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The Professor Has Left the Building. Thank You, and Goodnight.
February 20, 2011 - 9:00pm

Ever see this clip from Seinfeld?

It captures how we all feel about telemarketers calling us at home. Now if only I could figure out a way to get this message across to my students. No, they haven’t called me at home (probably because I haven’t made my number public) but they email me – constantly. They email me at midnight, 3 am, 6 am, while I’m on vacation, and while we’re on semester break.

Now, I tell my students at the beginning of every semester not to email me the night before an assignment is due to ask for an extension; not to send me panicky emails about whether they could skip a quiz and make it up later – two hours before class; not to send me emails asking for their final grades in the course when we’re on winter break, simply because they can’t wait the few days until grades are posted. Yet, the emails keep coming. In fact, with each incoming cohort over the last three years, the numbers of such emails showing up in my inbox has increased exponentially.

It would be one thing if the emails at 3 am didn’t expect an answer from me. But they do. I’ve had students email me a couple of times in the middle of the same night, in the hopes, I imagine, of somehow “squeezing” a response from me – during the time that I am, quite naturally, asleep in my bed. If it’s not the email that comes in at 3 am, it’s the email that arrives at 7 pm and demands a response before I go to bed that night. Do we, as professors, not get to “go home” from our jobs? Do we not have families and other obligations? Do we not need sleep? Do we not observe weekends and holidays? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Of course one could argue that professors are not obligated to answer poorly-timed emails right away. But if you don’t, you could very well have twenty more emails in your inbox by the next day, all desperately demanding an answer. Or the email-happy student could go to your chair or another colleague to complain about your failure to respond. The Work-Life Caregiver Equity Study at UMass-Amherst produced a report that corroborates some of the above. It further states that even when professors set clear rules regarding emails, such as a 24-hour response time, it is more likely to “lead to negative student evaluations regarding the faculty member’s availability and accessibility for students."

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t be available to our students at all. Of course our students need to get in touch with us at odd hours sometimes; of course emergencies happen sometimes. But as the UMass-Amherst report also states, our students often email us with questions that they can find answers for in their syllabi or assignment instructions: When are your office hours? How long is the paper supposed to be? Or they email us about things which are better discussed in person: Why did I get a “C” on this assignment? Nor am I bothered by the emails that come in at odd hours but don’t require responses: Here’s a news story I came across that seemed relevant to this class. In fact, I welcome such emails! But I am bothered by emails that come at all hours of the night and demand immediate responses.

The UMass report recommends developing an email etiquette guide to be included on departmental websites and faculty syllabi. The first and perhaps the most significant recommendation is: “Expect faculty to respond to emails between 9am and 5pm on Monday through Friday with a forty-eight hour lag time.” Even though such rules are not enforceable, they have the benefit of taking the burden off of individual faculty who wish to impose such limits on email communication. We can also safely assume that female academics would benefit from such family-friendly policies since they often do a disproportionate amount of child-care and housework, and thus probably feel more pressed for time when it comes to answering student emails.

But we can expect that such policies will not be widely adopted by colleges (even though some corporate work places do have email policies). So until the day comes when we have college-wide policies to help us curb the flow of student emails to our in-boxes, perhaps I should take my inspiration from Seinfeld, and email my students at 2:30 am on a Saturday and ask them to complete an assignment by 9 am on Sunday.

Connecticut, USA

Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. She can be reached at afshan.jafar@conncoll.edu.

 

 

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