Professors, e-mail and student responsibility

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When I was an undergraduate, back in the 1950s*, professors had office hours. There were maybe 3 or 4 hours a week we knew the professor would be in his or her office and we could stop by to talk about course content or an upcoming assignment. We had the phone number of the office and could call during those office hours if we had a quick question. Professors also were available by appointment if we had a class that conflicted with their office hours. But basically, aside from seeing them during class time and the option of seeing them during their office hours — hours that they set — we didn’t have contact with them. They didn’t generally provide their home phone numbers. If we had a question at night or over the weekend, we lived with it.

Some things haven’t changed. Professors and instructors are still required to hold office hours. At my school, we’re supposed to have at least one hour for each 3-credit course we teach. Some professors are in their offices for more hours than required. While holding office hours has not changed over the years, technology has. Like so many other people in other fields over the last decade-plus, whose bosses or clients can reach them by cell phone or e-mail at odd hours or on the weekend, professors can no longer leave their jobs behind when they go home for the day. Not that they ever did, I suppose. Preparing lectures and syllabi, grading exams or papers, doing research or writing, were never pursuits that had a 9-5 schedule. But certainly professors spend more time dealing with student questions and communicating with students than professors did in the days before e-mail.

I am not complaining about this. With people losing their jobs or taking pay cuts in order to keep their jobs, I’d have to be an ass not to appreciate that I have it pretty good. A career in college teaching has its own challenges, like any job, its own frustrations and also its own rewards, but in 2010 having a job and not worrying about losing it or having my salary cut is a luxury many do not have.

Yes, people (jealous friends, maybe) who add the number of hours I teach per week to the number of office hours I have each week and conclude that I work 12 hours a week are thoroughly confused and don’t realize the preparation that goes into lecturing or the time it takes to read and write comments on 65 student papers. So even though I don’t go “into the office” every day — which is nice, of course, avoiding the commute a couple of times a week — most of my work doesn’t happen in “the office” anyway, or even in the classroom. There are also non-teaching responsibilities that can demand more time than several classes.

But again, just so I don’t get yelled at for not being appreciative while people are being fired all around, I know I have a good job and that some of the jealousy from friends tied to office chairs for 40, 50, or 60 hours a week with their two weeks a year of vacation is well-founded (although I think they make more money than I do). Aside from class time and meetings, my time is my own. I set my office hours. I grade papers when I want to. I can go to the supermarket or a doctor’s appointment on non-teaching days. I can blog and run When Falls the Coliseum and publish a satire in National Review and publish a novel and be interviewed and reviewed by magazines and newspapers, and my employer sees my doing this as contributing to the university’s reputation and might even congratulate me on it and note it favorably in evaluations. Colleges also have long breaks in the winter and the summer — not quite as long as they seem, since there is often grading or prep work taking up part of that time, or in my case, non-teaching responsibilities mentioned earlier, plus some faculty members, at my school anyway, do teach in the summer to supplement salaries that, um, require supplementation. Yet that’s an option that many careers don’t offer. And even with summer teaching, it’s a good amount of vacation time.

But back to students and e-mail. I realize that after my previous paragraph, any complaints about being e-mailed by students at all hours will fall on not only deaf ears, but ears that have been cut clean off out of despair. So I won’t complain about it and will just note that the job is different from years ago, back in the 1950s when I was a student, before the e-mail and the rap music and the twitter. Even putting e-mail aside, the dynamic between professor and student, the way students and faculty dress and address each other, the formality of our society, has changed dramatically over the last several decades. Whether those changes are for better or worse (probably some of both), it is different. Technology has, of course, played its role.

I can hardly be considered a luddite. Or a neo-luddite. Or whatever we’re calling people who wish technology would go away and we could return to the good old days, when everyone was dying of smallpox. I like technology, run an online magazine, am addicted to my Blackberry, prefer reading news online and don’t miss reading a print newspaper, and for the first time last term taught what we call hybrid courses, with half of the course discussion taking place online. Yes, I still like actual, physical books, but I don’t think technology has brought only or even mostly bad consequences for humanity, or for college professors. It’s nice to be able to e-mail students with an update, a clarification about a reading, a reminder about a due date. The conversations students had in my hybrid courses — online conversations that resembled blog comment sections — were often as rich and sophisticated as the ones they have in the physical classrooms. Sometimes more.

But, getting to the title of this post, I do wonder about how this changing dynamic, which includes technology, affects the responsibility of students. I say “students” when what I mean is “some students.” Plenty of my students hold jobs while taking many credits and turn everything in on time. A generalization that implied that students are less mature today, less responsible today, because of e-mail or anything else, would be a weak one. In the 1950s, when I was a student, we had no e-mail, and there was no lack of irresponsibility. There was also no lack of beer. The college students I knew had a full supply of both back then, though maybe they paid the price for their irresponsibility more frequently than students do now. And surely it isn’t technology alone that affects this. We might point to the phenomenon known as helicopter parents. Or to some students thinking of themselves as customers first and students second. We can blame these on rising tuition, or blame that or them for grade inflation. Or come up with other explanations, if we like coming up with explanations. Not that I’m sure that anything requires explaining, or things are so different now.

Maybe this is an isolated case, though it doesn’t quite feel like one. This week I was reminded of e-mail and student responsibility, since classes just started for the winter term. I always e-mail the syllabus to my students, usually the day before the first class. I do this so they have a chance to familiarize themselves with it before we meet, which makes the first meeting more productive. It also means I don’t have to photocopy 60 sets for my students, which saves my employer paper and money (we’re not encouraged to use the copy machine for syllabi). It also means that students have an electronic version of the syllabus, which should prevent them from losing it and allow them to access it from different places. (I also place an electronic syllabus on our course’s Web page so students can access it, but hadn’t yet done that by the first day of class.) It’s the 2010s. Get with it.

