Email Trouble

The summer's usually a quiet time in academia, but UD's been kept busy covering a surprising number of dustups -- among them, two recent cautionary tales for professors, both from the land of the SEND key.


August 8, 2007

The summer's usually a quiet time in academia, but UD's been kept busy covering a surprising number of dustups -- among them, two recent cautionary tales for professors, both from the land of the SEND key.

UD's had occasion, on her flagship campus, to discuss professor/student email etiquette generally; more specifically, she's noted articles in places like the New York Times, in which professors complain (wrongly, UD thinks) about students emailing them somewhat annoying questions... But the main thing she, like everyone else, has noted about email is how dangerously simple it is to send and to forward.

One professor has been sacked and another made an object of ridicule because of emails they fired off -- emails that then burst into shrapnel all over the world.

The more serious case involves a senior lecturer at Auckland University (whoops - he's already been airbrushed out of their faculty pages), Paul Buchanan. A world-class expert on security issues, Buchanan sounds like a prickly character to begin with, and he seems to have gotten particularly furious with a foreign student in one of his classes who asked for an extension (her father, she said, died) on an end of semester assignment. Here's his answer (I've retained his writing errors) to her request:

I say this reluctantly but not so subtly: you are not suitable for a graduate degree. It does not matter if your father died or if you have a medical certificate.

I have been too nice and have given you too high marks all along (at C+). I do not anticipate that you will do better in the final exercise. You are already a day late.

The extension is meaningless because you have not attended the last few classes and are the worse performer in the class.

Of course by a far stretch, You will have the obituary of your father, but even if available and the student health people might have believed you, I do not.

You are close to failing in any event, so these sort of excuses - culturally driven and preying on some sort of Western liberal guilt - are simply lame.

Prove that your father died and your were distraught and unable to complete assignments -- in spite of your abysmal record to date as an underperforming and underqualified student - and perhaps you might qualify for an extension to get a C-.

[...]In a word: NO - I do not accept your extensuon request.

This wouldn't have merited dismissal - though there would certainly have been unpleasant consequences - in most American universities, but in New Zealand things are different.

And scandalous, if you ask UD. Assuming we've got all the relevant information, tossing the guy out is over the top.

Buchanan's appealing the decision, and he's got a lot of supporters. He's apologized; and he's offered some excuses having to do with an illness and job-related stresses... but there's no getting around the fact that this is a truly outrageous email, sent in a nakedly vindictive fury.

The motives behind the second troubled email are more obscure, but seem to UD to have to do with garrulous self-promoting tendencies in certain fiction writers (see the weird history of Ayelet Waldman's blog). Novelist Robert Olen Butler, a professor at Florida State, wrote an email to a bunch of friends and colleagues, full of details about his wife leaving him for Ted Turner, her struggles in the shadow of Butler's greater writerly fame (she's also a writer), her Dickensian childhood, and her recent intestinal blockage. In the email, he wishes her well as she begins life as one of the "permanently and avowedly non-monogamous" Turner's many girlfriends.

The email's taken on a robustly non-monogamous life of its own, and Butler has responded by sending out yet more emails, expressing anger at its larger circulation, and going over, yet again, private details of his wife's leavetaking...

In this case of professorial email trouble, I think we can anticipate the imminent appearance of an autobiographical novel from Butler all about this matter -- the wife, the email, and Ted Turner.



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