appts, every email must have a response, or each email must be carefully composed and self-contained reveals an inability to discriminate on the fly between appropriate responses to the real spectrum of email genres.

Similarly, if someone asks "when is the make-up?", just say there is no make-up, if that is the case, don't fume about it. It is a common tactic to presume your preferred situation to make it true, and a handy one that I wield as well as try to deflect.

The goal of the introspection in FSP's post, to me, is to chart an effective strategy to more effectively communicate by deciphering the motivations we now find odd and insufferable.

Tam said...

Most of my emails to professors have specific, detailed questions that are not about how to improve my class grade, but are things I could ask during office hours. I often can't make office hours because I work full time during the day, but I think if a professor is sitting around during office hours, perhaps they might answer my email. And they generally do.

I'm talking about questions like, "I was thinking about a possible degenerate (?) case of [a theorem discussed extensively in class]. Attached is my drawing of the case. It seems to me that in such a case, [x, y, z]. Is this a legitimate case of [the theorem]?"

...which is a very close paraphrase of an email I sent earlier this week that was responded to pretty quickly. I'm curious if you professors out there would find an email like this obnoxious.

Anonymous said...

I agree....I thought it was a fair email. Do you want short emails or long emails? Do you even read long emails?

FSP, I am a student at ANOTHER UNIVERSITY and next year I want to apply to do graduate studies with you. Can you tell me about a research project that I can do this year so that I am well prepared to work with you?

Anonymous said...

re: health problems and grandparents

I know its tempting (and now that I've taught, I really really know) to make light of the idea that people have health problems that pop up or grandparents who happen to die around quiz time. But, its only fine to make a joke out of that to the students if you actually know that none of them have any health problems or ill family members (so, basically it is never ok).

I still remember a professor in college, who was trying to be cool and funny saying "So, I've noticed that grandparents always tend to kick the bucket right around tests. If you have a sick grandparent you better tell me now or else I'm never going to believe you". As I sat there listening to that, I was waiting for my Grandma to die of a horrible brain tumor, and 3 days before that when I left home I had had to say goodbye. I still remember practically bursting into tears in class. I never took her up on her offer to tell her, because after that there was no way I would have ever talked to her even though my reasons were legit, I would have rather flunked.

That said, in general people need to learn to write normal emails. It is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Would a better email from a student from ANOTHER UNIVERSITY say something like:

Dear FSP,

I am applying to the graduate program at FSP-U. I find your work with XYZ very interesting. I have done research on SIMILAR SUBJECT. In the process, I have developed LIST OF SKILLS. Do you think you will be taking new students when I begin at FSP-U? If so, what techniques or background knowledge should I learn before meeting you?

Potential Student

John said...

my preferred letter - get the question up front and the most relevant facts on the table, discard the question of how to prepare:

I am applying to the graduate program at FSP-U, and am particularly interested in joining your research group. Will you be considering new students this fall? Are there fellowships to which I can apply in conjunction with my application?

I have tackled one or two cutting edge problems close to your field as small undergrad projects. [Show that you know in the big picture why these problems are important and how they linked to FSP's research goals.] [Present anecdotes demonstrating desirable skills that your potential letter writers, people FSP knows, can corroborate.]

Attached is my CV.

Potential Student

JLK said...

Wow. Seriously, WOW.

I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for the idiots you have to deal with, FSP.

Yet at the same time, it always makes me feel good about myself as a former undergrad and prospective grad student every time I read posts like this. ;)

female Science Professor said...

Despite my apparent obsession with helpless and/or otherwise not-high-functioning students, I certainly appreciate the students who are cheerful, motivated, and non-whining. Fortunately there are a lot of them.

It is interesting that some readers relate to the problem with the last example in the post and some don't see what the problem is.

I have written before about the best way to communicate with a potential graduate advisor. In general, it is not a good idea to ask a potential advisor to do something for you unless you have provided a good reason why they would want to do this. Have you demonstrated any motivation or initiative? And what kind of help are you requesting? If you just need a topic that would give you a good background in a subject, you can get that from looking at the potential grad advisor's publications or webpage, or by talking with your professors. Other relevant information: What is a likely duration of a project? What facilities are available? What courses or other research experiences have you had?

Presumably, however, if a student had their act together enough to realize that this type of information was relevant to their request, they would have their act together enough to have no need to send it in the first place.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I think a big part of the problem is that many students have not been taught how to properly communicate via email.

Why *should* we except students to already know how to write an effective email? We have to teach them how to write, to think analytically, and to present. Why not add how to write an email to the list?

Anonymous said...

Students are bloody lazy thesedays. They expect us to do all the chasing around and to send them detailed information/do their job for them etc. They don't even have the decency to write a proper email.


Anonymous said...

I think you should explain your frustration with student e-mail when you pass out the green sheets at the beginning of the semeseter. Just include some of the examples here and I bet that your students will be much more careful about the email they send you.

John said...

My impression from these posts is that we haven't earned the right to lecture students on proper use of email (aside from FSP, whose tact and communication skills are outstanding).

They're emailing us, we're emailing them. They text and email MORE than we do by a large measure. They need to gain our favor to get a good grade, but we owe our jobs to them wanting us to teach them our specialty, physical science in my case.

