Article about student e-mails to Professors

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As I was reading that article I went from being mortified at the student e-mails, to ambivilence, to being mortified at Professors, and a bit of :rolleyes: for good measure. First, the students:

Holy moly, I can’t believe anyone would be that stupid, or that brass to send e-mails like this. I mean come on, its stupid to be late for a morning class becuase you were drinking too much. E-mailing your professor and telling him this? Well, that brings it to a whole 'nother level. Again, its one thing to think, “quit asking quesitons moron,” but it takes some serious balls to e-mail the professor and tell him that.

I guess I don’t see the problem with these e-mails. Its a good thing for a professor to get feedback about lectures, or at least it should be. I think things like “we could use the readings more,” or “summarizing the lecture at the end would be helpful,” are decent suggestions, and probably would improve a lecture. It just seems poor that a professor would not want to hear suggestions to improve his or her lecture.

On the other hand, something like “you are going too fast,” is not a particularly good suggestion. Most college courses have a fixed amount of material to get through in a fixed amount of time. Its really impossible to slow down. A reply stating as such, and a suggestion to come in for office hours if they need help seems appropiate. However, that does waste time for the professor. A student ought to know that slowing down isn’t an option, and that coming into office hours is their best option.

I think that this is very poor on the professors part. I understand that a professor is not the appropiate person to ask this question, but that doesn’t mean the professor should just ignore it. Is it that tough to point a freshman, who clearly needs help, towards the right resoruces? In addition, you can’t expect every freshman to know exactly what questions are appropiate and inappropiate for a professor. How hard is it to write:

Dear Student,

I appreciate your desire to learn, but I am not the one to answer this question. For help with studying techniques please go to the tutoring center located [insert contact information] with your questions. For future reference, professors should be contacted for help in their specific course, or for things like letters of recommendation. Questions about the university, studying techniques, or other general questions should be directed to your advisor, or other resources at the university. Welcome to [insert school name], and good luck in your next four years.

An e-mail like that takes five minutes, and ought to help the student. First, s/he actually gets her question answered instead of ignored. Second, the student’s behavior gets gently corrected, and hopefully will ask only appropiate questions in the future.


Come on, “infallible sources of deep knowledge,” no one ever thought of their professors that why, right?

I only email my profs when I am unsure about a due date or something about a paper I am writing or an assigment that I need to know before class is in session again. That’s it.

Lecture feedback isn’t a problem. The problem line was “it would be helpful if you would summarize…” I often see emails along the line of “did I miss anything important?” (In other words, “Would you summarize your lecture in an email for me, since I didn’t go to class?”) Also, it is sometimes hard to tell legitiate criticism (“You’re confusing because you are unclear”) from less legitimate criticism (“You’re confusing because I never study and rarely show up”). In face-to-face communication, it’s easier to tell which is which.

I agree overall, but:

What a creep.

Actually, I don’t agree overall. Obviously the emails about drunken revelry are inappropriate and the demands to immediately look over drafts are borderline, but a lot of this article goes against my personal experience with professors-- usually they ask for and welcome questions, comments, and feedback from students. If a professor can’t handle a request to, say, summarize at the end of class by at least emailing back why they choose not to, maybe education isn’t the right field for them.

Asking for the summary at the end of the class falls in to the same category as complaining that we’re going to fast.

I have a certain amount to cover in a lecture. If I have to set aside time at the end of the lecture to repeat myself, I can’t cover as much. I expect students to pay attention and take careful notes; if they miss something, I don’t mind repeating it, especially if they just come up and ask after class.

Students sometimes ask (almost always by email) if there’s a “study guide” for the exam. I’m always tempted to respond, “Yes, it’s called ‘Your Notes from Lecture.’”

As a student, it’s helpful to be able to reach the professor outside of class. I can’t always make office hours, so for a quick question, e-mail is beneficial.

That said, I try to be respectful when I e-mail. If I have something more complex than a reminder of a due date, I’ll make it a point to ask before or after class or during office hours.

If a professor feels pressured by e-mails, then they are the ones who need to set limits with their students.


This is poorly worded, but it isn’t such a bad question. About half of my college lectures (and almost all of my med school lectures) came with pre-printed handouts that were more easily kept in a binder, and the rest required me to take notes in a notebook. A compromise is a binder with some loose-leaf paper, but that can get pretty bulky with a whole bunch of classes.

I think e-mail can be very useful; the professor just has to make it clear up front that he can’t guarantee that he’ll read his e-mail more than once a week or so, and he can’t guarantee a response. Of course, he probably will read his e-mail far more often, and he has the leeway to answer simple, legitimate questions or requests, but he can ignore the assholes.

