Email and the Student-Teacher Relationship

The New York Times published an interesting article the other day by Jonathan D. Glater entitled, “To: 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 — from 10 a week to 10 after every class — 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.

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9 Responses to Email and the Student-Teacher Relationship

  1. Phil says:

    Hey Tyler. I, too, have had inappropriate emails (mainly so informal that the email was generally indeciferable e.g. u for you, thnx, not showing “respect”, and worse, etc). I generally respond to such ones just saying that although there’s nothing majorly wrong, next time they should write proper, polite sentences when writing to a professor in the event that they do offend. I also mention that there’s no harm in learning to write coherently and non-offensively by practicing with emails. I definitely prefer that the students NOT write an additional email in thanks (a “thanks in advance for any help or response” in the original request is better). Otherwise you end up doubling the emails to check and it starts to feel like a who’s-superior-to-who-game. Phil

  2. Jim Linville says:

    I too have had a lot of ugly mail. I think it is not only poor etiquette in email writing but it displays a lack of respect regarding the prof. and institution in general. Part of it is the ‘business and customer’ metaphor now determining people’s attitudes to college and university, but that is another rant.

    Some of my (least) favourite emails…

    what’s the workload in your course?

    Did I miss anything important last week?


    what u where saying today do we halfto now it?


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  4. Hey Jim… your example make me think I should save my “best” ones for an end of term list (kind of like saving typos from term papers).

    I like the idea of no curtesy reply, Phil. I also woundn’t want to clog up my inbox with too many such emails.

    I think I will have to include a note in my syllabi for future classes. At least that way I will remember to mention it at the beginning of term.

  5. Jim Linville says:

    We could compile a list. As far as term paper typos, I did once read how the Gospels say that Jesus was tempted by satin…

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