Electronic forms of communication simplify many of the tasks we face in academia. It's easy to confirm the details of meetings; it's easy to get quick feedback on a possible policy change; it's useful for corresponding with colleagues at other institutions. But probably most importantly, it makes reaching students easier and increases students' access to professors. Does a student have a quick question? An email is probably the fastest way to get that question answered. Does a professor want to remind students of a particular aspect of an assignment they may otherwise forget? A brief reminder email can help students to complete the assignment.
I've been thinking about email for a couple of months now. I spend most of my working day in front of my computer, and I usually keep my university email open in a tab. It's open right now. Here's what it looks like:
Nice, right? I like to keep my inbox empty or as near as possible. I file emails as I answer them. Life feels more efficient and less messy to me, and that's important to me. It isn't to everyone, and that's fine, but this is what I like my writing space to look like, and my email space. I thrive in a tidy environment.
But this is why I've been thinking about email this semester. For the most part, students at my institution don't check it.
There have been recent articles about using other forms of electronic communication to reach students, such as Facebook or texting. I will do neither because I prefer to protect certain boundaries between work and personal. Additionally, it is possible that professors are becoming too dependent on email to reach students on a regular basis. I try very hard not to email students too regularly. As a faculty member and as a recipient of several listservs, I understand quite well that our lives are saturated with emails. It becomes easier to ignore email than to sift through all of the reply-all threads and the auto generated emails from university offices and the announcement emails. My working life is a veritable ocean of emails, and I have no doubt that students receive far more emails than they want as well.
As a professor, I try to email my students only as a result of the following situations:
1. In response to a question: If a student emails me, it's my responsibility to respond. I don't hold myself accountable to respond instantaneously--see my above comment about boundaries between work life and personal life--but responding to students is important. They need to know that I hear them when they ask a question or let me know that they are missing class.
2. A gentle reminder: If a class has shown a habit of forgetting to submit assignments on time or failing to be as prepared as they can be by completing readings, I'll send a little nudge to remind them to get the job done.
3. "Are you out there?": If students start missing class and fails to submit assignments, I email them. Since I can't speak to them if they aren't showing up, I reach it via email in hopes of preventing them from failing the course. I'm not their counselor, and I don't ever want to be, but I can reach out in the interests of their performance in my course.
4. "Oops": I mess things up sometimes. I'm human. Sometimes I put the wrong page numbers for a reading on the syllabus or--as I did yesterday--I manage to completely and totally screw up our learning management system's page. So I send out a slightly embarrassing email to correct my mistake.
Now here's why I've been frustrated this semester. I've been following these rules for ten years, and they tend to do me right. This semester, not so much. Students don't check their email, so they don't see my gentle nudges, my slight corrections, or sometimes even my answer to the questions they sent me. And there is nothing I can do about it.
If you haven't picked up on this, dear blog reader, I like having control over my work environment. So acknowledging my powerlessness in this circumstance is endlessly irritating.
What can I do to make a change to my approach to communicating with my students? When I posed this problem to an administrator recently, he answered thoughtfully and carefully that I should ask for students' non-university email addresses. That is, as he freely acknowledged, not a very helpful answer.
For the moment, I am pondering this, not as a solution, but as a means of comforting myself: Just let go. Contact students and hope I can help them. If they do not respond, then I have done what I can.
Sometimes, and this is hard for teachers to admit, trying has to be enough.