Friday, January 09, 2009

Answer Key

Some of my teaching colleagues, both real and virtual, only reply to student emails that concern a legitimate topic or question, with 'legitimate' of course being a malleable and personalized concept. Some only reply if the email is polite and literate (i.e., does not start "Yo Proffesor!). Some don't reply because they don't tend to reply to email from anyone. Some will reply or not depending on mood and time pressures.

I am a habitual replier to emails, and I tend to respond rapidly (within 24 hours), especially if the reply takes me a minute or less. This system relies on the assumption that not all 100-200 students in a large class will write to me every day with a non-urgent request. The helpfulness and length of my reply scales somewhat with the nature of the request and how it is written, but I do always reply.

I do not reply because it is a required part of my job (see comments from yesterday's post). Being paid to teach does not obligate you to be at the beck and call of your students no matter how unreasonable and frequent their requests, nor must you provide them with rapid responses to non-urgent questions just because they ask/demand it.

Even so, I reply to email from students. I am not exactly sure why I reply to all email, but I do, even if my reply is not as helpful as the student would wish.

I should say that I do not feel the same way about phone calls from students. I dislike getting voice-mail from students with demands that I call them back right away. I do not return such calls unless there is an indication of an emergency situation. Fortunately for me, phone calls from students are not nearly as common as they used to be.

When I was an assistant professor at University #1, back in the days before email was the primary means of outside-class communication between faculty and students, the printed university directory would print my home phone number even though I requested that it be unlisted. What was the point of having an unlisted number in the regular phone directory if the university was going to print it in the U-Directory? Anyway, there were always a few students who would call me at home in the evening or on a weekend to ask me questions about the homework or test. I hated that. Unless the situation was truly dire, I would ask them to send me an email or to call me in my office at another time. (Most people didn't have email at home in those days, so it was easier for students to call than to email when they weren't on campus.) These home-calls never happen anymore, and for that I am very grateful.

But I digress. Regarding email: If a student sends an email to a professor with a question such as What is the textbook? (information easily available online) or What is the reading for next week? (information easily available online) or even the legendary but common Did I miss anything important in class last week?, does a helpful and prompt reply from the professor (a) enable the student's annoying dependence and helplessness, characteristics that do not tend to lead to success in academics or life; or (b) teach the student to be more independent, providing the assistance and inspiration the student needs to navigate the complexities of academic systems?

Yes, students should know how to find basic course information on their own, they should show some initiative, use their brains etc. etc., but I have found that the best way for me to stay sane and happy in my teaching life is to have high but flexible expectations and to show patience and kindness (even if that's not how I sincerely feel).

It is clearly time for another poll:

How do you answer emails from students?
I answer every email within 24 hrs, no matter how trivial or obnoxious or poorly written
I answer every email eventually, I think
I only reply to questions that aren't trivial or obnoxious, but I reply a.s.a.p.
I reply to legitimate questions, but not right away
I seldom reply to non-emergency email from students free polls


Anonymous said...

I voted for the last one, but it doesn't capture what I actually do. I only respond to e-mails that are seeking to make an appointment to come see me in my office. All others I ignore.

And the "emergency" concept is an interesting one. I am having trouble thinking of anything at all that--in relation to my role as a faculty member teaching a course at a university--could possibly be considered an "emergency".

These are the two definitions of "emergency" from M-W on-line dictionary:

1 : an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action 2 : an urgent need for assistance or relief {the governor declared a state of emergency after the flood}

Both of them include the requirement of temporal immediacy or urgency. I cannot think of any possible scenario involving an e-mail from a student in my class that could possibly require immediate or urgent action on *my* part that would include responding to the e-mail. "Oh, Professor! The dog ate my notes for the exam and blah, blah, blah..." Not an emergency. "Oh, Professor! My grandma died and I have to go to the funeral and I will miss the test. What do I do?" That's tragic, but it is not an emergency, in the sense of requiring urgent or immediate action.

The only scenario that I can think of involving receipt of a student e-mail that could possibly be considered an emergency would be if I received an e-mail from a student that reasonably suggested that the student (or some other person) was about to do something dangerous or harmful to herself or others, (or, I suppose, reasonably suggested that such things had occurred in the past, although that wouldn't be an "emergency" even if of great genuine concern) in which case I would immediately contact the relevant appropriately trained personnel at the university and convey that information to them, so they could take appropriate action.

Anonymous said...

Did I miss anything important in class last week?

A professor back in my college days would answer with the straightest face "actually not, we noticed you weren't here so we just told jokes the whole lecture."

As a student it would take a few seconds before the answer sunk in and one realized how inane and offensive the question really is.

