This Prof Was Told “You Should Be On-Call 24-7.” Are Faculty the New Urgent Care?

Posted by on Oct 2, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 16 comments

**Update 10/4: Due to the incredible conversation thus far on Twitter, I’ve created a Storify (my first one!) to capture the wonderful responses! Check them out–you’ll find the varied perspectives on this topic fascinating! Also, thanks to for sharing this post on their Facebook page! Critical conversation we’re having!!!

It is totally reasonable to expect that this E.R. is open all night. Your prof isn't.

It is totally reasonable to expect that this E.R. is open all night. But your prof isn’t.

(Today’s post is driven by a collegial conversation in the faculty-verse. As usual, all identifying details have been altered. E-mail has changed the nature of the professor’s job, but should it change our jobs this much? What do you think?

One more thing: I’m going to be at the Barnes and Noble, Westwood Village, Seattle, 10/6,  2 p.m. for a discussion/book event. Come visit!)

I’ll jump right into the discussion:

“I have several students who constantly e-mail with questions that are clearly answered by the syllabus, assignment instructions, course resources, book, etc. I’m replying to students in as timely a fashion that is reasonable and possible. My communication policy is clear, but one student said that they think I should be on e-mail all the time because the students “all have different schedules” and I should be on-call 24/7.

In the outstanding cases where I wasn’t going to be on email for a day (such as if I was out ill), I let them know right away, and even extended assignment deadlines to compensate for me not being available.

I believe I’m fulfilling my obligations, but clearly this isn’t enough for some students. I don’t know what else I can do to address the problem, other than be at their beck and call.”


A couple things before I start:

First, while this post sounds like I’m focusing on faculty, students, you know that my whole deal is transparency in this student-prof relationship, so read through for views from both sides and tips.

Second, I invite all faculty and students to offer their thoughts… as always!

Now my take:

I’ve never known teaching without e-mail. From teaching face-to-face, to online, to hybrid, the only variation in the demand of e-mail response time was when I taught daily in 50-minute blocks. Then, students didn’t seem to need e-mail as much because they knew they’d see me. Otherwise, I agree with this faculty member. Many students expect an immediate response, whether in twice-per-week courses or online.

I have horrible boundaries when it comes to students e-mailing me. I teach an odd schedule: All in a block on one day–two hours and then four hours (hybrid courses), and online. I don’t like to let work pile up. Hence, quite often, when an e-mail comes in and I know about it (now they come in on my phone, of course), I want my response to go right back out.

I am not alone in my e-mail habits. I know this because many fellow faculty “offenders” and I exchange e-mails at 5 a.m., 11 p.m., on weekends… holidays, and at one point or another, we say to each other, “What in the hell are we doing here?”

My “at your service” approach has created happy students (at times), but those same students become grouchy when I have a meeting or sick child, or am ill, myself, and cannot respond, or, when I am sleeping and they are up working and suddenly need help.

(Now I realize there is an opposite end of this spectrum: Faculty who never e-mail back. I can work on a separate post devoted to that at a different time).

Faculty are not like 24-hour Urgent Care. We are not required to provide “on-call service,” even though we know that students are working at all hours of the day or night–and sometimes, we might be, too!

So What’s The Communication Lesson Here?

First, I believe faculty must have clear and transparent e-mail policies in their syllabi. Too many of us don’t. After my year away, even I had to tidy up my own verbiage this term, and I thought it was very clear before.

Students, check your syllabus and for your professor’s e-mail policy. Not there? Say, “Professor, I don’t see an e-mail policy on your syllabus. Do you respond to student questions via e-mail? What is your typical response time?”

I believe the standard for e-mail turnaround time in many courses is 24-hours, and if the prof responds sooner, this is a bonus.

If you need help before the prof’s response time, maybe e-mail isn’t the best medium for your issue. See the prof during office hours or pick up the phone and have a conversation instead.

If the prof is not available and your issue is time-sensitive, then you can say in your e-mail, “Professor, I realize that your syllabus states that you typically respond to e-mails within 24-hours (shows that you at least looked). If there is any way that you could respond to this sooner, I have to be at work at 9. I completely understand if you are unable.”

Don’t e-mail your prof 15 times while you wait for his response or threaten her because she hasn’t responded. This is not going to bring an e-mail any sooner and could get you in serious trouble.

Also, remember that you adjust your schedule to the professor’s timeline. Waited until 11 p.m. to do an assignment that cuts off at midnight and now you need help? Your prof is likely sleeping! She is not expected to be up at that hour. But I say with tough love that you had the preceding days to ask questions and you made a time management choice.

Very often, I set a review outline deadline via e-mail until Friday, 5 p.m. I can’t review on the weekend because with two kids afoot, I have no brain space. Students have lots of advance notice. Inevitably, students will try to take advantage of my good nature and sneak an outline in for review on Friday, 7 p.m., or worse, Saturday, 8 a.m. Show respect for your prof’s e-mail boundaries. They are usually there for good reason.

