More on Email

Well, first off, my apologies to Meg Worley, who appears to have a justifiable complaint that she was misquoted by the Times.

Two interesting and to my mind legitimate issues have come up in the wake of the discussion of email between students and professors. The first is cases where students use outside email addresses to contact professors. I’m not so worried about telling a student that the email is not especially professional. These lessons can be learned at a later date, in the school of hard knocks. But I do find that I’m inclined to skip over or even entirely miss emails from students that come from outside addresses that have odd pseudonyms: on a quick glance, they look like spam or at the least low priority communications. This is especially true when the subject line is something generic like “Hello”.

The second issue that I find affects me is receiving papers via email. As my students know from frustrating experience, papers I get via email tend to get separated from the main pack of what I’m grading. I tend to have a harder time tracking such papers, getting them back, or finding them when I need to. They may be on one of three computers in two different locations. Yet sometimes it’s the only convenient way for a student to submit a paper to me, so I’m not going to categorically insist that the papers be handed to me. I have one suggestion that I ask for papers submitted in .pdf format and then make all marks on the pdf copies as well and return them via email. That’s an interesting idea. I’m going to consider it. It will take shifting some work habits, and of course that’s at the root of all this discussion: when are professors obligated to transform the way they work to accomodate a new set of habits and patterns, and when are they justified in demanding conformity to their own customary practices?

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13 Responses to More on Email

  1. Sdorn says:

    I now require electronic submission of papers, which puts things on the other foot (though I still hate papers by e-mail, since there’s no tracking system; our campus has Blackboard, which I prefer). I’ve created several macros inside Microsoft Word so I can color text blue and green for various things (putting their stuff in blue to call their attention to passages, with my comments in green), and I have a bunch of glossary entries for common phrases I use in comments. Students no longer complain about my handwriting!

  2. meg says:

    No apologies necessary — after all, how were you supposed to know that I was misquoted?

    I should be writing up my own long post reflecting on yesterday’s kerfuffle and what I REALLY said to the reporter, but commenting on other blogs is less daunting.

    I required electronic submissions the first time I taught my Rhetoric, Netoric course, back in 1997, and I won’t do it again. At a basic level, I love the act of writing, which meant that I had to print the damn things out in order to optimize my commenting.

    Also at a practical level, there are always a few students who don’t use the mainstream technology — writing in an antediluvian version of Corel, emailing from AOL, or whatever — and the attachments don’t come through correctly.

    Finally (and connected to the previous point), I want my students to give serious consideration to the visual rhetoric of the work they turn in. As I say in class, they owe it to themselves to keep control of the font, the spacing, etc., as all of those elements affect how the paper is read.

    I used to work with someone who printed all the emailed papers out in Courier, and then marveled at how it was always the less-apt students who emailed their papers. When I suggested he print them out in Times and he did, the papers miraculously got better — I shit you not.

    So, color me a hard-copy convert.

  3. chutry says:

    Since I often teach muliple sections of freshman composition, I find electronic submission incredibly confusing. Papers are more likely to get lost or mis-sorted, so I still want hard copies.

    Regarding emails, I realize Meg’s comment was taken out of context, but I sometimes like “thank you” emails, if only to make sure the students are satisfied with my response (was I clear enough? did I help them resolve whatever problem they had?). In that regard, I consider a “thank you” confirmation that I’ve been able to fulfill my obigations as a teacher.

  4. meg says:

    So, here at U. Topia (heh, so much for my previous pseudo-anonymity), all the students had read the article, so today’s classes were about email conventions.

    And one less-than-surprising bit of feedback: They really like confirmation too. A “got your paper” really means a lot. I have always done it, just because my momma taught me to acknowledge, but it’s definitely the counterpart of “A thank-you wouldn’t be out of line for the letter of rec I just wrote for you and FedExed because you got the form to me so late.”

  5. Powen says:

    I’m actually very often frustrated by multitudes friends / acquaintances here at Swarthmore who’ve made the switch over to Gmail by setting Swatmail to forward, but can’t seem to make the effort to set Gmail to ‘send as’ their swarthmore address.

    I find it somewhat disconcerting to send email to one address and to receive a reply from another. I can’t pinpoint any other specific disadvantages for the move away from using the institutional email address, but I can’t but seem to feel unnerved by it (aside from the fact that people have odd addresses). On some level it’s related to my annoyance with the many people don’t even set up their voicemail on the phone that the college provides and instead rely solely on personal cell phones which may have out of state area codes.

