Thank You, Professor Powerful

Professors in popular culture long have been represented as otherworldly social isolates.

Everytime you think that’s just a stereotype, unfortunately some academics step up to the plate to give the image some new life. There’s a piece in this morning’s New York Times on student use of email to contact professors that does that trick pretty well.

I get a lot of email, some from students. My main issues with email are basically no different than the rest of the non-academic professional world, however. I get more than I can handle, I have a hard time getting to it all expeditiously, I have a crappy web-based email system provided by the college that’s slow and difficult to use. At times my filters mysteriously put legit email into my junk folder: just yesterday I rescued several desperate emails from someone who was trying to find out if I was done with a small commitment that I honestly had forgotten about. I overlook emails sometimes, especially on busy days where I get 150+ or so that require my attention in some fashion. And so on. Just like the rest of the world.

Getting email from students is not an issue per se. My students use email pretty well consistently with what they do in the rest of their contacts with me. They’re friendly, they’re respectful, they want me to answer a question, perform a service, explain something. They want to remind me that I agreed to write a recommendation, or ask me if I can approve a co-sponsorship of an event. They comment on my blog. They point me to articles that they know I would be interested in. They inquire about grades. Every once in a while, they might even ask, as one student does in the Times article, about something like stationary or school supplies, I suppose.

I have no idea why any of that bugs other professors at any institution. I only feel bad that I don’t always answer as well or as rapidly as I should, but my students largely seem pretty forgiving about that. In at least some of the instances cited in the Times, I can’t help but wonder if the objection is that email pierces some of the elaborate layers of defenses that some faculty at large research institutions have erected between themselves and their undergraduates. Since we don’t have any such defenses here, email seems no different than the other forms of ready accessibility that the faculty have on offer.

But some of what the faculty quoted in the article say seems weirder. Such as the professor who insists that students who contact her via email follow up by thanking her for her answer, since less powerful people should always thank more powerful people. This seem a really bad way to clutter your inbox still further. Plus it’s an example of how certain common and somewhat useful theoretical propositions about the ubiquity of “power” have opened the door to a certain silliness and lack of proportionality. What an oddly literal, cold demand for a kind of manners. It may be that manners or etiquette veil or mystify social relations in some respect, but unveiling them (and reductively summarizing them as nothing more than a cloak or disguise) somehow manages the trick of being both unpleasantly self-important and obliviously silly in the same move.

Much of the complaint recorded in the article also seems much ado about nothing. As Margaret Soltan observes, what’s the big deal about answering the kid who wants to know about school supplies? It’s almost kind of sweet that the student asks, actually. I get queries from junior high school kids who want me to do their homework for them, more or less: what does it cost me to be gentle and modestly accomodating in return? A few moments. I suppose all the people waiting on answers from me where they have more of a right to expect an efficient and forthcoming reply might complain were I to give away my time so freely to less urgent matters, but then a gentle reply to a slightly odd question ought to be the least of their worries about the crisp organization of my informational labor.

As always, it’s possible that the Times has conjured a “problem” from nowhere, that they managed to find the only ten professors or so in the country worried about what this new-fangled email thingie is going to lead to. Or maybe I’m the freak, and everyone around me is struggling with a rising tide of emails about school supplies.

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15 Responses to Thank You, Professor Powerful

  1. tim in tampa says:

    I didn’t realize this was a problem until replying to a student’s email and getting a stunned response of “I wasn’t expecting such a prompt and complete response. My other professors, if they reply, send back a three word answer.”

    I sent back the following: “I totally understand.” I’m not sure if she caught the joke, but it makes me wonder if professors were so aloof in the pre-email days. Did people purposely not pick up the telephone, etc? I’ve lived my entire academic career in the Internet age, so I have no idea.

  2. meg says:

    Okay, I’m the professor in question, and I just want to say, I WUZ WRONGED!

    Here’s what I am sending out to the dozens of people who have sent me nastygrams and/or polite notes disagreeing with me:

    “Thank you for your email. When I agreed to be interviewed by the NYT, I had no idea I would be misquoted or that those misquotations would cause such indignation in the readership.

    For the record, what I actually said was that I suggest to students that
    1. When they have asked a prof for something and the prof has supplied it, they say thank you, and
    2. They should not ignore email from a prof or other person in power, esp. when that email asks a direct question.”

    I don’t doubt that some folks still disagree with that, but I like to think that it doesn’t make me look like such a pompous ass.

    (And, for the record, my evals consistently come back with comments about how helpful I am by email.)

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  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Ah, ok, Meg! That certainly makes much more sense. Yes, absolutely, when someone does something for you, you should say thanks. (I always appreciate it when a student sends me a card or something when I do a recommendation!) You shouldn’t ignore an email from a professor when it asks a direct question or that professor is seeking urgent information, yes, that too.

    Sorry to join in the pile-on: you really did get misrepresented by that article.