Last tip: I want to be fair to the countless students who I’ve heard over the years say, “My prof never answers e-mail!”

Students, you have a right to say, “Professor, I saw that your e-mail policy states you’ll respond to e-mail in 24-hours. I sent this e-mail yesterday and haven’t heard back (send the original e-mail with the time stamp–make sure the time window has indeed passed.) Can you please confirm that you’ve received it? I would very much appreciate a response.”

Still no e-mail? Time for an in-person chat: “Professor, I have been e-mailing you and wonder if my e-mails are coming through. Can we please check because I’m concerned that I haven’t received any responses within your usual turnaround time.” If the problem persists, a department/division chair needs to know. You can’t bust the prof if they don’t have an e-mail policy in place. But if they do, and particularly if they teach an online or hybrid course, no communication is a major issue.

I’ll end this post on a slightly different note: I’m seeing articles about some students snubbing voice mail and e-mail: Voice mails are too tedious compared to text, and e-mails contain too many words. Based on my last post about people texting too much and connecting too little, you can imagine that I am glad students and professors are sharing all those words through e-mail.

Now, if we can work through the timing issues and clarity around policies, our communication will hopefully run a lot more seamlessly!


Say This, NOT That to Your Professor has five (5) chapters devoted to e-mail between students and their professors. E-mail turnaround time, casual e-mails, angry e-mails, and even your e-mail address (, anyone? Yes… a version of someone’s actual e-mail address!). Do you need to have a copy on hand? Faculty, interested in a review copy for possible adoption? Drop me an e-mail and I’ll get my publisher right on it:







  1. Totally. I love this post. I made my students get used to me responding immediately, but it’s a mistake. My syllabi now explicitly say (24 hours). Great post, Ellen.

    • Raul,
      I loved what you said: “I made my students get used to me responding immediately.” I have done the same thing. So we conditioned them… and ourselves!

      Thank you!

  2. I tell my students that I will check my email once a day on the weekdays. It give me flexibility and I like it. I also earn their trust by answering EVERY email that is in my inbox whenever I check. Of course, like most of you, I answer email more frequently than stated in my syllabus. The whole point is to set expectations. Bravo Ellen.

    By the way… The whole thing where students don’t leave voicemails or emails is really annoying. Bottom line is that the business world doesn’t not return missed calls and doesn’t text. Students just need to deal with it. School is preparation for the workplace. Students need to learn to leave voicemails and need to set up their own… or they can just come to my office during my 5 measly office hours each week.

    • Hi, Kristen,
      I like your once on the weekdays approach. I wish I could adopt that and maybe I’ll give it a try and then surprise my students when I’m even more efficient :-) . What you’re describing is “over-deliver and under-promise.”

      I agree with you about students needing to get used to voice mails and that they are still used in the business world–a lot! I hope they don’t go away. Texting is not taking over the universe just yet. Almost, but not quite!

      Thank you for writing!

  3. I am not a faculty member of my university but a web and database developer and I am often peppered with emails from faculty, students and administrators who seem to believe that I am on call 24/7 as well whenever they have a technical issue or a bug.

    Often times this will be because of similar wait-to-the-last-minute issues.

    • Doug,
      YES! We totally can’t forget about others on campus who are expected to give the 24-7 service, as well! In fact, I know on my campus our Instructional Design folks and our IT folks work all hours… and we love them for it! I have been the beneficiary many, many times. I don’t expect it, but I’m always appreciative.

      Thank you for bringing this to light!


  4. I’ve never used Storify. Thanks for sharing this tool.

    • Hi, Delaney,

      I am loving Storify to capture those great conversations. I am still trying to figure it out, but I like it so far :-) .

      Thank you for being a part of our discussion, as always :-) .

      • If you use Chrome, the new Storify plug-in really helps too.

        • Vanessa,
          Thank you for that recommendation!

  5. Whatever your communication paterns, setting a policy and sticking to it is the key. I get my email on my phone and I take care of little thi gs quickly, but I try to remember that sometimes problems just need some time to become less important.

    • Hi, Sam,
      Thank you for commenting! You know, ever since e-mail has come in on my phone, I am thankful for being able to take care of the little things, as you mentioned. I’m also concerned that I’m even more guilty of not being able to shut myself down. I have to work on the boundaries and learn that not everything requires a “that second” response.


  6. My email policy, lifted from my syllabus:
    “Email policy: My official policy is that I will reply to your email within 24 hours, excluding Sundays and holidays; however, I check my email regularly and will often reply to you immediately.
    If you have questions about an assignment that is due, you should know that your assignment due date will not change, whether you receive a reply from me or not.”
    This has served me fairly well so far. Thanks for the tips, for both faculty and students.

    • Hi, Sara,

      I really love the part in your syllabus policy about the assignment due date. I need to adopt that for myself!

      Thank you for that :-) .


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