Email Management

Pretty much every academic on-line has already commented on the New York Times piece on student email today. As usual, Timothy Burke says most of what I’d like to say:


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 a bonus, he also has a comment from one of the faculty quoted, correcting one of the statements in the article…)

Of course, I am an academic, so it turns out that I’m contractually obligated to say something about this, so there’s more below the fold (including my favorite type of student email, which wasn’t mentioned in the article…).)

My reaction to most of the faculty complaints was, basically, “What planet are you people from?” In addition to the griping about perfectly reasonable or oddly naive questions, there are real head-scratchers like this one:


Professor Ewick said 10 students in one class e-mailed her drafts of their papers days before they were due, seeking comments. “It’s all different levels of presumption,” she said. “One is that I’ll be able to drop everything and read 250 pages two days before I’m going to get 50 of these.”

I really don’t get that one– I beg and plead with students to send me drafts of their written work in advance, because it gives me a chance to fix some of the more egregious mistakes before I have to dock them points. If I ever got ten of them to actually do it, I’d dance a freakin’ jig– I’ll gladly skim over ten papers two days before the due date if it means I get to avoid putting grades on ten dreadful papers.

I’m also puzzled by the source of some of the comments: two of the people quoted (one faculty member, one student) are at Amherst. I could sort of understand being annoyed by student email at a huge, impersonal research university, but if you’re going to get cranky about having to deal with students, why are you working at a small liberal arts college? (Then again, it is amherst…)

Interestingly, the article brings up a few issues that were discussed in a panel at Boskone on information management, most notably the idea that in the age of email and cell phones, you’re expected to be “on call” at all times, and always available. It’s nice to see the New York Times catching up to the concerns of SF fans…

I was also disappointed that the article left out my favorite type of student email, which I’ll paraphrase here:


Good morning professor, this is N. from your physics class, and I’m writing to say that I don’t know if I’ll make it to class today. I was up all night with a high fever and vomiting and blood leaking from my eye sockets. I’ll really, really try to make it to class, but if I can’t, I’m sorry.

To which my response is always “Dear God, no! Stay in bed. If I see you coming to class, I’m locking the door.” Maybe I’m falling for a clever ruse, but really, I catch enough cruddy little flu bugs from my classes as it is– I’ll accept a few extra absences to avoid the Ebola virus…

Comments

  1. #1 Clark
    February 21, 2006

    I’m a senior in college. Maybe it’s just me, but it still strikes fear into my heart each time I have to go interact with a professor. Ok, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but my experience is that students don’t want to needlessly bother professors, and if anything, some of us loose sight that they are around to teach us, not to recite a 50 minute lecture and disappear down a black hole. I am grateful for the professors that are easy to get a hold of, and don’t make you feel like you’re destroying their day if you do disturb them for a minute or two.

  2. #2 greythistle
    February 22, 2006

    Do you give content-commentary or stylistic commentary on the advance drafts you see? In my experience, reading English lit or composition drafts in advance usually results in (a) commentary and questions meant to provoke thought from the instructor and (b) little response to it from the student. Usually. Often this is because the student hasn’t allowed enough time to think and revise before submitting the final version, so she puts the comments aside, but it can be rather frustrating on both sides…. Then too, there’s the students who think they’ve followed the suggestions slavishly (which isn’t the point) and demand to know why the paper hasn’t gotten an A as a result.

    Reading drafts in advance of a deadline can work really well when the instructor’s set up nonstandard grading, though. One example is the sort of composition class in which students can revise as much as they’d like, before and after “milestone” deadlines; they receive feedback throughout; at the end of term their work gets one cumulative grade. I’m not sure one could conduct a class in the sciences usefully that way….

  3. #3 Janne
    February 22, 2006

    Mostly the issue is when the emailer just doesn’t acknowledge that an answer may not be immediately forthcoming. Just about any request is fine as long as you’re able to take your time and answer at your leisure. It’s when the expectation is that you jump to it and get beck to the emailer within the next fifteen minutes that it becomes bothersome.

    Ask whatever you want – homework, drafts, should I stay home with Ebola? – but do it in good time (an Ebola sufferer is, I think somewhat excused if the question is a bit hurried). Don’t ask a critical question about an assignment the night before the due date; chances are I’m not available. Oh, and don’t, for your own sake, email to ask which of two (rather disparate) subjects and titles would be OK for a paper due the day after tomorrow – I _will_ google for that text to find out if you’re just indecisive about what paper to copy.

  4. #4 Doran
    February 22, 2006

    What about this sort of email: the one from a student whether at your university or not who is interested in your research. How would a student (like myself) go about introducing himself to a faculty member out of the blue?

  5. #5 Christos A. Tsolkas
    February 22, 2006

    “THE EGG OF COLOMBUS”

    THE GREAT ERROR OF PHYSICISTS!!!

    If, the J. P. Cedarholm ? C. H. Townes Experiment (1959) is carried out exactly as it is on a moving vehicle (e.g. on an automobile, train, etc) then it will be instantly proven whether Ether exists in Nature or not. Unfortunately, this very simple Physics experiment has never been conducted to this day and this is a great error on the part of physicists!!!
    Why, therefore, isn`t this very simple Physics experiment performed so as to demonstrate once and for all whether Ether exists in Nature or not?
    Question:
    Could there be a reason for its not being carried out?

    more….http://www.tsolkas.gr/

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    February 22, 2006

    Clark: I’m a senior in college. Maybe it’s just me, but it still strikes fear into my heart each time I have to go interact with a professor. Ok, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but my experience is that students don’t want to needlessly bother professors, and if anything, some of us loose sight that they are around to teach us, not to recite a 50 minute lecture and disappear down a black hole

    Yeah, I sympathize with that. It took me a while to get used to the idea of interacting with college professors in a more casual manner than I did with my high school teachers (most of whom I still reflexively refer to as “Mr.” or “Mrs.”).