  5. meg says:

    Yeah, I know. The article had the potential to be of real interest — we talked about evolving conventions, the ways that professors frequently don’t articulate their expectations (even to themselves), and a whole bunch of other things that would result in interesting conversation. But this aprés-moi-le-deluge (or is it ‘la’?) approach is dull and makes all of us look like whingers.

  6. kieran says:

    As always, it’s possible that the Times has conjured a “problem” from nowhere,

    What about female students who email you to say they plan to work for a few years and then start a family?

  7. lalalalaura says:

    It may not take long to reply to an email, but of course it matters how much of it you get. That few minutes to reply to each individual email can add up and create a substantial burden on an already-busy life. And a student who emails constantly about minor things can certainly give the impression that they don’t think your time is valuable – as valuable, for instance, as the time it would take them to figure something out for themself.

    I’ve also heard faculty comment on the degree to which labor gets shifted to them as, for instance, when students email them papers rather than turning in hard copy. The teacher then has to do the work of printing out all of the papers. (I actually prefer having papers emailed to me, but I’ve talked to people who really resent the expectation that they take the time, use their own paper, etc.)

  8. mrscoulter says:

    I found this rather bizarre as well:

    ‘But student e-mail can go too far, said Robert B. Ahdieh, an associate professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta. He paraphrased some of the comments he had received: “I think you’re covering the material too fast, or I don’t think we’re using the reading as much as we could in class, or I think it would be helpful if you would summarize what we’ve covered at the end of class in case we missed anything.”‘

    To me, these student comments seem rather reasonable. And I didn’t email my professors in college, because I don’t think any of them knew what email was (neither did I for much of it).

  9. t-durkin says:

    We discussed this in Social Interaction class today, & some students reported that their other profs “didn’t do” email. I think it is crucial, especially in large classes, as a way to keep in touch w/ the students. (That said, I read my first stack of students evals w/ some amusement. The first student said ‘speed it up & use fewer examples. The second said ‘you go to fast. use more examples’.
    I require students to email papers. I can use the edit function of word to put comments in color, and if I suspect some cheating, sections can easily be googled or sent to Turnitin.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Lalalalaura’s point is a good one: I have to admit that I find papers sent to me via email to be fairly difficult to handle. I find that they tend to get separated from my main stack of papers that I’m graded, or that I have difficulty tracking them the same way–I may receive them on my home computer, or even while I’m travelling.

  11. jim says:

    “I have to admit that I find papers sent to me via email to be fairly difficult to handle. I find that they tend to get separated from my main stack of papers”

    The perils of falling between two stools.

    I require all papers to be electronically delivered (WebCT rather than email, ’cause it’s easier to archive). I comment via email. I don’t print their papers. I deal them on my laptop — reading in one window, commenting in another. I don’t have to keep track of a main stack of paper, making sure it follows me to class.

  12. Doug says:

    If you can do comments on screen, you might consider asking students to submit their papers as PDF files, and then you can attach the comments as notes from Acrobat. Chances are very good that after graduation they will have to deal with PDF documents on a near-daily basis, so practice at Swarthmore (or elsewhere) could be a good thing.

  13. Kathleen says:

    I hadn’t logged in in so long I lost my registration as “Kathleen Lowrey” — anyway. I certainly chuckled at the NYTimes article, and didn’t think they were inventing a non-phenomenon. Even though one class I teach is quite large, I don’t get an overwhelming number of emails nor any extraordinarily rude or goofy ones. In fact I would say a majority are rather charming. However, I do think email is more revelatory than students realize. Peremptory emails display vastly more about students’ attitudes toward the class/prof than they probably intend (given that it’s often the students most concerned to approach university “strategically” who send such emails).

    That, I think, points to what is most disquieting about certain emails — profs can glean from the messages things (about — say — sloth, confusion, and hostility) that are not a part of their manifest content. So willy-nilly, you are presented a piece of information — that you may feel begs address — with which you can do nothing. ugh. It does level the playing field a bit: god only knows that students glean all kinds of extraneous info about their profs from watching them up at the front of the class, 30+ hours per semester, that is similarly not-manifest and thus not-engageable but not for those reasons uninteresting or un-discomfiting or even (to quote Homer Simpson) un-delicious.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a good point, Kathleen. I’ve seen a bit of that too, that a student email can be unintentionally revealing.

    There’s almost a complicated layered history here of encounters with email as an epistolary form. For those of us in our 40s, email came to us halfway through life, and we’re probably the ones who were most prone to the embarassing errors like sending a private message to a whole listserv but also the people who integrated previous formalisms of writing into our uses of email more readily. For many current 18-21s, email exists in simultaneity with instant messaging and that’s clearly creating a slightly different style and mode of use.

  15. billnovak says:

    Don’t know what is wrong what is rite but i know that every one has there own point of view and same goes to this one..

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