Funny, we were talking about this article in a teaching staff discussion today. (Chris Dede is a prof here.) It does speak to the consumerism that is now commonplace in higher education. In some ways some students view faculty the same way they view the store manager at Wal-Mart, only he or she wears tweed.

I’m a grad student, and I receive about 80 e-mails a day, probably half of which need prompt replies. I imagine - no, I know - profs receive double that, especially when an assignment is due. Again, these questions tend to require answers that require some thought. Some students have taken to postponing questions in class to e-mail, which is unfortunate, because a lot of questions could benefit the class and lead to interesting conversations. (If, of course, the professor is able and willing to entertain questions in class. If not, you get what you deserve.)

It’s pretty common for profs to get e-mails around here critiquing the class, pedagogy, etc. but I feel if you’re compelled enough to write an e-mail, it’s worthwhile to drop in at office hours. Critiques are much better delivered face-to-face, as are compliments. Furthermore, it’s an interactive process, so the prof can ask questions and clarify what the critiques are. I also feel an honest critique is something you would deliver whether you had an “A” or “C” - it shouldn’t be contingent on how you feel about your performance that day.

What’s really true is the statement from the professor about the damage that profligate e-mailing can do to a student’s reputation. Even in grad school, people send e-mails that make them sound like petulant ten-year-olds. Half the time they fit the category “I was right and you were wrong,” for the sake of inflating the writer’s ego. The other half tends to be the sulking type, kind of like the e-mail about the moron classmates.

What I tell new students is this: the best way to curry favor with a prof is to do excellent work. Barring that possibility, put forth excellent effort. Interact in person (not via e-mail or phone). It really is that simple. People who decide to teach are enamored with ideas, and the pursuit of knowledge - if one demonstrates the ability to indulge in both, you will be the topic of fond memories and certainly worthy of a letter. Funny how that SDMB chestnut, “Don’t be a jerk,” has application elsewhere as well…

Back when I was a student we didn’t really have email. You actually had to talk to the professor/teacher. In person. I don’t know how we did it.

Agreed. What an ass. On the other hand, I’m shocked at the number of e-mails I receive that don’t have a salutation, or pre-emptive thank you at the end. A little politeness goes a long way!

This resonates with what we talked about recently in another thread about Gen Y kids viewing teachers as “coaches” in the academic process, not authority figures. I’m not sure how I feel about that, except that I myself do better under such roles. But you can take it too far, and I know lots of students do.

Email can be a useful tool. My husband has all his students email their papers nowadays, which cuts out the “printer malfunctions” that used to plague them. He’ll answer specific questions about a topic covered in class if the student was in attendance but needs clarification.

But this:

drives him batshit insane. It’s on the syllabus. It’s been on the syllabus, it’s been announced in class, you should know when things are due. If you don’t, call another student. Don’t essentaily announce to the professor that you’re scatterbrained, disorganized and can’t keep track of a date.

This is another one:

If it’s not worth going over to the office during office hours, then it can wait until class. Otherwise, it’s not worth taking up your professor’s off hours with. Chances are good he’s either grading one of the 80 10-page papers he needs to go over this week, or gasp spending some precious moments with his family. Like I said, my husband is a bit more tolerant if someone is genuinely curious about class material, because he’s likes to talk about what he teaches, but in office hours are best even for that.

Students who abuse email essentially make him work extra hours with no pay - and it’s not like his pay is so grand as it is! It’s illegal for a waitress to fold napkins while not punched in, why should you expect him to do extra work for no pay while he has perfectly good office hours designed to handle these questions?

I do. I did what I needed to do on my own and can’t remember talking to a professor in undergrad. They weren’t exactly approachable. Ours TAs were a little more so but I still can’t remember having to ask them anything.

Three recent examples of chutzpah.

Exhibit A: demands thinly veiled as requests:

"To Capybara [first name, btw],
I was wondering when you will post the image list. I’m leaving this Friday
and I pretty much reviewed all the images that we studied so far and
it would be a hassle for me to bring the textbook around for a week.
Can we get it tomorrow? The earlier the better, please please please?

Michelle K"

This is several days before a one-week break, when I’d already announced 3 times when this would be handed out.

Another one from a student who had, the previous week, asked if he could make an announcement at the start of class, and did this 10 minute spiel about his running for student council. Then:

Subject line: “i can’t make it in time”

Message in its entirety:

"Doing propaganda in other class at 7:00 PM

please omit my class beinning quiz


Basically, not “can I make up the quiz?” or " sorry I have to lose those points" but OMIT it. Sheesh.
He then came to class an hour late (a three hour class). 15 minutes later during our break he asked if he could make another annoucement and I told him he’d had his say the last week. When I started class up again he was gone again.

