"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."
Growing up we heard versions of this lie all the time. In reality, words are powerful. Words are full of emotions and connotations, and they should always be handled with care. Using words prudently is just as important when talking with students as in our scholarly writing. When communicating with students, whether in an e-mail, in the office, or in the classroom, using a combination of inclusive, positive, and welcoming language is best.
I still remember one negative, almost hostile e-mail I received as a college freshman from a professor. It said, "Andrew, you need to greatly curtail the number of e-mails you send." This was in the third or fourth week of the semester. This was a small honors class with a dozen students. One e-mail I sent was a reply to a message this instructor sent out to everyone requesting specific information. One was an e-mail following the course procedure for mistakes we found in the online chapter quizzes. The last one was a content-based question about the lecture and reading material. While we all voice this frustration — we do receive far too many e-mails — we should communicate and deal with this in a very different way.
I have days where I am tempted to delete all my e-mail and not look back because I receive so many -- 50 to 100 every day. For me, the number of e-mails from students has always been small (actually too small) — no more than 10-20 weekly. Perhaps we think our students send more because they generally ask questions that are covered in the syllabus or in other handouts. I just do my best to take a few minutes once or twice a day and answer any messages. It always takes less time than I anticipate. A few ways to make answering more manageable are: 1) for questions that more than one student is likely to have, go ahead send an e-mail to the entire class, 2) send e-mails to everyone regularly with course information and reminders, 3) keep a document with replies and announcements that be can recycled and revised, and 4) have an online discussion board where other students can help answer the more general questions.
Nonetheless, always remember: we are there to help students stay in college and help them learn. E-mail even sometimes provides an opportunity to really reach out to a dedicated student. For example, I recently received an e-mail from a student roughly saying, "I don’t understand the readings, what tips do you have, please." (The reading assignment was a transcript from a trial in the 17th century.)
Dear [name redacted],
I'm sorry to hear the readings are giving you difficulties. Have you tried reading out loud? Don’t worry about every detail. I don’t know about Windows computers, but if you have a Mac, you can have the computer read text to you. You might try listening to the text. Here's a website that has the same reading assignment…. Let me know if any of this works.
Consider how different the message would have been if I had said, "I’m sorry to hear you are having difficulties with the readings." By placing the blame on the reading assignment, so to speak, I am hoping that this student will receive a positive message and one that does not criticize the student’s current academic abilities. Additionally, I like to end e-mails with a message that conveys that it is O.K. to write again.
Occasionally, a smiley face emoticon or “LOL” can also help an e-mail message bridge the absence of body language and audible tone that would exist in face-to-face communications.
I am sure you are thinking, “Hold up! We have enough trouble getting students to send somewhat coherent e-mails and now you’re saying to use emoticons and LOLs?!!” Certainly, our students generally have much to learn about formal online communication. I remember a few e-mails that were written with so many different abbreviations and slang that my only option was to ask the students to send them again in complete sentences because I could not understand. In general, however, I think we are being too picky when we insist every message begin “Dear Professor so and so” and conclude with “Sincerely, Your Student, Chemistry MWF 9-10” and too picky when we expect so-called perfect Standard English in e-mails, for example. We need to remember that language is always shifting and adapting to new realities. As it has developed, e-mail serves largely informal purposes for our students. Naturally, to be effective teachers, we have to be effective learners and that means adjusting, within reason of course, to the realities of students and their world.
In online or face-to-face communication, I also use “we” as much as possible. If a student says, "I’m struggling with…" or “I don’t understand….,” I reply with statements that begin, "It’ll be alright. We’ll get through it." If a student asks a question that I know has been addressed in the syllabus, for instance, I will say, "I believe that’s in our syllabus. Check there and let me know if that helps."
In another scenario, students ask almost every semester, “Will we have any graded group projects?” I respond with something like, “We might do some group work in class, but everything will be graded on an individual basis. I don’t like group projects because each student has a different level of interest in this class and the assignment, and I want everyone to get along effectively.” Saying something like “some students care more about projects than others” is far more positive than saying, “there are always slackers and some weak groups.”
I particularly dislike the signs I occasionally see on office doors that say, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” This is condescending and likely hypocritical. Students need our help to learn how to meet deadlines and receive assistance. This does not mean that I shy away from conversations with students who are earning grades lower than those required to pass the class. I always frame conversations in terms of asking students, “What does success mean to you?” Then, we discuss the behaviors needed for that goal. When I give students advice, I always end by telling them to please let me know if they ever have any follow-up questions or if they need me to deliver my “advice talk” again.
Students need to feel safe at college. Part of being safe is knowing that they can ask questions, even the silly ones, and make mistakes and not be put down. We can also teach students about effective communication by the ways in which we communicate with them. Timely, clear replies phrased in ways that aim to help students learn and that give students the benefit of the doubt are most effective. College is about learning, and our job is to help guide students through this messy process. All this is hard enough – effective communication is an easy fix.
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