The academic life – student emails

When I began any lecturing career in 1980, in the days before the internet or even mobile phones, it would have been totally impossible for a student to reach me outside of normal working hours. By the time my active teaching came to an end (in 2000), I was beginning to get both emails and phone calls into the night; though this was still a relatively rare thing, and almost always the students were polite when they reached me.

It became clear to me how much had changed when a colleague from another institution contacted me recently to ask me for advice, as he was seriously stressed with the number of student emails he was receiving; in particular because many of these were, he claimed, insistent in nature. He showed me some of the offending messages, and indeed it might almost be said that a small number of them adopted a bullying tone.

It’s not a unique problem, and some academics – such as here – have suggested guidelines for responding to student emails. One has to strike the right balance of course. Higher education teaching and learning is an interactive process, and we should not be discouraging students from using contemporary methods of communication. Universities should be student-centred institutions.

Equally learning how to use emails or other online tools appropriately should be part of the student experience, and academics should not be hesitant to point out where it is not being done to good effect or in an offensive manner. Students, like everyone else, may not always realise how their online communications come across to the reader.

But those academics who become stressed by their experience should do what my friend did: contact someone who can advise and perhaps offer practical help. Responding irritably or even aggressively is almost certainly never a good idea. Get help.

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3 Comments on “The academic life – student emails”

  1. Wendy Says:

    My first reaction on reading this was precisely one of the points made in the article to which you linked: the best response should be to model appropriate professional behaviour. Quite apart from what we would want the correspondence to be from our own perspective, the role of an academic instructor is in part to guide students to become successful in their future careers.

    In my current role, some of the clients I deal with are recent university graduates, who are in general very competent in their subject-areas, but are often clueless as to professional interaction, whether in person or in correspondence. Part of my thought process and action in responding to communication (voicemail, email, written messages, in-person requests at the front desk to see me straight away etc) is to find the best way to educate them as to how their approach might be perceived by a potential employer.

    In that light, I’d question the need to respond to student emails in the evenings or at weekends, unless this is a specific expectation of a part-time program – a prospective employer wouldn’t be impressed by an after-hours demand for their attention, after all, even if once someone is employed their time somehow ceases to be their own. It might be convenient to dedicate an hour or two in the evening, when there are fewer interruptions, to answering emails – but that timestamp encourages the student (or in my case, the client) to assume that we’re available at that time. Just because electronic communication is available 24/7 doesn’t mean it demands our use of it at all times,

  2. Vince Says:

    I think I have to take the undergrads side somewhat.
    If people are coming over as needy I would’ve thought the very first question would be if they had a point. And I don’t see any awareness that that even entered the thinking at all. Yes, undoubtedly people are less aware of boundaries. Or at least aware of those that stood prior to the advent of the internet, but, surely the same could be said about the telephone.
    I remember thinking that a phone to the prof was a better way. It was of lesser disturbance. Of course that was fine for the Classics people where years two and three had 32 people between them, but for History where you had 200 in most courses, not so much.
    People think their problem is unique, and the FAQ’s you see on most utility sites would deny that. But at an lonely undergrad level knowing they aren’t alone can aid them profoundly.
    On the topic of bluntness of which I’m sure there are some. I think I’d lean to how social media forces out any modifying verbiage and then the inclusion of trained academic writing added to this is bound to form a curtness and brevity that might be taken for harshness.
    Above I mentioned that neediness might not be a function of the student but derived from the academy entirely. I remember meeting with the metaphysics prof and asking him for guidance. Only to get the response that it was so long since he had to deal with the concept he didn’t know.
    Then you have the issue, relatively new to the UK, of paying directly a lot of money for their education. This has to form a customer service provider relationship which will strain the relationship that the lecturer expected. But I see no reason why mails and phone numbers can’t be limited to the hours of the working day. Indeed I’d go so far as to say not having a dedicated mail address for say 2nd year economics for the use of the students is a bit lax. And since most phones nowadays have an slot for a second SIM I see no reason why that SIM can’t be in sleep mode outside of business hours.
    Just saying. 🙂

  3. I tend to divide troubling emails from students into two – those who aren’t aware that the number or tone of their communications are inappropriate (such as the ones which assume we’re permanently available and only have that one student to look after) and those that are simply rude. Both groups get the same initial treatment: a polite, timely response set out as I’d like to receive emails. If that doesn’t help, I explain to each student exactly what the problem is but couched in gentle terms. There hasn’t been a third stage…yet.

    As a department we had a discussion about responding to email outside working hours (we teach 9-9). It became quite heated: some colleagues believed that office-hours responses only should be sent to encourage students to realise that their teachers need private space and to avoid giving the impression that instantaneous replies should be expected from everybody; others explained that sometimes their working patterns and social lives meant that a 2 a.m. reply was convenient. In the end we didn’t make any decision. I fall into the former camp, with some reservations.

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