Recently Slate.com reposted an article from Inside Higher Education that described Salem College Assistant Professor Spring-Serenity Duvall’s decision, arrived at after some lengthy and thoughtful consideration, to strictly limit student e-mails. Her policy: no e-mails unless you’re scheduling an in-person meeting. One exception: they were allowed to send her content relevant to the course.
She then provided plenty of office-hours time for meetings, and also agreed to meet classmates outside of office hours if necessary to fit their schedules.
a) She managed to silence the nonstop barrage of emails begging her to reiterate the syllabus content 15 ways from Sunday, reporting that a student or an assignment would be late, and communicating the various whinges to which students are subject.
b) Students started showing up for class better prepared.
c) Students’ papers were better.
d) And a vast Time-Suck went away.
I like it.
It is, of course, workable only for face-to-face classes, and only for full-time faculty who actually have offices in which to hold office hours. As an adjunct who is paid only for the number of hours I stand in front of a classroom, I’m not about to sit around the campus library for two or three unpaid hours a week (or more) waiting for students to wander in as they wish, nor do I think it is wise to discuss academic issues with students in a public place. And of course because I’m now teaching exclusively online, the only way to communicate with my bunch is by e-mail or through announcements.
However, if you’re real faculty with a real infrastructure, it’s a brilliant idea.
The vast online proprietary schools raise e-mail tyranny to the institutional level: faculty are often required to send e-mails to every student in a class at least once or twice a week, and also required to respond to student e-mails within a set amount of time.
Duvall notes that most student e-mails ask questions whose answers are on the syllabus. They don’t bother to read it, or they don’t take time to figure out what it means.
That certainly is true. Every semester at least one student asks me to reiterate, in detail, an assignment that I’ve already explained, with all the clarity that I can muster, on my syllabus and again on my assignment sheet. And a third time in Canvas, come to think of it.
This semester it came to my attention that students truly do not understand the content of syllabi and assignment sheets.
Unknown to me, the college had switched to the 11th edition of our textbook. My syllabus was keyed to the 10th edition. The only difference between the 10th and the 11th editions was the selection of post-chapter readings. The content of the chapters themselves was unchanged.
To persuade classmates to read the book, I ask them to turn in “reading reviews” synopsizing the chapters and applying the principles therein to one of the related readings.
Well, when they saw the page numbers didn’t correspond and some of the essays had been changed, they freaked.
I had to find the 11th edition’s table of contents on-line and then write them a new list of reading reviews.
Soon, reviews were coming in…reviews of the wrong chapters.
They couldn’t figure out that I was not asking them to read the chapters in order from 1 to 14. Stubbornly, they stuck to their conviction that reading review 3 must cover chapter 3, when in fact it covers chapter 14.
Some of the material that appears later in the book is important for their success on the first paper. They need to read chapter 14 now, not two weeks before the semester ends.
Their confusion, we can see, was a result of not reading closely. They don’t read carefully because they barely read at all. Some have surprisingly low comprehension levels.
I suspect, too, they don’t read closely because they’ve become so accustomed to getting information through video channels that the act of reading feels clumsy for them. Look at the local news websites: recently they’ve trended toward removing written articles from their pages altogether. The only way you can get the sentence or two of reporting that interests you is to sit through a tedious, often frothy blabathon delivered by a talking head.
Personally, I find it far easier and faster to read a news article than to have it read to me. But that’s a function of fluent reading. If you’re not a fluent reader, you want someone to read to you. And when one comes down to it, that’s not an efficient way to absorb information.
At any rate, expecting them to read the syllabus may be asking a bit much, because many of them don’t read and can’t read, at least not very effectively or comfortably.
Still. If a ban on e-mails would force them to at least try, that would be an improvement.