Undergraduates, stop before sending that email!

DSC04608Even in the smallest, most elite universities, there are more students than professors in nearly every class. In my current biggest class there are 52 students. Imagine what it is like for me and my teaching assistants when students decide it is easier to just pop us an email rather than looking at the syllabus, easily available on the detailed course web page right on Wikipedia?

I guess the students feel like the adorable toddler in the photo and think that the educational ball is tossed just to them. They can toss it back, or send us as many emails as they send texts to their friends, or messages to their adoring parents. Never mind that we have many things to do with respect to this class, with respect to our other classes, with respect to the students doing research in our laboratory group, with respect to the hundreds of things professors and teaching assistants must do.

I might suck it up and just deal with it if it only impacted me, but I get cranky when my wonderful teaching assistants agonize over their overflowing in boxes. They need every second of their time to learn how to teach, how to mentor, and how to do research. Not to mention they are still taking classes themselves.

What is not appropriate to ask your professor or TA?

Don’t ask us when we’ll grade something. Haven’t you noticed how fast we are? Don’t ask us anything that is on the web page or the syllabus. You didn’t realize there was going to be a quiz? Look at the syllabus. You didn’t realize there are study questions? How could that be? Don’t ask us for special favors. We do not think it is fair to treat students differently. Don’t ask us anything about Wikipedia unless you are the Wikipedia specialist for your group. Otherwise, ask the Wikipedia specialist. Don’t ask us anything that can wait until class. After all, you see us three times a week. If you are going to miss class, you can tell your study group members rather than us and they can let us know in class.

What is appropriate to ask your professor or TA?

You can email us on behalf of your role in your group, Wikipedia specialist, fact checker, or writing specialist if your group has an issue on your topic you cannot resolve. You may email us to set up meetings to go over material you do not understand, if you have worked with your study group and it is still unclear. You can email us about unusual situations that cannot be resolved in any other way. You can email us if you could not figure out how to get something turned in and there was a bug in the system. No one should email the professor or the teaching assistants more than three times in a semester. If you have already done that, there is a problem.

Have some consideration. We have a lot to do. We are doing our best to bring you an outstanding learning experience. But there are many of you and few of us. Just remember, your co-workers in your future job will not like excessive emails any more than we do. We are trying to run this wonderful educational experience in a realistic way. Part of that is that you take responsibility and treat us with a little respect.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Teaching, Undergraduates and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Undergraduates, stop before sending that email!

  1. Thanks for the post! I definitely think it’s important to establish expectations for student-professor or student-TA contact early on. It’s also great that you’re advocating for your TAs’ time as well!

    I’m a graduate TA so I admittedly have had a far shorter career of interacting with students, but I think there is a massive gap between the average undergraduate’s perception of our jobs (professors and TAs alike) and the time-consuming reality. I think a lot of undergraduates genuinely don’t know what the duties of a professor or graduate student consists of beyond lectures and tutorials (I suspect they imagine there to be a lot more lounging and mimosas….).

    I’m really lucky that I have relatively small class sizes for my institution (25-60 students per class), so tend not to receive excessive emails, but that wasn’t always the case. My first year a few years ago, instructions of when NOT to email fell on deaf ears. I got a lot of sent-Saturday-night-need-response-by-Sunday-type emails that term. It was awful and frustrating, so I switched strategies. Now at the beginning of term I emphasize the times that I am available in person (directly after class, office hours, etc.) and give a rough time frame for turnaround on graded assignments and email responses. I also spend a few minutes telling them about my research as a grad student, so they have a better idea of what I’m up to when I’m not replying right away. So far in my experience, offering up open doors, availability, and turnaround times has had a positive outcome on both student engagement and my inbox (yay!). Some students definitely email more than others, but the students I do hear from more often tend to be more engaged in the course, and their questions are rarely things that could be answered by course outline.

    So far, so good, but I suppose I have a whole new term ahead of me…

    All the best in the new school year!

  2. Michelle Elekonich says:

    And if you are in a class of more than 200 imagine just getting 3 emails from each student….

  3. Kristen Beard says:

    I hear where you are coming from; some students are just straight up lazy and need to check the syllabus more.
    But, just as your TAs must have the chance to learn how to succeed in their new occupation, so do the undergraduates. Most undergraduates enter their majors having no clue how to pursue it beyond classes. If a student is curious and just needs some extra guidance outside the classroom, the best resources are teachers because they know that specific discipline better than any advisor and have experienced the difficulties of making it in that field. Also, the student often does not know what to ask because it is all brand new. Thus, if all inquiries about a complex topic aren’t phrased into speedy yes-or-no questions for your convenience, it seems somewhat excusable.
    So while you could be using your sparse free-time to foster new passionate colleagues for your discipline, you are instead alienating and insulting the invested students along with the lazy ones. And trust me, the lazy ones probably don’t read your blog.
    Any undergraduate who reads this will become only more jaded and cynical about your subject and about educators in general. So mission accomplished; soon you’ll either have less students or have only those who don’t care what you have to say at all, which sounds like exactly who you’re looking for.

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  5. Kathryn Watson says:

    As an undergraduate of a university consisting of thousands of students, I can never speak for all undergrads, as we are a diverse student body. However, I would like to address several points of this post that seem to inaccurately depict undergraduates. We are far from the “adorable toddler” in the photograph. We are pursuers of an education that can hopefully lead us to attaining careers so that when we graduate, we can stand on our own (and pay off those loans). We are workers of double shifts to pay for this education when we know our “adoring parents” do not have the means to do so. We are fourth generation pre-dental students. We are first generation college graduates.