  6. Medium Blue says:

    I don’t like the way “academics” are lumped together as if
    indistinguishable. I’m a community college prof and we don’t
    get teaching assistants and research assistants. We get large
    classrooms and lots of grading on weekends. K-12 teachers
    work like MULES.

    Re email. Well, frankly, I find that 50% of student emails these
    days are from students who have no initiative at all in problem
    solving. When the first moment of anxiety arrives, they send an
    email for “help” which, translated into English, often means “I
    have examined the problem for two nanoseconds and now I
    want you to give me four or five hints”.

    Puleeeeeeeze!!! I often sympathize with criticizers of academia
    but please recognize that the K-12 and community college systems
    often have weak students with weak character caused by weak
    parenting coupled with no administrator backing of INSTRUCTOR

    I’d like to see most of you office workers out there get nagged
    and harrassed by lame students who can’t figure out who was
    buried in Grant’s Tomb. Most of my friends who’ve even had
    to teach a 3-day seminar in industry are sick with fatigue by
    the end of the week.

    Walk a mile in a man’s shoes before you spew about your
    IMAGININGS about what he does.

    Medium Blue

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Fair enough, Medium Blue. I have smaller classes and students who are pretty self-sufficient and mature, so I don’t tend to see very many of the sillier or more frustrating queries. Reading around the academic blogs, there are certainly some amazing examples of rudeness and cluelessness in student emails being reported in reaction to the story–actually much better examples than the ones in the Times story.

  8. Laura says:

    Despite serving as the primary supporter of Blackboard, I’m not a big proponent of it, but one thing it is good at is collecting papers. I used it last semester and it was great. You can also collect all the papers at once and download them as a zip file which then creates a dated folder. Very convenient. I also commented on them electronically–both by typing comments in word and once by recording me talking and writing on the papers. A tablet pc helped the process. And I understand Swat is getting at least one for testing (since they called me to ask what models we had).

  9. CMarko says:

    What distressed me in the Times article was the professor who ignored her freshman student’s inquiry about school supplies. She may have thought it would be scary for the student to hear that that was an inappropriate question, but not responding probably intimidated the student without letting her know what she’d done wrong. If the professor is able, it doesn’t seem either difficult or hurtful to simply respond that notebook choice is up to the student’s discretion. If the situation is as Medium Blue describes it, though, maybe one answer is for professors to include communication guidelines in their syllabi. That’s still more work for the professors, but I’ve seen syllabi include really detailed guidelines on nearly everything else, and it’s an obvious place to inform students of their professors’ expectations. One of the most difficult things about being a student, for me at least, is knowing what level of familiarity is acceptable. I doubt the students whose e-mails were described in the article realized that they were being inappropriate–and their e-mails don’t seem that inappropriate to me either, which makes me worry that my e-mails may also be out of bounds. I’d rather know from the outset what the professor is comfortable with, both in terms of e-mail and other unwritten rules such as form of address (I call all professors “Professor,” but I’m never sure).

    As a side note on Professor Burke’s (see?) comments about student e-mail addresses: when I was in high school, I sent my Latin teacher a paper using the address jupiterturtle@domain, which I’d chosen for no particular reason a few years earlier. The teacher thanked me graciously for the paper, and added that my name was “an interesting combination of the celestial and the aquatic.”

  10. Western Dave says:

    I use for longer papers and e-mail for shorter papers. Word has improved its comment function for usability compared to a few years ago and this helps. Like sdorn, I have bad handwriting so this is a god send for me and students.

  11. David Chudzicki says:

    Another nice thing about all of this is that keeping track of one’s things electronically is becoming much easier. With professors’ comments made on the electronic documents themselves, it’s easy to keep every assignment forever (literally). (As is, I’ll have my own work forever — but if the professor’s suggestions only exist in hardcopy, they will be lost eventually.) Sometimes I even type comments into the file itself, so that I won’t need the hardcopy.

    I wonder if some people still see physical documents as more “permanent,” in the sense of lasting longer. (It’s true that physical documents are more “permanent” in the sense of being harder to change.) On that note, it’s nice to see that Google has started digitizing the National Archives’ video content (

  12. jadagul says:

    David: I think most people do. It’s an odd conversation I often have with my parents in particular, and with most people over thirty in general. They say, “Oh, this is important, I want to keep it, so I’d better print it out and file it somewhere.” I say, “Oh, this is important, I want to keep it, so I should scan it and save it on my computer.” I get the feeling that it’s largely a generational gap.

  13. Western Dave says:

    That only became possible with servers. The notion of having something permanent on my computer made no sense with my MAC II si. In fact, between that and the zip disks a large chunk of my graduate school career is in a very precarious state of permanence.

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