[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
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
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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