Good News: One Prof Apologized; Bad News: Another Answers E-mails on Mondays and Thursdays

Posted by on Nov 15, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 6 comments

“Tuesday… Friday… Monday… Can’t answer student e-mails.” What alternatives do you have if your prof has these policies?

I’m going to jump right into this post… It will take a couple of twists and turns, so hold on to your handrails. First, so honored to share this #STNT review that will only be available publicly by Teachers College Record (Columbia University) for a limited time before it goes password-protected. Message me for an exam copy of #STNT if your college would like one!

Now, an inspiring update about the student who was upset over abrupt e-mails from the professor:

“Ellen,

I appreciate your response. I feel reassured that I had a right to my feelings.

I took your advice and contacted the professor. I worded the e-mail as you recommended and I couldn’t believe the response. The prof apologized for sounding so abrupt and for making me feel like I couldn’t ask questions. The prof admitted that there are so many e-mails to answer and, at times, the responses can become unintentionally short and curt. The professor did not mean for me to become discouraged.

I feel 100% better. Thank you for helping me work through this.

Student”

*****

A happy customer! But now we turn around and we have a very dissatisfied customer:

“Ellen,

I am in a lecture/lab course that is taught by a number of instructors. We are receiving numerous e-mail correspondences that are very negative in tone. There are statements, such as “Do not e-mail individually about course issues” (instead post to the discussion forum), “We are not starting off the semester very well”, “We are being flooded with e-mails. We are not going to respond to these e-mails. You must read the discussion board.”

Now I have a real question on an assignment. I am an A-student and receiving a 100% in this course, despite the negativity and an extremely disorganized course. I asked a question on the discussion board and the response I received was, ‘Refer to the assignment’. Now the problem is that e-mails and the discussion board are only checked on Mondays and Thursdays, and we’ve essentially been told that individual e-mails will be ignored. So, I can’t get a response back in enough time to effectively do this work.

By the way, I looked at the syllabus for another way to make contact. There is a phone number, but no office hours.

What should I do?”

Student

*****

What is going on out there? When I was a teaching assistant, granted, I didn’t use a course management system because WebCT was just starting out (okay, did I just totally date myself here?). Still, I don’t think that I could leave students hanging for days on end and offer such limited means of communication.

Here is my advice and I’d love your perspective. I feel for this student. I think about students for whom this is their first college experience, or students who were used to the more “protected” environment of a community college. Or rock-star Honors students made to feel badly when they have one question, or floundering students who suffer in silence. This is happening out there and it saddens me. There are more student questions in my queue to share with you, wonderful audience… I won’t be coming back to my own content probably until after the first of the year.

Students. Are. Struggling.

Anyway, my suggestions:

“Student,

I am so sorry that you are having to deal with this and bravo to you for thriving under some challenging circumstances. It sounds like you are going to come out ahead no matter what.

Seems like there are multiple issues at work here. First of all, your course sounds like it is being taught by graduate/teaching assistants with a professor supervising, I’m guessing? I don’t think you are going to be able to address the tone issue until the end of the term. It sounds like these e-mails/announcements are going out to your class and whoever is sending them is just trying to stay afloat and manage the load of what might be hundreds of students. We don’t know what type of experience the person writing the notes has as an instructor, or how they are being supervised to interact with students. Warmth and friendliness in online messages falls into the “nice to have” category, but it isn’t a requirement, sadly. This is something I would address in a student evaluation, in a letter to the division/department chair, or even in a meeting with the latter, but once the term is done.

Now let’s talk about the lack of access to your instructor(s). This is a basic right for you as a student–not just on a discussion board. Someone has to have office hours, at least one of those folks teaching that course is contractually required to, unless your college has very, very different rules than others. Try that phone number. Ask whomever answers when any of your instructors/professors listed on that syllabus are live in an office and where. This will tell you when you can track them down, if necessary.

Now let’s tackle the assignment: You should not have to post a personal question about your paper on a discussion forum. That should be a confidential matter.

The course “rules” say don’t send an e-mail, but I would start there so you have something documented (and you can make the phone call). Say, “I understand that we are only supposed to ask questions on the discussion board. I am an excellent student, as indicated by my average in this course so far. I clearly follow directions and have done everything asked to this point in the class. I have questions about my individual assignment that I should not have to post on a discussion forum. Questions about my work or my grades are a private matter and something that should remain between instructor and student, so I hope you will speak with me/correspond with me directly. (Then list your questions very specifically).

Since this assignment is due very soon, would you consider adjusting your response policy and answer this e-mail sooner than Mondays and Thursdays (unless it happens to be Sunday or Wednesday) so I can put your recommendations in place immediately? I understand that instructors must receive numerous questions that students can answer themselves and you are trying to prevent that. In my case, I am only contacting you after I’ve tried every possible way to find this information myself. I’m trying to maintain my solid grade standing in this course. If you’d prefer that I call you or visit you during office hours (which I could not find on the syllabus), I am glad to do that.”

