[EAS] Our Customers in Class

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Feb 23 21:58:22 EST 2006

Dear Colleagues -

Another spotlight on our "customers in class." Although my experience 
has not included the more egregious offenses described below, there 
is an unmistakable trend: college instruction is gradually coming to 
be perceived as part of a pre-professional training service. Yet the 
students' conduct, during their four very formative college years, is 
often far from professional. Yet more things they should have 
learned, and used to have learned, before coming to college, but 
often haven't these days -- extra burdens on our teaching that our 
"job descriptions" didn't anticipate.

And check out the <http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/index.jsp> 
mentioned. It is probably one of a growing number of such, none known 
to me previously. It isn't all that inclusive yet, but when there is 
a listing, it can be rather crude.

(from NY Times, Feb. 21, 2006)
To: Professor at University.edu
Subject: Why It's All About Me

Correction Appended

One student skipped class and then sent the professor an e-mail 
message asking for copies of her teaching notes. Another did not like 
her grade, and wrote a petulant message to the professor. Another 
explained that she was late for a Monday class because she was 
recovering from drinking too much at a wild weekend party.

Jennifer Schultens, an associate professor of mathematics at the 
University of California, Davis, received this e-mail message last 
September from a student in her calculus course: "Should I buy a 
binder or a subject notebook? Since I'm a freshman, I'm not sure how 
to shop for school supplies. Would you let me know your 
recommendations? Thank you!"

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors 
much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, 
erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy 

These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around 
the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages - from 10 a 
week to 10 after every class - that are too informal or downright 

"The tone that they would take in e-mail was pretty astounding," said 
Michael J. Kessler, an assistant dean and a lecturer in theology at 
Georgetown University. " 'I need to know this and you need to tell me 
right now,' with a familiarity that can sometimes border on 

He added: "It's a real fine balance to accommodate what they need and 
at the same time maintain a level of legitimacy as an instructor and 
someone who is institutionally authorized to make demands on them, 
and not the other way round."

While once professors may have expected deference, their expertise 
seems to have become just another service that students, as 
consumers, are buying. So students may have no fear of giving 
offense, imposing on the professor's time or even of asking a 
question that may reflect badly on their own judgment.

For junior faculty members, the barrage of e-mail has brought new 
tension into their work lives, some say, as they struggle with how to 
respond. Their tenure prospects, they realize, may rest in part on 
student evaluations of their accessibility.

The stakes are different for professors today than they were even a 
decade ago, said Patricia Ewick, chairwoman of the sociology 
department at Clark University in Massachusetts, explaining that 
"students are constantly asked to fill out evaluations of individual 
faculty." Students also frequently post their own evaluations on Web 
sites like 
<http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/index.jsp>ratemyprofessors.com and 
describe their impressions of their professors on blogs.

Last fall, undergraduate students at Syracuse University set up a 
group in Facebook.com, an online network for students, and dedicated 
it to maligning one particular instructor. The students were 

Professor Ewick said 10 students in one class e-mailed her drafts of 
their papers days before they were due, seeking comments. "It's all 
different levels of presumption," she said. "One is that I'll be able 
to drop everything and read 250 pages two days before I'm going to 
get 50 of these."
Kathleen E. Jenkins, a sociology professor at the College of William 
and Mary in Virginia, said she had even received e-mail requests from 
students who missed class and wanted copies of her teaching notes.

Alexandra Lahav, an associate professor of law at the University of 
Connecticut, said she felt pressured by the e-mail messages. "I feel 
sort of responsible, as if I ought to be on call all the time," she 

Many professors said they were often uncertain how to react. 
Professor Schultens, who was asked about buying the notebook, said 
she debated whether to tell the student that this was not a query 
that should be directed to her, but worried that "such a message 
could be pretty scary."
"I decided not to respond at all," she said.

Christopher J. Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of 
Education who has studied technology in education, said these e-mail 
messages showed how students no longer deferred to their professors, 
perhaps because they realized that professors' expertise could 
rapidly become outdated.
"The deference was probably driven more by the notion that professors 
were infallible sources of deep knowledge," Professor Dede said, and 
that notion has weakened.

Meanwhile, students seem unaware that what they write in e-mail could 
adversely affect them, Professor Lahav said. She recalled an e-mail 
message from a student saying that he planned to miss class so he 
could play with his son. Professor Lahav did not respond.
"It's graduate school, he's an adult human being, he's obviously a 
parent, and it's not my place to tell him how to run his life," she 

But such e-mail messages can have consequences, she added. "Students 
don't understand that what they say in e-mail can make them seem very 
unprofessional, and could result in a bad recommendation."

Still, every professor interviewed emphasized that instant feedback 
could be invaluable. A question about a lecture or discussion "is for 
me an indication of a blind spot, that the student didn't get it," 
said Austin D. Sarat, a professor of political science at Amherst 

College students say that e-mail makes it easier to ask questions and 
helps them to learn. "If the only way I could communicate with my 
professors was by going to their office or calling them, there would 
be some sort of ranking or prioritization taking place," said Cory 
Merrill, 19, a sophomore at Amherst. "Is this question worth going 
over to the office?"

But student e-mail can go too far, said Robert B. Ahdieh, an 
associate professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta. He paraphrased 
some of the comments he had received: "I think you're covering the 
material too fast, or I don't think we're using the reading as much 
as we could in class, or I think it would be helpful if you would 
summarize what we've covered at the end of class in case we missed 

Students also use e-mail to criticize one another, Professor Ahdieh 
said. He paraphrased this comment: "You're spending too much time 
with my moron classmates and you ought to be focusing on those of us 
who are getting the material."

Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the Massachusetts 
Institute of Technology, said he once received an e-mail message late 
one evening from a student who had recently come to the realization 
that he was gay and was struggling to cope.

Professor Greenstone said he eventually helped the student get an 
appointment with a counselor. "I don't think we would have had the 
opportunity to discuss his realization and accompanying feelings 
without e-mail as an icebreaker," he said.

A few professors said they had rules for e-mail and told their 
students how quickly they would respond, how messages should be 
drafted and what types of messages they would answer.
Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in 
California, said she told students that they must say thank you after 
receiving a professor's response to an e-mail message.
"One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful 
person always has to write back," Professor Worley said.

Correction: Feb. 22, 2006
A front-page article yesterday about e-mail messages sent by students 
to their college and university professors misidentified a Web site 
on which students evaluate teachers. It is ratemyprofessors.com, not 

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