February 21, 2006
Some Professors Don't Like Student Email?
The NYT has a reactionary story today about professor-student email interactions. The subtext of the article is that some professors don't like some of the emails they get from students:
"At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance."
The article also implicitly laments that professors are now more accountable to students, and students have high (in some cases, aggressive) expectations for professor availability.
All of this may be true, but it strikes me as a universally good thing to eliminate some of the unnecessary barriers between professors and students that may hinder student learning. When a student emails me, the student opens a new channel of communication that extends the pedagogical space outside the four wall of the classroom into a format that may be more comfortable for the student. What a golden opportunity for me as a professor! And while I expect students to exercise discretion and common sense in communicating with me by email, it's my responsibility to set boundaries and establish appropriate norms for our interactions. In some sense, this boundary-setting may be equally or more pedagogically valuable than the substance we cover in the classroom.
I felt particularly uncomfortable with the decision by some professors not to answer a student's email at all. If a student emailed me a question about which binder to buy, I can think of several responses that would be more helpful than silence, such as:
* "do what works for you"
* "either choice is a good one"
* "you might consult your peers for perspectives about how they manage their course information that is more current than my experiences"
I'm not suggesting that I'm perfect with email, but I can't imagine many circumstances where I would deliberately ignore an email from a current student.
I am a recent graduate of Dartmouth College, where e-mail is entrenched in the College culture. It is standard practice to e-mail professors, deans, administrative staff, and the like and it is not disruptive. It is expected. There is nothing inherent about e-mail that should be a huge burden on professors.
Furthermore, some of the complaints from professors in the New York Times article are absurd. I was especially horrified by Emory Law School Professor Robert B. Ahdieh's comments, where he somehow found it inappropriate for students to e-mail him saying that the material was being covered too fast, the reading wasn't being used as efficiently as it could, or it might be helpful for him to end classes with a quick summary. Indeed. How dare those presumptuous, spoiled students e-mail a professor with ways that the classroome experience could be improved. Obviously, Professor Ahdieh is a god, practically perfect in every way, and if his students have a suggestion or problem with his classroom style, it is their own fault and they should drop out of his class.
Arrogance re: e-mail seems to cut both ways, to put it mildly.
Oh, and I should also note that e-mail, both in law school and college, in my experience at least, makes it easy to bring outside information to bear on a topic. If I'm reading an online article on a topic that we're currently covering in my legal writing or my property class, I can send it to my professor. My professors have all enjoyed adding to debate in this manner, as I think a good professor should. Several things I've sent were used in the next class as handouts, for that matter.