Original post published April 19, 2014
Last semester, I tried something new: prohibiting my upper-level media studies students from emailing me for any other reason than to set up a time to meet in person. For years, student emails have been an assault on professors, sometimes with inappropriate informality, sometimes just simply not understanding that professors should not have to respond immediately. Most often, student emails are a waste of everyone’s time because the questions are so basic that the answers are truly ON THE SYLLABUS.
In my effort to teach students appropriate use of emails, my syllabus policies ballooned to cover every conceivable scenario – when to email, when not to, how to write the subject line – and still I spent class time discussing the email policies and logged hours upon hours answering emails that defied the policies.
In a fit of self-preservation, I decided: no more. This is where I make my stand! In my senior-level gender and media course, I instituted a no-email policy and (here’s the hard part) stuck to it religiously. I explained to my students that there were a few very solid reasons for this policy:
1. They needed to read and know the syllabus and pay attention in class, rather than use email as a crutch to ask superficial questions. Taking these small yet seemingly impossible steps would make them more aware and engaged in the class.
2. Reading assignment instructions carefully and asking questions about the assignments in class or in office hours would force them to begin working on papers early, thus eliminating last-minute emails about instructions.
3. More of our conversations would take place in person – whether in my office or in class – rather than via email, thus allowing us to get to know each other better and fostering a more collegial atmosphere.
I am happy to report it was an unqualified success. It’s difficult to convey just how wonderful it was for students to stop by office hours more often, to ask questions about assignments in the class periods leading up to due dates, and to have students rise to the expectation that they know the syllabus. Their papers were better, they were more prepared for class time than I’ve ever experienced.
It is also difficult to tally the time I saved by not answering hundreds of brief, inconsequential emails throughout the semester. I can say that the difference in my inbox traffic was noticeable and welcome.
I plan to expand and adapt my email-free zone in the coming semesters and I’m curious to know what (if anything) students will write about the policy on their student evaluations. They were surprised at first by the policy, but over the course of the semester, the only remarks they made were to say (in person!) “I know you don’t want emails, so …” before launching into their questions.
This was the experience I hoped for and as I told my students: I am not opposed to email in general and I am one of the most plugged-in people I know. But, as a media scholar, I believe it is paramount that we make conscience decisions about our media use. In the context of being a media professor, my effort to teach them email etiquette by using complex and all-encompassing policies was failing them and me – eliminating email from the teacher/student relationship was the most powerful act I could take and led to productive conversations with them as we explored media habits.
Post updated August 21, 2014
As I wrote above, I truly did want to see whether students would use their course evaluations to react to the policy of seriously limiting emails. The relevant evaluations finally arrived this week and I am delighted to report a few positive outcomes. First, the overall scores on this class were higher than my average and the comments about the course were overwhelmingly positive. In particular, the statements “The professor was accessible for help outside of class,” “The professor’s apparent concern for the students’ progress in the course was,” and “Overall the teaching of this course was” were all three rated “Excellent.” Out of 48 students across two sections of the course, only one written comment mentioned the email policy. The comment, verbatim: “I wish I had been able to email her more, rather than just arrange appointments. Oftentimes, I just had a quick yes/no question and it was difficult to arrange a meeting time for something so small in between my class/work schedule and her schedule. I do like that she preferred to meet in person though, but for some quick questions, it seemed tedious.” Frankly, I completely sympathize with this student’s point, but it is not enough to sway me from feeling that the policy was a net positive for myself and my students.
I am beginning a new semester at a new institution, where I will try once more to severely limit student emails. I take two key points from my own experience and my course evaluations. First, students can adapt to a policy that is clearly explained, pedagogically sound, and consistently implemented. Second, if the teacher is available outside of class and genuinely cares about students’ success, the students will value face-to-face interactions. I am also curious to learn about your email policies, so please leave a comment!
Good luck to us all as we start a new semester!
What about you? What are your email policies and would you ever establish an email-free class?