Exhibit C:
“hey Capybara how are u…hope ur enjoying ur holidays…im just wondering when
our grade will come out!!thank u

They’re even better when they come from some e-mail address like x-tacystarkitten69@yahoo

Odd end-of-term evaluations are even weirder, though. I had one student last term write this one-page screed about how this is absolutely how university classes should not be taught-- we should have the chairs in a circle and discuss current events and real life applications and such (this was for a 60-student ancient art history survey course in which we have no choice but to sit in dim light and look at a projection screen-- and she/he signed up for the version of the course with no discussion section). Several others complained that while I put up the Powerpoint from lecture on the web that I don’t put up all the notes: one student complained that he/she has a habit of sleeping in and missing class so this is quite a burden. Apparently this was not meant as a joke.

Ah, I feel better now.

I never once emailed a professor. There should never be any reason to do so. If a student doesn’t know a due date then that’s a failure on the part of the student. All the information a student is going to need is given out in class.

I don’t think profs should even make their emails available to students at all. If it’s that damn important, the lazy, self-absorbed little twerps can walk to the office.

Huh. My professor was known for his parties, to the point that he (and most of the department) would block out most of the next day in their diaries.

I heartily disagree. I like getting emails from students. True, I hate the lazy, self-absorbed ones, and like Capybara I’m irked by the inappropriate informality. I also hate rude, boorish professors like those in the article who won’t deign to respond to honest questions or who insist on weird power trips.

The majority of my emails from students are minor questions that can be answered quickly and easily. (And the rest can even be funny. I got this one over the weekend from a student who had missed 75% of the class meetings:

I keep all my appointments and due dates in a Palm, and I do look at my syllabi. (plural?) But a lot of MY profs change stuff around and don’t make it exacty clear. Maybe your husband doesn’t. He’s not my prof. And anyways, I usually don’t have to do this. The only times I can remember doing it is with teachers in my small classes (usually grad student teachers). And some profs of smaller classes will gladly give out their damned phone number if you REALLY need to ask a question. I think most profs would gladly send off an email that takes 30 seconds than have to listen to a student bitch and whine “I didn’t know when it was due, you changed it around in class etc.” and have to tell them “You’re shit out of luck.” Most profs I’ve had actually want to help us and see us do well. They never bitch about having to answer emails. If I forget a due date or am confused, it doesn’t make me lazy, scatterbrained, or stupid or whatever. It makes me human. And ALL teachers do work outside of school without getting paid - when do you think high school teachers grade all that damned homework, projects and tests for 5+ classes? Their lunch break? No. So maybe teaching a class with TAs to do the grunt work for them would be a solution.

I can’t agree with this. Just a few days ago, I emailed a professor asking him where a CS project was posted (it wasn’t in the section titled ‘projects’, and I couldn’t find it). As it turned out, he’d forgotten to post it.

Then again, this professor posts not only his email address and office phone number, but his home phone number too. I don’t think anyone’s ever had the balls to call it, though.

That seems much more intrusive to me. If I’m trying to set up a meeting (to discuss homework, frex, or something tangentially related to the course material that we don’t have time to cover in class), then it makes more sense to me to send an email (to which the prof can respond whenever s/he wants to) than to show up in person (forcing them to drop what they’re doing and respond to me right away).

I don’t understand sentiments like this. Just becuase you were able to do without something before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it now. Afterall, thats the whole point of progress. It makes things easier to do, and hopefully better.

I believe I have e-mailed professors, I believe, exactly twice. The first, was to let my professor know I was coming into office hours to ask a few questions (which I then listed). I don’t recall how much notice I gave but it was a day or two. Got my arse out of bed, an hour before I had to, walked 15 minutes each way to her office hours. Only to have her basically ignore me in favor of typing on her computer, and told me to ask her in class. Ironically enough, she was e-mailing me back telling me not to come in while I was there. The second one was when I e-mailed my professor immediately after class when I realized I neglected to turn in my homework, and asking if I could come turn it in. (Denied by the way).

I am not entirely sure how either makes me “a lazy, self absorbed little twerp,” care to explain?

capybara, I think each of yours is a good example of a different type of problem e-mail. The first is an example of someone either failing to attend class, or pay attention. The second is an example of someone with huge balls making ridiculous demands. The third exemplifies both lack of necessary formality, and lack of comprehension of the time necessary to respond to e-mails.

A coach is still an authority figure, though. I think coach is probably the best analogy from what I expect out of a teacher. I don’t expect them to baby me, or make special accomedations for me. On the other hand, my time is valuable to me too. If a 30 second e-mail repsonse will accurately answer my question, then that is what I will do in favor of spending 20-30 minutes walking to office hours.

I think there is also a generational gap in terms of professors. The younger TAs that are teaching a class nearly always have felxible office hours, and want you to e-mail them with questions. To quote one of them, “My phone number is listed, but I don’t think I have answered it since I have been here. I am not even sure if it works or not.”