24th February 2006
The New York Times published an interesting article the other day by Jonathan D. Glater entitled, “To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It’s All About Me” (To read the full article you will have to sign-up for a free account). The article explores the implications of technology such as email on the student-professor relationship. Here are some relevent excerpts:
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.These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages â€” from 10 a week to 10 after every class â€” that are too informal or downright inappropriate.
While once professors may have expected deference, their expertise seems to have become just another service that students, as consumers, are buying. So students may have no fear of giving offense, imposing on the professor’s time or even of asking a question that may reflect badly on their own judgment.
But such e-mail messages can have consequences, she added. “Students don’t understand that what they say in e-mail can make them seem very unprofessional, and could result in a bad recommendation.”
Still, every professor interviewed emphasized that instant feedback could be invaluable. A question about a lecture or discussion “is for me an indication of a blind spot, that the student didn’t get it,” said Austin D. Sarat, a professor of political science at Amherst College.
A few professors said they had rules for e-mail and told their students how quickly they would respond, how messages should be drafted and what types of messages they would answer.
Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor’s response to an e-mail message.
“One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back,” Professor Worley said.
This raises a bunch of interesting questions for instructors. As a professor who encourages students to email me and one who is pretty informal, I don’t see it as a huge issue. I find email a great way to communicate with my students. I try to respond to most emails in a timely manner and I don’t necessarily reply to every email, especially if they are not directly tied to the course (as a rule I do not like email responses that require too involved a response; I will typically ask the student to catch me after the next class if possible).
I do like the idea of setting up some guidelines for emails at the onset, as I have received some emails that were too informal and bordering on inappropriate. I am not sure I would expect students to send a thank you reply. I do have “netiquette” rules that I use for class discussion lists and boards that I could adapt.
What do you — whether instructor or student — think? The comment board is open.