Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Who Wants This?

In recent weeks, I have commented on (a.k.a. been obsessed with) the fact that I got a barrage of early email from students taking my class in the term that had not yet started. I have never gotten so much email of this kind before.

This is not to criticize the students, but rather to wonder how faculty feel about getting email such as the following:

Dear madam, Hi! I’m taking SCI 201 for spring semester 2009. Should I prepare anything or do any reading before coming to your first class? Can’t wait to be in your class! Thank you, I.B. Eager

That is, are we happy that our students are enthusiastic and motivated, or are we wondering why they are sending these emails?

Do we get a warm and fuzzy feeling at this youthful enthusiasm for Learning or are we cynical about the motivation of the students sending these emails?

Do we feel agnostic about it? That is, there's no way to tell what the student was thinking, so who cares? We get dozens of email each day asking us to do random things, so what's one more?

Are there courses that require reading or other preparation before the term starts but that don't tell the students about this unless the student sends an email to the instructor to get this secret information?

Am I the only one getting email like this? (none of my colleagues are, hence my question).

In other words, ...

If you got 1 or 12 emails like this before a term started, would you be
Happy happy happy!
Mostly annoyed and cynical
Unconcerned, nonchalant and somewhat indifferent
pollcode.com free polls


The History Enthusiast said...

I haven't gotten this ever, but I've only been doing this for ~3 1/2 years, and I'm in a totally different field.

As for your question about whether there are profs "that require reading or other preparation before the term starts but that don't tell the students about this": I've found that my students really do expect their professors to trick them on occasion. Maybe not in regards to this, but when my students take in-class quizzes I have to remind them that I don't give trick questions, so if they don't understand a question they should ask me to clarify. They seem puzzled that I wouldn't try to trick them, which in turn puzzles me. Why is it that students believe "tricking" is part of the normal learning process?

Sorry if this is rambling; I'm totally wiped out. But, your post got me thinking.

P.S. I think I've commented here before, but if not, HI! I've been reading you for a while now.

Unknown said...

Yuck - I really hope never to see one of these emails (it screams "high maintenance student who will request numerous meetings to review material but will still get a D" to me, but I'm a cynic).

To flip this the other way, though, I do plan to follow a colleague's lead and email certain classes before they start to remind students of prerequisites (in particular, if the class has a math pre-req, there will be math; and I'm sick of having students registered for senior level classes that have never had any other course in the subject - who's advising these kids, anyway?!?).

As for secret assignments, never - aside from the always obvious "you should be reviewing the material all term, not just the week before the exam"...

Anonymous said...

Why is it that students believe "tricking" is part of the normal learning process?

I had a Professor (David Giles was his name) for stage 2 Econometrics.

We had a variant of trick questions: True False, plus optional explanation.

They were fiendish. You could either write, True or False, and leave it at that.

Or, you can write True or False, and add an explanation of the circumstances in which it would be True (or False)

The thing was: if the correct answer was "True", you wrote "True" but you explanation was incorrect you got 0

If the correct answer was False, you wrote "True" and your explanation was correct, then you got full marks.

So with the ambiguous and highly technical questions, you could take the risk of explaining your answer, or just leave it.

As I recall, many people did worse than the monkey.

However, it was quite good learning for economics - possibly a form of game theory.

The other thing I remember about him was him saying he didn't think History was worth studying (or something to that effect) but it was useful to understand the history of your subject. Sadly that course was unavailable at the time, but I think it would have given a lot of context to the utterly confusing Macroeconomics lectures - the only lecture I ever fell asleep in. They seemed to be mostly about drawing graphs which made very little sense.

Anonymous said...


As a soon-to-be assistant prof, I was at first a little surprised at the cynicism in your post, FSP. But I guess after I start teaching regularly I will get to know the student archetypes and learn to heed the warning bells.

So are these emails in fact warning bells for a high-maintenance student that will haunt you throughout the semester? How often is it someone who is just eager to please?

Either way, will a carefully worded email along the lines of "it's great you're enthused for the material, read the textbook a little bit, oh and please use the course syllabus, problem sets, website, TA's, etc. to answer your questions and don't make a habit of emailing me directly" work? Or is this akin to feeding the trolls?

Prof-like Substance said...

