I haven’t talked much about my teaching yet this semester, and it’s high time I did – at least a little, particularly to contribute a bit to the discussion about PWIs. To be clear: my institution will consider me for tenure based upon my research, and to a lesser extent based on my teaching (I learned on Monday that our teaching expectations in my department are a little higher than elsewhere in my college because we focus our research on education as well). So my job is primarily intended to be about helping the engineering education research community learn new things, with a secondary expectation of helping undergraduates learn new things.
This spring, I’m teaching a section of our first-year engineering course, a required course for engineering majors. In the past, the course has been organized in such a way that all 1700 first-year students interested in engineering took it in the fall. This is a massive organizational project to manage – huge class sections, an army of graduate TAs and undergrad TAs, a dehumanizing experience for students and instructors alike.
This year, we pushed a lot of the sections into the spring semester, and are now teaching in a room that holds a maximum of 120 students, rather than the 450-person lecture hall we used before. Not only that, but they’re in rows where the chairs are on wheels (so are moveable) and there are two rows of desks on each “step” of the room (so we can have them swivel around and talk with each other in groups of four). The redesigned room makes a MASSIVE difference, and I have hopes that I can actually get to know a few of my students, whereas it was hard to even try when I last taught the course.
Because my students are first year students, and for the most part, students who have spent one semester in college or less, we spend a little time helping them learn how to be good college students. Prepare in advance of class, ask questions early, use the help resources we’ve got for you, and so on. In particular, we talk about how to address faculty and staff (a hint: call them “Dr” or “Professor” as a default, and they may tell you to call them something else if you’re lucky).
This semester, I decided to talk with my students briefly about how to send emails to their instructors. I gave them this real example from Fall 2007, modified slightly to protect the sender:
Date: October 24,
To: my purdue email address
Subject: engr 126
we were curious what we were supposed to be finding for “what the experts say”. Thanks
I pointed out that, in a course where there are assignments, lab tasks, online modules, sample exams, course notes, and a design project, it would take me longer to figure out what the student was asking than it would for me to actually answer it. I asked my students to consider this in the context of how many student emails I might get in a day, and to think about it in terms of learning to be professional engineers, and then I asked for suggestions on how to improve this email. Together we came up with the following guidelines:
- Write a clear subject line that actually summarizes what the question is and what it might be connected to in the course.
- Address me in the email, and remember to call me “Dr.” or “Prof.”
- Give me some context for the question, situating it in the particular assignment or activity you’re working on.
- Punctuate. Capitalize appropriately. Use complete words and sentences; this is not texting. Check your spelling.
- Be specific and detailed about what the difficulty or challenge is regarding.
- Ask an actual question, rather than leaving it up to me to infer what you don’t understand.
- Be nice and thank me for answering.
- Sign your full name and give what ever institutional markings might be helpful for me to keep this in context.
As a result, we proposed the following rewritten email:
Date: October 24, 2007 11:45:48 AM GMT-04:00
Subject: criterion 4 in the project for engr 126
Dear Dr. Pawley,
Our lab group was working on the class project for ENGR 126 and we didn’t understand one of the requirements (#4). Can you please clarify for us what you mean by “what the experts say”?
Astu Dent, Team 4
Can I just say… I realize this should not be surprising, as all these students are smart people for having gotten as far as they have, but my emails from students since class have been STELLAR. Complete, clear, and polite. It has been a pleasure to respond to them. So props to my students, and a note to instructors: I totally recommend talking with your junior undergraduate students about how to write emails to you, particularly when you’re dealing with this kind of stuff.
I hope to share more cool things about my students over the semester. Unless they turn on me .