A student, who should have received the initial e-mail with the syllabus, said that he hadn’t. Okay. Technology happens. I told him to e-mail me as soon as possible requesting the syllabus so I could re-send it and he would then be able to see the readings he had to complete before the next class. This conversation took place on Monday at noon, at the end of the first class session.

Our next class meeting was scheduled for Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. On Tuesday night, at 11:43, the student e-mailed me asking for a copy of the syllabus, even though we spoke about it the day before, Monday afternoon. Did this student think that his professor was sitting at the computer waiting for a student’s e-mail at close to midnight? I wasn’t. I had shut down the computer and gone to bed (I was reading a book, one of those paper contraptions full of words, sentences even).

I did get the e-mail the next morning, Wednesday, and at 7:44 I e-mailed the syllabus to the student. When we met for class, at 11:00 a.m., the student asked me if I got his e-mail. Yes, I told him, I got it this morning and I replied with the syllabus. Oh. He hadn’t checked his e-mail this morning. So he hadn’t received the syllabus in time to do the reading. So he hadn’t done the reading. There was no look of understanding on his face, no sense that maybe waiting until late the night before to e-mail me was somehow irresponsible.

This is one anecdote, probably not representative of an entire generation, certainly not representative of my students as a whole or my university, but also not the sort of thing that college professors only rarely experience. I don’t really have a point to all of this or any conclusion, but am wondering about how easy access to professors through e-mail is affecting student responsibility. In the old days (I don’t say “the good old days”), when I was a student, I would show up to class on the first day and be handed a syllabus. Some kids didn’t show up the first day of class. Maybe they didn’t do the reading until later in the week when they had class again and finally saw the syllabus. I guess they are the equivalent of the student who waited until the last minute to e-mail me. Maybe responsibility hasn’t changed at all.

But I do know that parents did not get involved with grade disputes when I was in college. And we couldn’t e-mail our professors with every question we had at whatever hour we had them. Maybe this required us to read the syllabus again, to pay attention and even take notes in class, to determine for ourselves what was required, to talk with fellow students. Maybe it required us to make the effort of walking to a building to talk to the professor about a problem we were having with the paper we were writing. We didn’t just shoot messages out into the ether and wait for the answer to magically appear before us, an answer that often was found on the syllabus or was already discussed in detail in class. Did this make us more responsible? More mature? More confused? More frustrated?

I invite college instructors and former college students to tell me what they think. And those of you in business or doing whatever it is you do, do you have similar examples in your jobs? I’m curious what your experiences are, if any, of e-mail or easy access to employees, colleagues, or vendors resulting in a changed work environment, a lack of initiative or responsibility. Is technology a prime player in this? Has some proportion of people always been irresponsible and technology is just enabling that? Are there scenarios of this kind at your job that simply would not have been possible twenty years ago? Or were slackers always slackers?


* Maybe not the 1950s (it might have been the early 1990s)

Scott Stein is editor of When Falls the Coliseum and runs the humor site STEINLINES. He is author of the novels Lost and Mean Martin Manning. His short fiction, book reviews, and essays have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The G.W. Review, Liberty, National Review,, and Art Times. He is a professor of English at Drexel University. Scott tweets @sstein.

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4 Responses to “Professors, e-mail and student responsibility”

  1. Interesting topic. As someone who never attended University my only interaction with professor’s has been made possible via e-mail and has been very important in my education. The ability to communicate with educators, and be educated by them without being enrolled in their class is valuable. People from the far reaches of the world now have access to the finest minds with a simple key stroke.A development that should appeal to individuals in the education profession.

  2. I’ve noticed that my students opt to use email with me when they feel as if they have been poorly treated – to give flak, offer convoluted excuses or protest policies, usually right after they have been caught violating them. Once a year or so I get a student using email to attack me personally in a way that they probably would be too intimidated to do to my face. Email helps students fight for what they think they are entitled to, and that’s both good and bad.

    The latter phenomenon is probably not limited to college, but for us it definitely coincides with a parallel increase in the sense of entitlement itself. We have both at once: a technological increase in access to professors; and a cultural decrease in deference to them.

    I once saw philosopher Rene Girard honored at the MLA. He gave a speech insisting that we should remember that the public thinks very highly of people in our profession. It was a good speech by a great intellect, but the moment he said that line my reaction was that the guy must be as old as the hills.

  3. Ah, I detect the conflicted spirit of a kindred pedagogue. You, like me, have been both tormented and pleased about the role of technology in academia. Yes, email communication between students and teachers (I am among the latter) can be a blessing and a curse. Clearing up those simple questions is a breeze in the afternoon. Those 2 a.m. emails from panic-stricken students are absurd annoyances. I sit alone in the office during office hours during the past decade, but the emails keep flooding into my computer. Contemporary students and teachers are not much different from those a half a century ago (when I was an undergraduate), and I’m not sure technology–email in particular–has changed the basic dynamics. A more pernicious change is the university business model: we are now a business wherein the students are customers and we are service industry clerks who must accommodate those customers. That, much more than technology, is the most serious problem; the peculiarities of email communications between students and professors are symptoms of the business model issue. So, here is my advice: hang in there with your office hours, enjoy the fact that we still have jobs, and use the email system to your advantage–give students a piece of your mind without having to risk face to face confrontations (and then wait for the customer complaints to reach you via the dean’s office).

  4. Your student sounds like friends of mine in the fantasy football league I preside over as Commissioner. On Sunday mornings, some of them act as if I’m on call to adjust their lineup. I’m happy to do it if I’m sitting at the computer at 10 a.m., but oftentimes I’m not.

    Self-reliance is en route to extinction.

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