I haven't had this happen yet, but I also have not had to teach anything but a grad class yet, so I can't really comment from my own experience, but a colleague of mine had a similar situation. It turned out that one of the group advisors had recommend that students express their enthusiasm to their profs, or something like that. The idea being that it's good for the students if their prof can pick them out of a class of a hundred. This is usually true when you are a good student, but ceases to be effective when the prof knows you because you are annoying.

Alyssa said...

In my 2nd year of my undergrad, I remember one of our profs telling us to do this for every class we were in because it a) showed we were interested and b) was a way to introduce ourselves to the prof.

Now, I think that's a load of crap and really think it's just a way to suck up/show off. Like you said, there were no "secret" assignments in any of my classes - so there was really no reason to do it!

Anonymous said...


As a soon-to-be assistant professor, I was at first surprised by the cynicism of FSP's post. Well, thought me, I'd be thrilled if the students were so eager! But of course I also remember being a student and that most of them just care about grades grades grades and will this be on the test? I imagine after I teach for a few semesters I will be better tuned to hear the alarm bells.

So, a question: how often does this type of email presage a, to quote squwky, "high maintenance student who will request numerous meetings to review material but will still get a D"? Is it ever just someone looking forward to the course or a super-diligent but non-nightmarish student?

Anonymous said...

I get these from time to time. I've always attributed them to overeager premeds - I've got lots of them in the physics courses I teach.

No warm and fuzzy feeling here, just indifference. If they want to start reading up on the material weeks in advance, sure, I'll tell them what chapters to read.

I haven't checked with my colleagues (male or female) to see if they get emails like this. That might be an interesting comparison.

FPhysicsP at a small state university

PhizzleDizzle said...

I wonder if you get these (and not your colleagues) because somehow you have developed a reputation amongst the students for being...tough? Susceptible to suckups? Tricky with lots of reading material? Or something or the sort that would lead to lots of overeager emails.

I have to admit that I think a part of the reason I am currently no longer interested in academia is these email blog posts from you and Angry Professor. It makes me tired just thinking about it...

Anonymous said...

I tend to get 2-5 emails like this a year. I only respond to the ones from student athletes (about half). They are asking what is going on because they know their term will be chaotic and warning me that they are in the class. I am very accomadating with the professional ones. Not so much with the IB Eager Beaver types.

(I work in Canada where even the starting QB goes to his profs to ask if the coach can proctor exams during trips!)

Anonymous said...

Dear madam, Hi! I’m taking SCI 201 for spring semester 2009. Should I prepare anything or do any reading before coming to your first class? Can’t wait to be in your class! Thank you, I.B. Eager

My reaction to these e-mails is exactly the same as my reaction to these:

Dear Esteemed Sir: I am Mrs. Ndere Dongbo, wife of the deceased finance minister of Nigeria. In the disposition of my esteemed husbands estate, we have found a bank account containing 15 MILLION DOLLARS. We seek your kind and esteemed assistance in the disposition of these esteemed MILLIONS OF DOLLARS. Blah, blah, blah...

We are professors, not customer service reps or help-desk agents, and we have no responsibility to respond to inane or irrelevant e-mails from anyone, including students.

Wicked Teacher of the West said...

The reality is that I would find e-mails like this annoying and irritating.

That said, if I thought of it, I might send one. I have been in the situation where a class had assignments to be completed before the first class and I didn't find out about them in a timely fashion. In most cases the professor e-mailed them to the class... eventually. But not as early as would have been helpful. In one notable case, finding out the reading assignments required logging into a system I was unaware of, as I was new to the university and the university didn't tell me about it. Fortunately I happened to know the instructor professionally and she mentioned the readings when I saw her a week before the class started.

daisy mae said...

i've sent one or two of these myself - although phrased *much* differently. the essential question i had was basically that i was unsure as to whether or not i had the proper background to "jump in" at this point, and it was unclear based on the course listing. more often than not, though, i asked to meet with the prof at their convenience to discuss the course, and at that point if i felt like i would be a bit behind i asked for background reading.

Unknown said...

I think it's 1 part sincere enthusiasm and 1 part attempt to make a good impression so that they won't just be a nameless face in your class.