    This is one of the major challenges of academia: figuring out how to get the too-shy students to actually email with questions, while also getting the too-familiar students to shut up.

    greythistle: Do you give content-commentary or stylistic commentary on the advance drafts you see? In my experience, reading English lit or composition drafts in advance usually results in (a) commentary and questions meant to provoke thought from the instructor and (b) little response to it from the student.

    The written work I get is mostly in the form of lab reports (I’ll get some actual papers in my class next term), so there’s a little of both. It’s probably more important to catch the content issues (in the sense of “You did this calculation completely wrong, please fix it”) than the stylistic ones, but I can’t help pointing out style issues at the same time.

    What I usually do with drafts is the three-minute red-pen trick, where I sit down with a student, and go through the draft with them pointing out errors. I try to make clear that this is not a comprehensive process, and that there will be other mistakes found during the final grading process.

    This doesn’t always lead to corrections being made, but at least then I don’t feel bad about stomping hard on them, grade-wise.

    Janne: Mostly the issue is when the emailer just doesn’t acknowledge that an answer may not be immediately forthcoming. Just about any request is fine as long as you’re able to take your time and answer at your leisure. It’s when the expectation is that you jump to it and get beck to the emailer within the next fifteen minutes that it becomes bothersome.

    At a conference last year, somebody mentioned that they ahd heard a talk from an efficiency expert, who said that he had set up his email server so that outgoing mail was automatically delayed twenty-four hours. He would respond immediately to every message sent, so nothing sat around long on his end, but the reply was held for a day on the way out.

    He claimed that this did two things: first, it sent the message that he is a busy person, and not available for instant response, and second, it forced people sending him email to think carefully about what they wanted to ask, because they knew the answer would be slow in coming. It eliminated the sequence of twelve four-word email messages, each asking part of a useful question.

    I don’t know if that would really work, or even if such a system really exists, but it’s an interesting idea.

    Doran: What about this sort of email: the one from a student whether at your university or not who is interested in your research. How would a student (like myself) go about introducing himself to a faculty member out of the blue?

    “Professor X: My name is Firstname Lastname, and I am a student in Class Year studying Major at University Name. I have heard a few things about your research via Method, and it sounds very interesting to me. I’d like to ask a few questions to find out more, if I may.”

    (“Method” above is something like “from comments you made in lecture,” or “from Professor Y.” or “from reading your weblog…”)

    You can follow that either with a few short questions about the research itself, or a request for a meeting (if you’re at the same school). It’s also probably a good idea to add a few lines indicating that you know something specific about their research, so they know you aren’t just spamming them.

    An important thing to know about academics is that the process of getting a Ph.D. involves becoming the world’s greatest expert in something that nobody else cares as much about. Anybody who’s done that will almost never pass up the chance to talk about it. A polite inquiry about research matters will usually generate some sort of response.

    Of course, there are always exceptions, and the polite wording is very important. For example:

    Christos Tsolkas: Why, therefore, isn`t this very simple Physics experiment performed so as to demonstrate once and for all whether Ether exists in Nature or not?

    This sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend.

    Hope this helps.

  7. #7 Christos A. Tsolkas
    February 22, 2006

    THE ADVANCE OF MERCURY`S PERIHELION

    THE CAUSE

    The phenomenon of the advance of Mercury`s perihelion is not attributed to the curvature of space-time around the Sun, as the Theory of Relativity erroneously maintains.
    The perturbations caused by the Sun on Mercury largely account for this phenomenon, since the centre of mass CsMs of the Sun revolves in a circular orbit of radius R (in the direction of planetary motion) around the center of mass CpMp of our planetary system, thus causing the advance of Mercury`s perihelion.

    more….http://www.tsolkas.gr/

  8. #8 Doran
    February 22, 2006

    Thanks much so Chad. I am a physics undergrad about to graduate and am not heading directly off to grad school. I hope to find some lab “somewhere” that would take me on, but wasn’t sure exactly how to broach the inquiry.

    It also seems you have a bit of anti-relativity spam problem. Please consult John Baez’s crackpot index – http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html

  9. #9 Janne
    February 22, 2006

    An important thing to know about academics is that the process of getting a Ph.D. involves becoming the world’s greatest expert in something that nobody else cares as much about. Anybody who’s done that will almost never pass up the chance to talk about it.

    Or, you’ve spent five years and most of your remaining hair working on it, and really don’t want to think about it ever again. :)

    But yes, if you ask relevant, relatively informed questions then people are usually more than happy to answer; most will in fact not be stoppable once you’ve got them going.

    But do take the time to read up a little on in yourself first, I think that really is the key. If your questions show that you haven’t even bothered to look at the abstract, or the thesis introduction (or whatever material you found) then you’re not as likely to get an answer. Note that you probably won’t annoy people by asking really elementary questions; you’re jsut relegated to a lower priority and less likely to get an answer.

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