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Student Email: Issues and Solutions

The following list of ideas about how to manage course-related email was compiled from the AAHESGIT listserv.

  1. On your syllabus, near your email address, tell your students in your 101 class that they MUST put 101 as their subject line. In class explain that you sort all your related email before you read it so that it is imperative that this standardized subject line be included.

  2. Don't RESPOND to student emails as you receive them, but rather SORT them into folders as you receive them. I believe some email software will do this for you automatically as long as your students use the correct subject line.

  3. At a designated time in your work week, sit down to read and answer all the collected email for the 101 students. Many of your students will have asked similar questions, and if you are reading them together, you can more efficiently respond to each with a standard response rather than individual responses over many days. You might even tell your students how often you'll respond to their collected and stored emails thereby encouraging them to think ahead. You many find that by doing so, they ask their homework and exam-prep questions MORE than 2 hours before the work is due!

From Terri Heath, University of Oregon

For some of the recommendations I make to faculty considering this use of instructional technology.

A few observations for faculty overwhelmed with the volume of email include:

From JQ Johnson, University of Oregon

There's a danger of encouraging frivolous and disingenuous communication from students. The e-mail should not be a substitute for studying and trying to learn by oneself. The medium is also seductively but misleadingly and inappropriately intimate. The faculty member believes he/she is mentoring, but is really only maintaining communication ties. There should be more study of this.

From James Bess, New York University

Jim Bess said (after earlier messages about how to manage the volume of email from students):
"There's a danger of encouraging frivolous and disingenuous communication from students. The e-mail should not be a substitute for studying and trying to learn by oneself. The medium is also seductively but misleadingly and inappropriately intimate. The faculty member believes he/she is mentoring, but is really only maintaining communication ties. There should be more study of this."

In this message, as well as in the earlier ones about managing the volume of email, those writing the messages imply that email exchange is a simple information exchange and not in itself educational. I don't know for sure that anyone actually thought that as they wrote about managing the volume, so I don't want to put words in people's mouths. At the same time, I'd like to suggest we not overlook the educational value of writing email in and of itself.

One of the most difficult of all intellectual skills for students to master, if they ever do, is writing with appropriate tone and register for an audience, and, another is framing their writing with sufficient contextual information to make their message valuable and readable. All of us who use email know how daunting both of these rhetorical skills can be.

These skills require us to keep in mind who we are actually addressing our message to, when the message we are responding to was written, who else will read our email, and what everyone has to know in order to understand our message. Audience, purpose, context, ethos-pretty important rhetorical skills, I'd say. In many ways, writing email today is a more cognitively challenging discourse skill than writing a 5-paragraph essay ever was.

It's important to keep this in mind before we dismiss email as frivolous. If our goal is to develop the thinking skills of students, perhaps a free-flow of email is hard to beat as an exercise. We also have to be conscious of the Puritan strain in us which might make us suspicious of the learning value of anything students actually enjoy doing.

I've been doing email with my students for over 15 years. I can't remember ever getting email that was "inappropriately intimate" unless Bess is using "intimate" to mean "informal." Yes, if one is accustomed to being called "professor Batson," being called "Trent" can be a bit unnerving. But, at the same time, being called "Trent" does open up new channels of communication that would otherwise be limited.

We all work on our writing skills all of our lives. These skills are more and more important to our success in life. If students enjoy writing email, and if we understand how valuable email writing can be in students' intellectual development, then let's encourage that channel of learning rather than working so hard to restrict it.

From Trent Batson, Gallaudet University

Regarding James Bess' comments about on-line mentoring [and Email usage by students]:
I fully appreciate Bess' concerns over the extent of sincere relational and intellectual rapport cultivated using Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). I've conducted research on these sorts of issues and agree we always need to exercise vigilance.

Yet, I disagree that on-line communication cannot be used in constructing [supporting] valid mentoring. First, mentoring requires mutual accessibility. There are few communication channels with higher accessibility than email (or variations like UNIX talk or chat lines). Albeit asynchronous, CMC text-based interaction provides valid communicative exchanges.

Second, the assumption that instrumental, career-information- oriented messages constitute the most important dimension in mentoring is debatable. Most research indicates that social support is often the more important mentoring dimension. Our research into on-line mentoring revealed that communication modality (on-line only vs on- line + other channels) could not significantly predict extent of social support communication in a mentoring or peer helping relationship. However, multi-mode vs on-line only communicative contact did lead to higher amounts of both career and social support activity in such relationships. So, considering the alternative for some people (i.e. no mentoring), I'd say that's at least a qualified endorsement for cultivating on-line mentoring.

Finally, there is an efficacy factor to consider. Our results also indicated that amount of experience using email was significantly related to giving career oriented feedback in mentoring and helping relationships. So, it appears that desired effects are amenable to training, and to encouraging the continued use of the technology.

I think it's clear email can be both adjunct to or substitute for conventional face-to-face interaction in mentoring relationships. Cultivating an open and accessible communication environment is essential for any successful mentoring or helping relationship. There is no evidence I have seen (self-generated or otherwise) that would lead me to conclude CMC cannot be a viable and vital part of such an environment.

From Edward Mabry, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Jim Bess has a good point. I am an associate professor of computer science and a very heavy user of e-mail. My students and I have exchanged 538 e-mail messages so far in this fall semester. (I teach one class of 55 sophomores and one of 32 seniors.) E-mail remains the students' (and my) medium of choice for communication even though I do of course have office hours and I even give students my home phone number. But I am so busy at school and get pulled in so many directions (like most profs who try to do research and consult as well as teach, I suppose), it is impossible for me to really give students my full attention when they stop by my office. I deal with e-mail from home (it helps that I am fortunate to have a cable company that offers high-speed broadband Internet connection), and the students get much more attention from me by my responses in the evening than during the day.

So while my students and I love e-mail, let me explain why I can tell you so precisely that I have exchanged exactly 538 e-mail messages with my students so far this semester: I save them all for the very reason that Jim implies. Last year a female student came on to me and began sending me very long, very personal, and very suggestive e-mail. In the 13 years that I have been a prof, two other female students have come on to me, but both backed off quickly when I made it plain that I wasn't interested. (I am single, but I'm getting married on Sunday, and not to a former student!) This one wouldn't stop.

I forwarded her e-mail to my chair, told her I was doing so, had my chair review my responses to her before I sent them, and clearly copied him on those responses. She still wouldn't stop. Finally, I printed out the complete e-mail exchange (which I had of course saved) and turned it in to Student Affairs. Interestingly enough, our University has no formal procedure for a prof to file a sexual harassment charge against a student, just the other way around! Well, they did nothing more than send her a letter (they didn't even bother to try to call) which of course went unanswered, after which they just dropped the case. When I raised a stink about their lack of action, I got chewed out by the Asst. Dean of Students for giving one of her people a hard time. Sigh.

So here are my suggestions to deal with Jim's very real points.

  1. Faculty members should be careful not to be too personal with students and should be vigilant of students who use e-mail for purposes other than technical communication. One way to deal with such attempts by students to draw profs into personal discussions is simply not to respond. Like those telephone marketers who always call at dinner time, one must remember that one can always hang up the phone.

  2. Faculty members should save all e-mail correspondence with students for at least the entire semester (until grades have been given and received). If you don't have enough disk space, get it.

  3. Any e-mail that is suspect should be formally reported to one's superiors. Responses should be at least copied to one's superior if not screened and approved by him/her before being sent.

  4. But don't throw out the baby with the bath water. No matter what medium we use to communicate with our students, some will always abuse it. C'est la vie. There are always talkers in class, too.

From Jesse Heines, University of Massachussettes Lowell