    We also make mistakes and become confused, sometimes in response to ambiguous instructions or difficult to contact instructors. Granted, there are slacker students who come to class late, leave early, and send a mass email to all students when they cannot be bothered to take notes themselves. However, just as one disorganized professor cannot represent the teaching methods all instructors in the same department, students who send multiple inane emails cannot represent all students who email their professors.

    As a reader of syllabi and all online posts by the instructor, I still have reasons for sending emails. Sometimes my professor says she has posted a quiz online but in fact, she has forgotten to unlock the quiz to allow us to take it. Other times, my professor uses multiple websites to post information and though I have looked at all of them, I can find none of my required materials. I have patiently waited for professors to return homework and quizzes before, sometimes after the test for which I needed my graded homework and quizzes to study. I am certain these experiences are shared by many undergraduates.

    When I do send emails, I usually email my TA, out of respect for my professor as I am aware he is busy. I ask about grades not because I expect my papers to be graded a day after I have completed them, but to use them as a guide so I can plan my future study habits. Calculating my grades ahead of time allows me to work to my full potential and avoid hammering down my professor’s door a week before end of term to beg for last minute extra credit to raise my final grade.

    We are under no impression that TAs and professors are solely loungers and mimosa imbibers. I know TAs are juggling teaching, research, and their own classes—daunting tasks for any person. I have heard of the long trek of those on tenure-track, and of the stressful weeks of post-docs during grant writing. For students that don’t know about these things, it may be helpful for professors or TAs to tell us a little about your research or what you do outside of teaching. Or even ask us what might be helpful to improve the learning experience. This is likely much more effective than resorting to the fallacy that students are selfish and incapable of respect or empathy.

    Sometimes emails are the most reasonable forms of communication, especially if we cannot make it to an office hour held once a week during one of our classes. We send emails early for clarity and the avoidance of resolving confusions last-minute. We also have a lot to do. We are happy to give respect but do ask for consideration as well in return.

    Thank you for your time.

    • As I said in the post, I have no problem with students that have checked the syllabus, have tried to get the needed information, and found a problem. I also have no problem with students that want to email about content. Our grades are posted as soon as we do them on Blackboard, so emailing us about grades is nagging. When we have graded, the students can see the grades. I am sure there is a huge diversity of students and professors out there. No one should be emailing the TA or professor because they can’t be bothered to look at the syllabus. Probably a Wiki or Facebook group is a much more efficient way for students to talk about issues with a class so everyone can see it and answer rather than having many email the TA or professor. As far as emailing the TA or the professor goes, I would email the one who generated the problem. If the professor did not unlock the quiz, for example, that is where the email should be directed.TAs are just as busy as professors and are paid less, after all.

    • Kristen Beard says:

      I really appreciate the quality of this response. Way to represent undergraduates well and make some very reasonable points.

  6. Arya Kordalis says:

    In a world of academia, students are encouraged to ask any and all questions – regardless of whether or not they are in another’s opinion “silly” or “stupid.” Thus, when a student wants to ask when papers are being graded, why shouldn’t he? Now, if a student happened to email you asking “Can you explain quantum entanglement?” or “Would you like to go to a frat party?” then those would be “inappropriate” questions. No one is asking you to waste time dealing with such tomfoolery.

    As an educator, surely you aware that you and your TA have to deal with these questions, as numerous as they may be. In another post you mentioned your frustration at other colleagues who do not understand the student’s “need for predictability.” (https://sociobiology.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/be-welcoming-to-the-students-that-may-need-disability-accommodation/) It is equally, if not more, frustrating when students behave in a predictable manner (i.e. sending emails with small questions) and are received in a bad light by their professors. While the public may consider it as “nagging,” it is often an effective way to obtain information and get a task done – in all reality, isn’t obtaining information and getting things done what people in society strive for?

    I understand that you have your own life, but taking 30-45 seconds to answer emails is insignificant compared to the several minutes/hour you spend writing up blog posts. With all due respect, I suggest you take your own advice and “suck it up.”

    Have a pleasant day!

    • My original post was inspired by the way a very small part of the class was treating my teaching assistants, not me. We have posted test and quiz grades within a day of their taking them. We should all think about what our responsibilities are. For the students, it is to read the syllabus and class materials and email only when necessary. For us it is to be prompt and predictable and to have the material and expectations as clear as possible. We have put hundreds of hours into doing our part. It is inappropriate and disrespectful for an individual student to decide her/his first course of action when wondering about something is to email the teaching assistant. Is there no way to talk about really excessive behavior by students without being charged with discouraging all email contact? How would you feel if a student seemed to email you every time he sat down to work on the course, daily or more? Do you really think there should be no limits to the student’s use of our email addresses? It is not a few seconds if all students do this. Furthermore it takes time away from legitimate emailed issues or questions. Balance, that’s what we need. I love to teach. I love to explore new ways of doing so. I love my enthusiastic, hardworking students. I love my teaching assistants and the outstanding job they are doing. Is it any surprise I am a mama bear when this kind of issue comes up? Doesn’t trust break down under arrogance?

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