Some [do not] reply if the email is impolite

I reply to those with a one liner: You might want to rephrase that.

Usually the student clues in and sends a second, properly composed email to which I give a full reply.

Anonymous said...

I'm an untenured professor in a department where teaching is the #1 (but not only) part of the tenure evaluation. I can't afford any upset students or a reputation for not being friendly. I answer every email as politely as possible.

I may not do that in 5 years, but I do it now.

Not Just Academic said...

I take a hybrid approach that none of the given options quite fits. I respond to all emails but make sure I don't do so immediately unless it's a rare emergency. Instead, I'll respond hours later, or preferably the next day, so the recipient doesn't think I've nothing better to do than reply to student emails.

I try to keep the content to one line if I can, but particularly unreasonable emails sometimes get "Please express yourself clearly and politely as all emails are stored on the university system as a record of your written communication". While true (the emails are stored by me on university servers), it rather sneakily suggests that impolite emails might come back to haunt the sender. If those students ever email me again, it's never about anything trivial and tends to be nicely written.

Anonymous said...

I do reply to emails except when it's prospective graduate student spam.

But why do students think it's OK to call professors!? Then I get notifications of voicemails, which are generally unuseful.

Anonymous said...

If you have not already discussed this, I would be interested in your take on "make-ups".

I find them more of a nuisance than emails, particularly in my 100 student class with weekly quizzes.

There has to be some happy medium between hardass and (resentful) pushover, but I can't seem to find it.

Anonymous said...

Comrade PhysioProf,

As a recent grad student/not too far out of undergrad, my opinion is that an email along the lines of "my grandma died and I will have to miss tomorrow's exam" would certainly constitute an 'emergency' in the eyes of this student and I would hope it would be met with a timely response.

Anonymous said...

I answered the second one, but I should clarify - I answer all emails from my students (my grad students, my undergrads who are working for me, in my lab). In fact - they have my cell phone number. the last thing I want is for there to be a leak or an explosion that I don't find out about because I'm traveling.

The second (answer all emails eventually) applies to other students at the school, whether they are in a class I'm teaching or not.

Students at other schools get less nice treatment - perhaps I never respond, maybe I do. I get multiple emails a day with questions I have answered on my website directly (do you have positions open in your group, etc).

Anonymous said...

What really raises my hackles is when I receive e-mails from students that start 'Dear Mrs.' or 'Dear Ms.'. I suspect this is a remnant from high school. I usually respond that the correct way to address me is 'Prof.' or 'Dr.' and that it is always better to promote your lecturer to Dr. or Prof. status than to assume they do not have a PhD. When feeling a little bit quirky, I have also been known to suggest other appropriate alternatives like 'Your Highness'.

While on the topic of e-mail, I am finding that students don't check their e-mail with enough regularity to deal with more urgent matters. How do you all get students to simply check their e-mail every day (or multiple times a day)? Must I resort to texting them? Even if they do check their e-mail, I often don't know because I don't get even a simple reponse like 'I'm on it!'

Rosie Redfield said...

My BIG freshman course has an online discussion board, and I ask students to post all non-private questions there. I answer these questions the same day, if another student hasn't already provided the answer. And I encourage students to search the discussion board before posting questions like 'where is the midterm?', because these have usually already been asked and answered.

If a student emails me a non-private question I send them a form email telling them that I'll post and answer their question on the discussion board.

daisy mae said...

as a grad student at a relatively large school, i can say that the first day of each class is devoted to logistics, and ALWAYS seems to include that professor's personal preference for contact.

most of the time it's via email, or office hours. it's also laid out very clearly in the syllabus (and course website) when and where everything is.

i've always thought it absolutely asinine that my profs go over how important attendance is in classes - they all stress that every day is important - because we're in grad school, and you would think that at this point attendance would be ingrained. but based on what i've seen, and these comments, i can't imagine dealing with chronic emails all the time.

Anonymous said...

If emails are class related, I sometimes reply to them in class or to the class-list with a "Some of you have asked about X" rather than directly to the student.

I also have a broadly advertised policy of not answering exam related questions in the 48 hours preceding exams. I have had complaints about that but mostly it ensures that a few more students start studying a little earlier than normal.


Anonymous said...

Who calls their professor at home? And then demands to call back right away? Are you kidding me??!?!

I wonder if these students even think about how retarded they come across.

Reminds me of emails a buddy of mine forwards to me from his students (yes, sometimes starting with "Yo") to fact-check their medical reasons for missing exams, class, etc.

