It’s Called an Email Policy

A "Zits" comic: three teenagers operating lawn equipment while texting and closing in on each other. Two adults watch saying "This should be interesting."I remember when my family got our first answering machine.  That answering machine introduced us to the wonders of call-screening.  When Caller-ID came out, we immediately got one of those little boxes that attached to your phone cradle, since phones weren’t coming equipped with them just yet.  If we were hanging out around the dinner table (as we often did), and the phone rang, we would let the machine get it, half listen as the caller left a message, and if the words “is going to die” or “on fire” or “detached appendage” did not float across the kitchen within the first few seconds, we would ignore it until it was convenient to call them back.  And if we didn’t want to talk to that person, we just wouldn’t call them back ever.  People who came to visit us were horrified by this practice, and I’ve never understood why.  We were having FAMILY DINNER.  The people physically  in front of you are always, in my thinking, more important than people who aren’t, unless those people require medical attention.  I do not understand the people who cause fatal traffic accidents because OMG MUST ANSWER THIS TEXT RIGHT NOW!!11!1  And I do not understand the people who take calls on their cell while I am having a conversation with them, unless they are in danger of being fired for failing to do so.

Which is probably why I found this article, entitled “E-Mail: the Third Shift” on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, in a word, stupid:

Many academics have a love-hate relationship with e-mail. We know it has made communicating with colleagues in our own departments and around the world far, far easier. But we are also aware that e-mail is devouring a great deal of our time.

For faculty members, it is not just e-mail messages from professional associates, friends, family, and spammers that demand our attention. Students, sometimes by the dozens, e-mail their instructors daily, seeking an immediate response. For faculty mothers and fathers, e-mail eats up the extra hour or more a day after they have put the children to bed and prepared for the next day’s teaching—or perhaps the hour before the children or the sun rise.

Yeah, people are sending and receiving a lot of email these days, and it takes time to deal with them, but the data that this author presents to back up her argument that answering email now represents an enormous additional workload is fuzzy and anecdotal and the argument itself seems to boil down to a pretty standard “Kid’s These Days” polemic:

Today’s students were introduced in grade school to instant messaging and Facebook; immediate access is the new cultural norm. The formal barriers between student and instructor in the university world have come down, with no real etiquette to replace them. Students expect instant replies, not a five-day wait until office hours on Tuesday.

Ok, who are these students exactly?  I’ve known the odd student or twelve who seems to think I live in the classroom we meet in (which often isn’t even in my department’s building, though I suspect this assumption is a holdover from high school, where classrooms double as teachers’ offices), but I have yet to meet an 18-year old so oblivious to social norms that they expect, nay demand, instantaneous responses to every electronic missive.  And if there are such socially inept individuals trolling our college campuses, are there numbers so vast that we must institute university policies to stop them from taking over their instructors’ lives as this article suggests?  And are these instructors so spineless that they feel they need an institutional policy to protect them from ever having to enforce pretty reasonable interpersonal boundaries with their students?

I suspect, in fact, that this sense of obligation is coming not from the senders of these student emails but from the receivers.  Since I spend most of my day staring at Word documents that stubbornly fail to fill with felicitous prose on my preferred schedule, I do understand the OH HERE IS SOMETHING REQUIRING MY ATTENTION CAN’T LOOK AT YOU WORD DOCUMENT impulse.  Email can be one of those simultaneously welcome and hated distractions.  But the beauty of electronic communication is that you are free to set your messages aside for later or even ignore them altogether, and for the most part, no one is going to walk in your office and scream at you for doing that.  Remember:  the task or person in front of you is more important than the person trying to get to you through your inbox or your iPhone.

Thankfully, one of the profs interviewed in the article has more than a shred common sense:

“I rarely check my e-mail after I leave the office at 5:30 and before I return the next morning,” she said. “If I do check it at night, I generally do not respond to student e-mails until the next day. Almost the only exception I make to this rule is that I will answer e-mails at night if I am traveling.”

One way she limits e-mail messages, she said, is to direct students to an electronic blackboard where she posts general answers to common questions—or sometimes other students do. She also explains the course requirements to students upfront, including the e-mail guidelines spelled out clearly in her syllabus. Finally, she said, “I know how to say no, and I’m not afraid to do so.”

Right on.  Personally, I am a fan of observing “normal business hours” both for mental health and “saving the marriage” sort of reasons.  At the beginning of every semester, I always tell students that I do not answer email after 6:00 pm and that it may take me 24 hours to respond to questions.  It is also perfectly reasonable to be specific about what sort of business you are willing to conduct over email.  I refuse, for example, to give feedback on early drafts of assignments over email, because exceptionally nervous students will sometimes cope with the discomfort of the writing process by asking me to approve every sentence, and enabling that behavior would be a waste of my time and an actual disservice to them.  I also refuse to deal with grade disputes over email, explain missed content over email, and calculate what Johnny needs to get on his final essay to score an A.  My syllabus, schedule, and copies of all handouts are available on my course website, so students who fail to respect these boundaries will get one of the following responses:  “Check the website” or “I’d love to talk to you about that.  Come in during my office hours on Xday.”

I have never had a student complain about my availability as an instructor, either to my face or in my course evaluations.  In fact, the vast majority give me the highest possible score in the “Cares about student progress” category. So, I’m skeptical about this need to institute university policies in order to keep the exceptionally needy ones at bay.  While somewhat different in the way they were socialized, eighteen to twenty-three year olds are actually human beings, many of them very sophisticated ones.  Developing healthy relationships with them means treating them like human beings and behaving like one yourself, and negotiating access and boundaries in both professional and personal relationships are perfectly normal human behaviors.  If some student just doesn’t get this, sack up and take them down a peg.  It isn’t the job of university administrations to keep instructors from ever having to be the bad guy.  Remind those students that there are boundaries to their relationship with you.  You will be doing them a huge favor by doing that.

Comic found at Language Log.

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3 thoughts on “It’s Called an Email Policy

  1. I the opposite email policy in that I only answer emails after 7 p.m. local time, and my students last year were all told explicitly that it could take me 24 to 72 hours to answer an email, so it was not the most efficient way to contact me. All of my emails have a .sig at the bottom reiterating this policy. It just takes all the heat off.

    1. Nice! I should add something like that to my email sig. I also tell them repeatedly that if they have questions about an assignment, they should ask in class, come to office hours, or email me several days in advance, since I will not see emails sent to me the night before said assignment is due.

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