There's a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about this article in Tuesday's New York Times about students, professors, and e-mail.
At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.
These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages — from 10 a week to 10 after every class — that are too informal or downright inappropriate.
"The tone that they would take in e-mail was pretty astounding," said Michael J. Kessler, an assistant dean and a lecturer in theology at Georgetown University. " 'I need to know this and you need to tell me right now,' with a familiarity that can sometimes border on imperative."
He added: "It's a real fine balance to accommodate what they need and at the same time maintain a level of legitimacy as an instructor and someone who is institutionally authorized to make demands on them, and not the other way round."
While once professors may have expected deference, their expertise seems to have become just another service that students, as consumers, are buying. So students may have no fear of giving offense, imposing on the professor's time or even of asking a question that may reflect badly on their own judgment.
As someone who teaches seven classes here at the community college, this rang quite true to me. In a typical semester, I've got 250-300 students; I can expect to get anywhere from 10-40 e-mails a day. Some are quite polite, but others are -- as the article suggests -- remarkably demanding.
Too many of my students tend to think of their professors as being akin to a 24/7 help line. I've had more than one email, sent on a Saturday night, asking me to look over a rough draft that's due on Monday morning! I've had students complain "You don't seem to check your e-mail on weekends", as if instant replies to their countless queries were part and parcel of my job description!
Here's an angle that the Times article doesn't explore: the declining number of students who visit in conference hours. When I first started teaching full-time in 1994, relatively few of my students had access to e-mail. I had five hours of "conference time" per week, and throughout the semester, I had regular visits from a large percentage of my students. In those early years, perhaps a quarter of my students would visit me over the course of the term. They had no other reliable means of getting in touch with me; most didn't have cell phones, and as a result, had difficulty ringing me up during my office hours. They had no choice but to visit, and visit they did.
With the coming of e-mail, the number of students who take the time to visit me in office hours has dropped precipitously. In the last seven or eight years, I've seen what must be an 80-90% drop in the number of those who are willing to come and knock on my door. E-mail is not only much more convenient for the students in terms of time (they don't have to plan their schedules around my five hours of weekly availability), it's also much easier for the introverted and the shy. I know that some students are terrified of meeting one-on-one with a professor; back in the old "pre- e-mail days", I had some trembling in my office. The lack of face-to-face contact is helpful for these folks, but it's also ultimately detrimental. Success in life, I feel, involves being willing to take risks (such as those involved in going to meet with a professor in person). It's too damned easy to hide behind the e-mail and not challenge oneself to move out of a comfort zone.
I don't accept papers or rough drafts via e-mail. If a student wants feedback on a paper, they need to come to office hours and meet with me to discuss their written work. If I were teaching one or two classes, I could perhaps allow students to send their work in -- but trying to download 200-300 attachments of MS Word documents would be impossible. Besides, I give my best feedback orally -- students will benefit much more from a few minutes of spoken feedback than they will from my chicken scratching on their papers. But for that, they have to take the same sort of risks and make the same sort of effort that earlier generations of students regularly made.
The fact that so few folks come to visit me in office hours these days does give me more time to blog, or catch up on my reading or personal e-mails. At the same time, I miss the warm friendships I was able to form with some of my students "back in the day", when professor-student contact was always a face-to-face matter. I still have a few special folks who come and visit me regularly, both to discuss their work and the larger world of ideas; I enjoy the chance to mentor and connect. I couldn't do it with all of my students, time wouldn't permit that. But there's no question that e-mail has made my office hours a bit lonelier, and I think it's enabled too many of my students to hide behind their computer screens. Progress it isn't.