Some of this stuff... Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

I teach a large intro science lecture course (approx. 300). This past semester I instigated the smartest teaching thing I've ever done: a course-specific email address. Students had to write that email address about the class, even if it was to set up an apt with me or a teaching assistant. If they wrote to me, I sat on it for 2 days and then forwarded it to the course email address. The teaching assistants answered all the easy/silly questions and only forwarded emails that really needed my attention to me. I got 10 all semester...

Anonymous said...

I immediately answer all emails from undergraduate students (not from prospective graduate students from abroad), no matter what they ask (not that I don't sometimes mumble bad words to myslef while replying).
For example, I am offering a paid NSF sponsored summer research opportunity for undergraduates that would enable them to go to a desirable European country and learn about a certain field. Today, an announcement was emailed to all the undergraduates, describing the application requirements and all the details related to the place, financial support, type of research. A few minutes ago, I just replied to an email from a student who's interested and asked me how do they apply, although the announcement clearly states: "To apply, submit X and Y via email to Prof. Z at"
I just repeated the information and even added "should you have any more questions, don't hesitate to ask" (rolleyes). Yes, that's what I do.

Eve said...

I use gmail, which is fantastic except that if you ever message a student, and that student also has gmail, you are added to their contact list and they are added to yours. So I've been getting IMs from students. It's so odd! It feels like an invasion of privacy.

Anonymous said...

What really raises my hackles is when I receive e-mails from students that start 'Dear Mrs.' or 'Dear Ms.'. I suspect this is a remnant from high school. I usually respond that the correct way to address me is 'Prof.' or 'Dr.' and that it is always better to promote your lecturer to Dr. or Prof. status than to assume they do not have a PhD.

Why do you give a flying fuck what form of address your students use for you, and even waste your own time and effort "correcting" them?

Anonymous said...

I answer right away to clear my inbox, but I have colleagues who sit on important emails ("I need your signature on X so that my grant continues coming and I asked last month in plenty of time and didn't get an answer from you" is common).

Rosie Redfield is right on with the learning management systems. Set up a forum, and train people to use them. If they ask a course related questions, redirect it there. Often enough, someone else will answer for you, and then the answer is recorded for all.

Teaching first-year students I have to train them in mode of address and use of school email accounts and how to write to the teacher, but it is time well spent.

I don't have voice mail enabled at the office, or I would spend forever calling people back :)

Anonymous said...

my method is to only check student emails twice a day; I do not check on weekends. So, there's about a 24 hour turnover on my emails. There is NOTHING that a student can require of me that needs more than that. Even if they are having some horrible family emergency, in reality, they won't be dealing with my class until it's over anyhow; they'll have my response quikly enough, and it will just be a sorry to hear that, provide a dean's note and see me when you're back. That's all that is necessary.

Zoelouise: We follow university policy in the class I TA; no makeups without a note from a doctor or dean. I do the same if the student shows up late to class and misses a quiz (amazing how making that annoucement makes them show up on time). Period. Makes life a lot easier when there's no judgement call; they either have it or don't. If you want to be kind, you can have one drop quiz.

Anonymous said...

I READ every email. I don't reply to emails (unless like CPP says - if it's a real honest to gawd emergency like a suicidal student or a request to meet with me). I have had a few very troubled students and I did pass their emails on immediately to people in positions to help immediately.

The problem with answering everysinglefreakinmessage is that the students think you are their bitch and they treat you as one if you buy into it (ie., reply). They email, you reply. They stick food in the bowl, you eat. They call for you, you say 'is this high enough to jump?' type stuff.

If I have to be the one to teach the students that asking the questions "what's on the test?" "do we need to know Chapter 18?" "did I miss a handout on Monday, can you send it?" is THEIR JOB as a student to figure out, then so be it. I'm not big on holding their hands and I think faculty do too much hand holding hand shit just to get good TEACHING evals. Meanwhile we are all nazel gazing wondering where 'all the good students' went. Why are the students 'so immature, like as in high school.'

On the first day of class, I clearly state my positions on what I listed above. And I definitely see a transition from being attention-deprived needy kids to slightly-more-independent and responsible students. My teaching evals are fantastic - they learn shit they never thought existed before and they also learn how to behave as a student! win win.

Anonymous said...

If a student's family member died, that is a valid excuse for missing an exam. It's not an emergency on the professor's part, but you might as well set a student's mind at ease by telling them they can miss the exam and tell them the date and time of the remake. It only takes one minute of your time, don't be a jerk.

And yes, I know that 50% of the time nobody has really died, or they did so a month or two before.

Anonymous said...