To me it's a sign that they care about the course and their relationship to the instructor. how important these things are in the grand scheme of things (probably less than oh, say, did they learn the material) is not something that the students fully grasp at this point.

Take it as a compliment that they are already invested in the course and go from there.

EliRabett said...

Being of a certain age, I would advise students to ditch the Hi, or greetings or whatever, to make it short as in is there anything I should do before the first class, etc.

I think part of the negative reaction is to the breeziness of it all. Another thing you have to realize is that a lot of these kids have been told in HS to introduce themselves in a way that most faculty find annoying

John Vidale said...

Such posts are welcome to me, even if they are just trying to make an impression.

These people are candidates for the rare breed who speak up in large classes, asking about points I forgot to make or misstated, and asking the occasional follow-up question.

The plague of my large classes are those who just sit wordlessly day after day.

I encourage them by replying to their question as though it were serious.

yolio said...

In my high school, the AP courses had a non-mandatory summer reading list. If you wanted to show the teacher that you took the class seriously, you asked for it, and made some show about reading it. It really was all about sucking up, but it was encouraged.

That is what I think of when I get these notes from students: eager and a little immature. I find it mildly annoying and generally ignore them, but I try not to let it effect my opinion of the student.

I never did the summer reading list in high school either.

Dr. D said...

I agree with yolio - eager and insecure. If they are that interested then pick up that textbook in the bookstore and start reading it.

As a professor, wife, and mom; I just don't have time to come up with ways to trick the students regarding pre-semester unassigned assignments!

Melissa said...

I've also had students who believe that they have "super secret assigned reading/assignments" before the first class. I spend an inordinate amount of time the weekend before class starts attempting to convince them that indeed, all they need to do is enjoy the last weekend before term starts and show up to class on time, on the assigned day. This is a completely foreign concept to them.

I too got my first "I'm excited to learn from you!" emails today... and I'm suspicious, though I have no reason to be other than I must now have a reputation. Scary. Ha!

Doctor Pion said...

I find them entertaining, but my taste in humor includes Firesign Theater. I'd also find them to be a potential source for "research" during the semester. At the end of the semester, I'd compare their grades to the class as a whole.

Here they have no reason to e-mail us, because any relevant information would be on Blackboard, including the syllabus. I also put some stuff there containing the usual warnings about prerequisites and which majors belong in a different class, but none of the kids taking the wrong class ever seem to read it.

As I noted in the survey comments, I'd be tempted to tag those students in my gradebook and see if they are Learners, Anxious Freshmen, Super High Maintenance, Hard Core Brownnosers, or Anglers. The latter are the ones that ask about exam coverage in private, to which I reply "I only answer that question in class where everyone can hear the answer."

Of course, like other commenters, my real guess is that they are all pre-med, putting them in several of the above categories.

Doctor Pion said...


Would your response have been different if the message had started with

Dude! I'm taking SCI 201 ...

like some of mine do?

Anonymous said...

I suspect I would find them annoying, too, but I'd like to give the other side. As a returning student who is really looking forward to starting classes again, I thought about sending my professors a similar email. Not even to suck up, but more out of excitement.

Anonymous said...

I get the occasional email like that. Normally, it comes from a student who has has some time lapse since they took the prerequisite course so they want to know which concepts they should go back and relearn. I'm happy to answer, and typically just send them the list of "important topics from the prereq course that you should review if they don't look really really familiar to you" that I show the class on Lecture 1. If I have the class website up already, I'll direct the student there as well.

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad I had many an uncomfortable office hour (email wasn't quite in yet at that time) with a prof or two in an attempt to not fall through the cracks of a 120 student class - at the behest of other profs and my advisor. As a teaching assistant a few years later I realized how annoying that must've been for them, let alone me!

This email is likely the current manifestation of this awkward office hour. Asking about things to do before class starts is the excuse to send it.

I have had some classes where the information wasn't provided until the first class, but that was when the first assignment was due, too. Only those who spoke to the prof beforehand (or had siblings or friends in the class the year before) knew about it. It's a ridiculous practice some lecturers have.

As for high maintenance students, I had one of those when I was teaching Master's students in basic medical science. Every exam question they missed they wanted to discuss at great lengths. Unfortunate for me they didn't do well on exams. It's just one of those things I chucked up to the job.