EducationPop QuizTechnology

Pop Quiz: Email

My least favourite part of doing what I do is dealing with email.

Between research projects, professional societies, departmental and campus-wide notices, student and faculty organizations, guest-lecture series, academic publishers, and the alumni association constantly hitting me up for money despite still technically being a student, I get around fifty pieces of “official” spam just about every weekday.

This is, of course, on top of all of the messages I get that are actually relevant and important to my life, such as emails from my advisors, colleagues, and (oh, right!) my own students.

Now, I don’t want to come off sounding like one of those professors that hates students, because I don’t. I really don’t. I like them and enjoy teaching them and genuinely want to help them in any way I can. That said, whenever I end up teaching large lecture classes (which I frequently do), after a few weeks I pretty much inevitably end up wanting to set my hair on fire. This is because the worst–and I really mean the absolute worst–part of teaching a huge lecture is dealing with all the extra email that comes with it.

You see, in a normal-sized class (c. 30-50), student emails are not even an issue: every so often a student might email to clarify things that came up during the lesson, ask questions, set up meetings, etc. Even if every student in all of your classes emails you several times times over the course of the semester, it’s unusual to get more than, say, ten of these in a given week.

When teaching huge lectures (c.300 or more), the very same per-student rate results in literally thousands of emails, of which hundreds and hundreds are near duplicates. And email is now so firmly entrenched in academic culture that students think Scumbag Steve: Syllabus ten feet away / Emails the profnothing of shooting off an email to the prof whenever they have a question about anything, even if they could easily look up the answer themselves (using the very same device–all my syllabi and assignments are online!).

This is what I affectionately call the always-ask constant: even if the course outline and class web site list the dates for the mid-term exams, a fixed percentage of students (let’s use q for proportio quaerens) will always email the professor about exam dates without bothering to look at these documents. The value of q is variable, but always scales up to the nearest whole student such that in any sized class, you are guaranteed to get at least one student who does this.

For some reason, q also appears to increase exponentially according to the size of the class. If a ten-person class will have one student doing this, and a fifty person class will have three, a three-hundred person class will have fifty. I hypothesize that the value of q reaches 100% at approximately 1500 students. I have thankfully never had any opportunity to test this hypothesis and I hope for all our sakes that no one ever attempts to.

Anyway, since you can always expect proportion q of students ask every conceivable question about every aspect of the course, you can see how this might very quickly get out of hand. And there is no way to avoid it.

It will not matter how many times you address a question during class time, or whether you put an FAQ on the course website, or include a special notice or warning at the top of the assignment sheet. There is no way to stop any given question from continuing to pop up in your inbox. It is literally impossible.

Sam L Jackson: Ask me again when it's due / I dare youIt will just. keep. coming.

The beleaguered professor has precious few options in the face of such an onslaught. One can, of course, just suck it up and spend an hour every day answering the same question 30 times (double that if an exam is approaching…hooray for Ctrl + V), but this quickly becomes maddening and demoralizing. Each and every little *ding* in your inbox starts setting off a Pavlovian spiral of frustration, loathing, and existential despair–even if it’s just an Amazon confirmation notice.

The only other solution to this electronic free-for-all, so far as I can tell, is to institute a draconian and rather unpleasant email policy wherein students are only permitted to email their TAs and the TAs then forward me anything in need of my attention. This policy carries with it the unfortunate impression that I don’t want any contact with my students, which is untrue (I have office hours after all). It might also make it seem like I am unwilling to answer their questions, which is only sort of true: I don’t want to answer questions I have already answered publicly and repeatedly, but I’m happy to answer anything else.

Although implementing such a policy significantly reduces the email load, two kinds of emails will always remain:

SYLLABUS! Y U NO READ IT?A) Those from students who can’t follow, or won’t be bothered to follow, the email policy. The answers to their questions are, 95% of the time, on the course syllabus (available online) or in the written instructions for the assignment in question (ditto).

B) Those from students with major problems that inevitably force me to do extra work.

In a huge class, I will get one from Group B every week or two. They are annoying, but come with the territory. But I will also get at least 3 from Group A every day, even with the policy in place.

A small price to pay, surely, for the overall peace of mind the policy brings, but of course if you ever point out to Group A that there is an email policy (and that the exam dates have been in the syllabus for months) they’ll just get mad on the internet.

Oh, and the average number of students that actually come to see me during office hours? 0.66 per week. *sigh*

How do you handle email? Does answering the same question a hundred times drive you batty? Are there any better solutions to this problem? Should I just shut up and be grateful I’m not dealing with parent emails?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).

Featured image: Rodolfo E. Aristimuño

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Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

3 Comments

  1. February 18, 2014 at 10:15 am —

    Yes answering the same question over and over drives me crazy. Sometimes if I have more than three of the same question I just email the answer in bulk to all of them. That usually stops any other emails. My problem isn’t the countless numbers of email I get in one account it is the countless number of email I get in every school I teach at account. I used to use one generic email for all the schools I taught at and check that periodically but in the last year all the colleges are mandating that you must correspond with students using the college email system. So now I am checking at least four different email accounts constantly. Trust me it is a pain in the a@@! So if it makes you feel a little better at least you only have to deal with one email account.

    • February 18, 2014 at 3:35 pm —

      Ugh that sounds like the worst. I can barely keep track of two email addresses.

  2. February 18, 2014 at 10:40 pm —

    To answer one of your questions – Yes, you should just shut up and be grateful that you not dealing with parent emails. 😛 A parent email takes 20 minutes minimum to write, just to make sure I have eliminated all my sarcasm, typos and comments that then legally require my district to comply with my opinions. This is a legal document that in the state of PA can be subpoenaed. – But seriously with students I fall back on humor a lot. It is about balancing the work you put it to it initially to what you get out. When something is important and I know is often missed I make a big deal about it. I start a fake betting pool about who will be the first person to ask about a topic. My students have been together for a while and know who will be likely to forget, but by the very act of point out that someone will forget most of them remember.

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