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.