January 19, 2005

E-mail Cholesterol

Posted by Michael Arnzen at 17:13 in Praxis.

"E-mail," business writer Mark Suskino has written, "is the cholesterol of modern management."

Teachers have to be managers, too, to some degree, and not just in the classroom. We collect and comment on so many documents that our lives are riddled with as much paperwork as a tax attorney's desk. The massive growth in reliance on e-mail invisibly adds to our workload, as student and administrative messages are delivered to our inboxes in lieu of face-to-face communication more and more.

Anyone returning from holiday break to open their e-mail knows what I'm talking about: hundreds of messages awaiting response, student queries about grades and required books, administration briefings, alerts from the registrar, and junk mail awaiting deletion...even junk mail filter bins awaiting review to see if anything important got put in the same folder as so many ads for Rolex watches.

Many teachers only deal with e-mail when they're in their faculty office, at appointed times. That's good advice for some, but I'm personally processing constantly at my home office, as well. For me, there is no "vacation" from e-mail, except, perhaps when I travel sans modem...and even then, I feel the need to find a terminal somewhere and check it over the web. Because I submit a lot of writing to editors, I need to check constantly for their replies, and I also don't like to keep others waiting for my responses. You have to keep your in-box in shape. Like blood, it's a constant stream, and if e-mail is like cholesterol, I fear blockage.

Some cholesterol is good and much is bad. What can faculty do to better manage e-mail? And how can we more effectively use it when interacting with students? I liberally invite my students to e-mail me and I actually enjoy working that way, but sometimes the number of messages can get high or students send inappropriate questions or materials. [I'll never forget when I hosted an e-mail discussion list for a Literary Criticism course, and one student sent an obscene e-mail to everyone, assuming it was pertinent to our discussion of Freud. I got a lot of complaints about that and had to institute a policy (and I've since used private discussion boards instead).] As I've written here before, some students treat a professor's inbox as a complaint box while others use it as a genuine enhancement of learning. Research from the PEW institute tells us that 82-90% of students contact with their profs via e-mail and around half of those students report that e-mail has enhanced their relationship with their professors. (That research also suggests that students only complain 4% of the time). Those numbers are only escalating...so how to best process it all?

There's lots of advice out there -- and the topic is too broad to adequately cover here. In "Student E-mail: Issues and Solutions," the Teaching Effectiveness program at my alma mater, University of Oregon, offers some fantastic tips from the faculty trenches on handling mail and integrating it into a course. Investing some time reading all the advice out there on e-mail management can help, too, from reading the help file in your e-mail software, to surfing google for advice. Microsoft Outlook is the dominant system on our campus, and Microsoft Office Online offers all sorts of good information about E-mail Management. Their "Crabby Office Lady" column has an article on "Pestering Students with E-mail" which might have some good advice for using e-mail to manage students (but I think most of us need the opposite -- to reduce the amount of e-mail we get). Perhaps a lecture or even an assignment on e-mail nettiquette can work.

Overall, the best trick is to keep your own messages low in cholesterol -- write brief messages and divert the "next action" to a face-to-face conversation or send the writer to a more appropriate source. Some things I've done with student e-mail that you might try:

  • If you are as open to e-mail correspondence as I am, put your e-mail address on your syllabus or even on any directions/guidelines you distribute in handouts. I even post my e-mail address on my office door, right next to office hours.
  • If a student raises a juicy class-related issue, usually a response to a reading, I'll print out a copy (usually with permission) and distribute it to class for open discussion rather than get pulled into an e-mail conversation.
  • If a student writes almost daily, with "reactions" to virtually each class meeting, I won't ignore it but I'll respond in short, almost terse, messages, usually steering the student somewhere else: the library, the textbook, or to the next class discussion.
  • If students write with simple questions about class policies, I'll e-mail them a copy of the syllabus and ask them to come to my office hours if they've still got questions. If they are valid questions that others might have, or oversights and errors I've made (say, mismatching paper deadlines on my syllabus and guideline sheets), I'll ask them to remind me to discuss it in the next class meeting -- OR -- I'll forward my answer in a distribution to the entire class.
  • If the e-mail is one of those popular "forwards" (usually jokes or pictures or even pyramid schemes that people pass along) I'll just delete it. If it continues, I'll ask them to take me off their distribution lists and possibly send them to a copy of campus policies regarding e-mail.

Well, I've only scratched a very broad surface here...just sharing some random thoughts. Please post your own advice by commenting on this message.

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Well said. Sometimes the paperwork seems to take on a life of its own. ;)

Posted by EdWonk at 23:20 on January 19, 2005. #

A timely posting.

I let students know that if they really want a reply to me, they should include the course number in the subject line. I'll get to that one first. If they don't use a subject line, and their address is "DancinFool2000@yahoo.com," theirs won't be the first I answer. A few students go overboard, and begin every letter with a formal introduction: "Dear Dr. Jerz, I am a student in your EL XXX class..."

When a student asks a good question, I typically remove the student's name, and post the reply to the whole class. Chances are someone else might have the same question, or will when they get around to starting the homework the night before it's due. While not everyone checks their e-mail, I figure that at least the person who was about to send me an e-mail at 1am will see my reply.

I've kept updating an e-mail handout that a student of mine started as a class project several years ago... you might want to check it out.


Posted by Dennis G. Jerz at 08:52 on January 20, 2005. #

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We hope that you and your friends can join us. And again, please accept our congratulations and best wishes for a very successful and happy 2005.

Posted by Pink Poppy at 21:27 on January 20, 2005. #

Thanks for the email pointers. I think those are helpful, although as a high school teacher my frustration is more with parents sometimes.

Posted by Abigail at 16:32 on January 21, 2005. #

Stepher Robbins has a fantastic article on Handling E-mail Overload

Posted by Mike Arnzen at 00:16 on January 27, 2005. #

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