I'm comfortable giving advice to students on applying to grad school, but would be foolish to play the didact on email protocol to the experts, let alone texting or twits.

Arrogant Bastard said...

The scorn and disdain regularly displayed towards students on this blog is astonishing.

EliRabett said...

Add this to your collection

Doctor Pion said...

Dear FSP -

I find your work with XYZ very interesting. I have done research on SIMILAR SUBJECT. In the process, I have developed LIST OF SKILLS. Do you think I should ask my research advisor whether these skills would be useful when working on XYZ?

female Science Professor said...

That's pretty good except for the part at the end. I would rather see "My research advisor and I have been discussing a project involving XYZ and.."

Anonymous said...

I have a personal policy of not responding to e-mails/parts of e-mails that are rude in tone or subject as well as those that are too personal.[Is it something about being a female that has students e-mail us about their personal problems... home foreclosure, abusive spouse...?] On more than one occasion I have wanted to send back a reply along the lines of "I am not your (*#$%& personal assistant," but in the end I answer the questions I can answer, refer students to the syllabus, etc. That has actually helped me out, especially in an instance where a student sent me several vaguely rude and demanding e-mails before a semester started. When I actually met the student in person, it turned out they were just someone who was very detailed and socially awkward, even in person. So it was a good thing that I merely respond to the questions and ignored [or didn't respond to] anything else.

bewilderedgradstudent said...

Let's not be unfair; students are not the only ones who are guilty of sending vague emails. In college I had a professor who once sent an email (correction -- his secretary sent the email) to tell us that our exam was changed to the following week. Instead of calling it an exam, though, he referred to it as a "quiz", and then he signed the email only with his initials. Since the email did not even originate from his email address, and he didn't actually mention what class the "quiz" was in, and he didn't sign the email with his name, you can imagine my initial bewilderment.

Right before the final exam in that same class, I sent this professor a polite email inquiring about my grade, since he had not given us any guidelines (as university policy stipulated) about how the class would be graded. His three word response was "your is good". Huh?

Val said...

Interesting thought. Maybe that lack of "interest" in getting in touch properly is due to their inner behavior. Indeed, they are more scientists than marketers, which could explain a tendency to not being so specific.

Neil W said...

My Grandad died when I was at university. As there were no tests or anything like that for the day of the funeral, I took the day away from lectures, and was back the next day. I think I mentioned it to my tutor the next week, after I'd copied notes etc. from friends. If there had been a test, I probably would have told someone or asked for some arrangement. I imagine professors are more likely to hear about grandparent funerals around tests, and less likely to hear about them at other times. doctor thinks that I should rest as much as possible this semester. Are you willing to accommodate me?

I can't help thinking they're asking to stay in your guest room while they rest.

Anonymous said...

I am very surprised that you interpreted the last email as wanting something for nothing.

I also think that your expectation that "Presumably, however, if a student had their act together enough to realize that this type of information was relevant to their request, they would have their act together enough to have no need to send it in the first place" is perhaps founded on your inside knowledge and familiarity with how academia works, and what your own preferences regarding grad students are, and not necessarily on an understanding of where the student is coming from and what information is easy for undergraduate students to know or find out.

I am an undergraduate student who has been thinking about and researching grad studies for years and think I have my act together, and I still don't know what the answer to the emailed question would be. That is, I think it is a reasonable question to ask, and that the answer might be different from prof to prof.

Here is why I think I have my act together. Your opinion of how together it is may be different. I have read books about how grad school works, such as "Getting What You Came For" by Robert Peters. I have talked to professors at my own university about their areas of research. I have talked to grad students at my own university. I have read academic papers in fields that interest me and identified researchers that are doing work that I admire. I have visited some universities and talked to some of them. I have worked for a professor as a research assistant in a field similar to the one I am interested in. I have sought and found a lot of information and advice about grad school.

It seems like your answer to that question is something like "look up my published papers and choose a similar topic". However, I can imagine other responses that a prof might make. Another prof might say something like "I like the students I work with to have a strong background in X, so a project that gives you experience in X would be valuable," or "Here is a pet project idea of mine that I haven't had time to do and haven't been able to get my grad students interested in," or "It doesn't matter so much what you do as long as your work is of high quality."

And I don't think the question the student is asking means "Please design a research program for me." I think it is actually the question "What can I do to become more valuable to you?"

I think it is the opposite of asking for something for nothing. The student is willing to put hours and hours of effort into a project based on your guidance. The student is enthusiastic enough about your work to want to work with you and to want to change himself or herself to be better suited to doing work that is important to you. The student is offering you a chance to influence a young researcher who is enthusiastic about your field, and is effectively offering you more resources to advance the work you want to see accomplished in the world.

At least that's the sort of thing that would be in my mind if I asked such a question.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous from March 26: imagine that the President of the US were to receive the following email:

"Dear Mr. President, I am a college student and am very patriotic. What do you think I should study to serve the United States best?"

Do you think that the President is under any obligation to respond? His time is extremely valuable and of course he can't respond to every individual request of this nature; he can only address them in general in his speeches. Our time is, if not equally, then at least comparably, valuable, and the sheer number of email we receive along such lines makes it impossible to reply to any. So don't be offended if you don't hear back from faculty at other institutions whom you contact, any more than you would be offended by no reply from President Obama.