Again, it sounds like you are going to find your way, regardless, but you do have rights in this situation. Sure, you are supposed to teach yourself some material in college… but not everything. I wish you all the best, and will consider it a huge win if you can get the Monday-Thursday policy wiggled on any level.

(Really? Mondays and Thursdays? If I only answered e-mails two days a week, I would have 1,000 e-mails… I’d have to lock up in a hotel room just to answer them all! I can’t even imagine.)

Ellen

 

 

6 Comments

  1. As someone overwhelmed by increasing responsibilities, I can appreciate the challenges of the professor who was curt in an email. If you don’t answer immediately, you get 12 more emails from that student and a bad final evaluation. If you take the time to answer at length, you never get anything else done.

    I’ve done real-time chats with students on social media, answered their calls at home, in the car or during meetings. I often required assignments to be emailed so I can give faster feedback. I make myself available. But they’ll get curt answers from me as well if they ask questions that are answered in the syllabus, on project specifications or discussed in Blackboard posts.

    I’m happy to answer their legitimate questions or further explain a topic or project. And while technology allows for more and faster communication, it doesn’t replace the face-to-face. Is the student who email coming to class? Do they stop by the office? Do they chat with their teacher in the halls? A 2-minute conversation will usually do more good than 10 emails! I spend upwards of 40 hours a week on campus and have students complain that they can’t talk to me in person (because they’re often not trying to).

    Yes, I know there are teachers who limit their exposure to students outside the classroom. Everyone loses something when that happens. But we can’t be on 24/7. And students have to step up and take some responsibility for their education.

    • Hello, Valerie,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I teach hybrid courses and I go to bed with e-mails (unless I answer them before bed, which I often do), and I wake up to e-mails. I can so relate! I am also guilty of curt responses when I have just sent out thorough instructions or when I have found that instructions were clearly ignored. I find that to be the case a lot–I request for submissions via a drop box, for instance, and then I get a file attached in an e-mail.

      The problem in the scenario that I posed was that the students were apparently not being offered any face-to-face time with the instructor(s), TA, etc. (at least that was my estimation). I believe that was a huge issue. I agree with you that we can’t be on 24/7. I do think that some face time is reasonable, though, and I am hearing more and more that some faculty out there are balking at the idea of much interaction with students. A few weeks ago, I posted a note from a parent who was appalled by professors who absolutely refuse to help. I couldn’t say that I blamed that parent. It just seems to be a recurring theme. But I can see where the reverse is also true–students who won’t help themselves.

      I wonder how we can clear up some of this disconnect? I’m glad we’re all having these conversations. It is a start.

      I appreciate your words.
      Ellen

  2. I teach with a professor who refuses to answer questions in his undergraduate class. The Teaching Assistant sits in on the class and takes notes, and the students are instructed to ask him any questions they have. He also refuses to grade any undergraduate papers and will not meet with undergraduates. His graduate students have unlimited access to him, although he does not give out his cell phone number. His contempt for undergraduates is well-known, but the emphasis here is research, not teaching, so this situation won’t be changed. The undergraduates hate him but he teaches a required class so they can’t shop around.

    • Hi, Roberta,

      I’m sorry for the delay in my responding to this, but thank you for your comment! Yes, I have definitely heard about this type of situation. I bet this professor is required to teach one undergraduate course and it sounds like they clearly hate it. I guess I don’t understand that. When we sign up to teach, even in a research institution, I don’t believe there is any guarantee that a person is only going to teach at the graduate level. We are all assigned where we are needed, contractually.

      It is unfortunate that this is happening and because of tenure, there is probably little that the students can do. However, I hope they continue to cite it in student evaluations, or send e-mails to a department head. This type of behavior is just unacceptable.

      I hope you have a lovely holiday.
      Ellen

  3. This is a great book. I wish every college student would read it….there are always two sides to every coin…some instructors, professors, grad students are overworked, some students are overwhelmed ( taking way too many classes, participating in sports, church, and other activities….I have been on both sides of the fence—as a student who has had to read hundreds of pages of textbooks, and as an instructor who has had to read ( and grade and correct ) hundreds of pages of student assignments. BUT since there are a lot of students, and only one instructor ( in general ) I think students have to be aware as to how many pupils instructors have to respond to on a daily basis.

    • I’m catching up on comments, Michael. Thank you so much for your words. I really want students to see the issues from both sides. I think they just have absolutely no idea. I also want them to realize that many of us do put ourselves in their shoes, as well.

      Ellen

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