As a student, I would really like for my profs to respond to my emails. However, courtesy is a two way street. I am always very polite and respectful when corresponding with a professor, taking the time to thank them for considering my request/proposal/question/whatever. And, my gratitude is sincere: someone went out of their way to help me. Is it because they are a professor that they should not get merit for their actions?

That being said, I typically send one or two emails to a prof per semester. Some people overdo it and treat the professor as their personal assistant and that is unacceptable. However, professors should not lump everyone in the same category and ignore legitimate, polite, and thought out emails.

butterflydoc said...

My response time depends on the nature of the email.

Reasonable, easy-to-answer questions, or those that feel urgent to a student? I usually respond right away.

Those that are poorly written or poerly thought-out (will your course be hard for me? is a good one) tend to sit in my inbox for a while.

Then there are those that I don't answer. Case in point: I got an email recently from a student asking whether a course on another campus would count for one that I teach. Since those questions do not formally come to me from students (except in the future tense), I passed it along to the proper channels. Indeed, the student was trying to get a different answer from me than my chair had already given.

I am at a school where teaching is given priority, but it's still not 100% of my workload.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Like GeoProf, I was completely taken by surprise that my students-- who are so tapped into Facebook, gmail, etc etc-- don't regularly check their EDU account. I've gotten around caring if they do or not by putting a statement in the syllabus that they are expected to check their EDU email at least once a day. That way, it REALLY doesn't matter if they check it or not; the responsibility was laid out at the beginning of the semester.

(Yes, I teach freshmen.)

Anonymous said...

"I do reply to emails except when it's prospective graduate student spam."

When are emails from prospective graduate students spam? The profs in my field practically require that you email them before applying in order to be considered for acceptance into the lab... At any rate, I would think profs would appreciate emails from grad students who are interested in working in their lab.

Female Science Professor said...

I assumed that the spam comment referred to prospect grad emails that are clearly form letters.

Arlenna said...

Yeah, I hit the delete button without a reply anytime the email starts with the phrase "Dear Respect Professor Sir" and discusses all the experience and interest the person has in toxicology research.

1. I'm a ma'am, thanks.

2. Toxicology is nowhere NEAR what I do, and what I do is clearly described and illustrated in numerous places on our university website associated with my name.

We've had the prospective grad student spam discussion before (on Drugmonkey, right?), and most people agree that an actually personalized, informed and clearly interested email is awesome, but the form letter spams are NOT.

Anonymous said...

As a graduate student, I find it frustrating when professors ignore important e-mails. When your advisors won't respond to requests for meetings, it's difficult to make progress. And, some students aren't comfortable persisting when they don't receive a response on the first or second try.

Anonymous said...

Why do you give a flying fuck what form of address your students use for you, and even waste your own time and effort "correcting" them?

Because I imagine this occurs with more frequency to women course instructors than men. I taught a class last year with a male colleague and some of my students routinely called me "Ms. Isis" and him "Dr. Other Dude" in spite of the fact that I have a doctorate level degree and he has a masters.

Peggy K said...

Anonymous: if your professor doesn't respond to your email you can always call them (at their office number), talk to them after lecture, or turn up at their scheduled office hours.

One of the things I dislike about email is that some people assume that it's going to be immediately read and responded to, which isn't always possible.

Anonymous said...

[P.S. Hope this isn't a repost; dodgy PC, so am not sure my original comment was sent]

Why do you give a flying fuck what form of address your students use for you, and even waste your own time and effort "correcting" them?

Because it's more accurate and more polite for people to use other people's titles on first acquaintance in a professional setting.

And I agree with Dr. Isis' point as well...

Anonymous said...

I respond to my students' emails relatively quickly because otherwise I will forget to do so (I'm teaching full time this semester and also doing my MA and TAing - got plenty on my plate) and because I have told them that if they leave a message on the voicemail that the college that I teach at insists I have even though I DON'T WANT IT I will NOT respond but if they email (i.e. do it my way) I will get back to them far more quickly.

While I do respond, however, it is generally not the sort of response they are looking for - I direct them to the online course site or suggest that they trouble themselves to come to class regularly so that they will have the opportunity to hear these sorts of things first hand. I also always provide at least 20 minutes of my time at the end of each class period in which they are welcome to seek individual help or ask questions.

Given that I teach the same course X 3 sections, and the syllabus and online site both make clear that if they are not able to attend their own, they are welcome to join either of the others, I tend not to go too far out of my way in response to student demands any more.

When I first started teaching, I was far more available for
'office hours' etc... but what invariably happened is that people would just not bother coming to class and then expect that I would meet with them at their convenience and teach them everything they needed to know to pass the final exam at a time convenient for them.

As IF!

I am much less accomodating now that I have gone back to school myself.