Virtual Office Hours, 24/7

May 2, 2006

I’ve heard many a student excuse for missing class: flu of one type or another, early escape to Mexico the day before spring break, the old high school’s homecoming, even a stint in jail. But recently one surprised me, not so much in its originality -- a car fire, though that was a new one -- but in the evidence offered.

Terry is a grad student at my university who drives 130 miles each week from Interlochen Arts Camp to Grand Rapids for a night class. One Monday he e-mailed that a car problem might result in his absence the next day. Attached to his text was a series of numbered digital photographs taken just hours before: No. 127, his car, smoking alongside the highway; No. 128, from 20 yards further back, the burning car, flames engulfing the left side;  No. 142, a firefighter, gazing at the blackened shell; and No. 143, in a creative denouement, the burned-out car being hoisted by a wrecker.

Clicking through Terry’s sheaf of jpegs was a welcome diversion from the steady stream of more mundane e-mails that fill my day, and the break prompted reflection on the Internet’s effect on daily academic life. Ask most faculty about the general impact of computers on their teaching and you will still hear more reports of in-class technology disasters than grumbles about e-mail; of electronic malfeasance (everything from easy plagiarism to text-messaging during an exam); of fears about being replaced by online instructors; or, if they are virtually savvy and have authored their own online curricular materials, of having their intellectual property appropriated by the university.

But read a batch of evaluations by current students, and you will find complaints about Professor Luddite never answering e-mail. Who cares anymore about seldom-kept office hours?  Faculty are now expected to be on-call electronically -- if not quite 24/7, like transplant surgeons, then certainly far more than under an old paradigm that assumed availability to students only during class and office hours, scheduled or by appointment.  It is e-mail, finally, that is the main engine behind ever-burgeoning demands.

Not so long ago you could display your techno-awareness just by printing an e-mail address on a syllabus. Want to impress your students today? You’d better send immediate answer to e-mails arriving sometime during Jay Leno’s monologue. (They’re probably watching Jon Stewart or playing online poker, but that’s a topic for another essay.)  Outside readers of Professor Luddite’s course evaluations, though, should interpret student gripes skeptically. Or do I alone receive late-night messages from students posting second messages sent at 2:32 a.m. anxiously asking whether I had received the first, sent at 11:45 p.m.?

Even the most ordinary academic tasks have taken on new levels of complexity. A once-innocuous instruction, “Your final paper is due in my office by 5 p.m.,” now unleashes floods of e-mails with attachments, all bearing pleas to assure the senders that you received the papers. My answers often generate subsequent messages of “thanks” and requests for final grades. And recently I have had to warn students that the university’s spam filter, which has spared me thousands of offers for penny stocks and generic Viagra, may also weed out their messages from Yahoo or Hotmail.  

“Be sure to make a copy of your essay,” my teachers from another century sagely advised. Occasionally I inflicted eye strain on those last-century academics via faded typewriter ribbons that have happily dissolved into the past. Today, I print off student texts on a networked laser printer, texts that are visually sharp, however fuzzy the thinking.

If I’m distracted, though, or if I’m tired, there’s a chance that otherwise-convenient attachments will be virus- or worm-ridden, making life hell for days, even weeks. Student codes drone on about punishments for plagiarism. To my mind purveyors of malicious computer code (however innocent they may be) also deserve draconian treatment. Caning might be sufficient, though confiscating the offender’s X Box would be more effective and better fit the crime.

As student e-mails grow more frequent and address increasingly trivial matters, professors are less able to keep up with the volume.  I don’t personally know any faculty who use instant- or text-messaging with their students -- “DO WE ND 2 RD CH 6 FOR QZ 2MORO?” -- or who print their cell phone numbers on a syllabus. I suppose some of my Gen X colleagues might. Like enthusiastic young professors at small colleges who say, “Here are my home number and address. Drop by anytime to talk,” they’ll learn to regret it.

The effect on faculty life of this new communications urgency can be felt across many arenas, even those that serve as escapes from the ever-growing demands of student-consumers.  

Fifteen years ago the most animated discussions at faculty cocktail parties were about computers. Simply mentioning your new “machine” would override the usual academic gossip. Now I envision hosting a party with a laptop visible on a table: conversation bubbles, Pinot Noir flows. ... How long, I wonder, before someone asks about wireless access and decides to check her e-mail?

Even brief escapes to professional conferences have been spoiled by new pressures to monitor overstuffed virtual mailboxes. For several years now at Modern Language Association conventions, technolust combined with an obsessive need to “check in” has shortened lines at the bars but created long queues at e-mail kiosks. At least the wireless Internet currently available in most hotels has improved the electronic comfort level. One can loll on a king-sized bed, cocooned in the hotel’s terry cloth robe, sipping coffee while fielding queries from anxious students and e-mailing friends at the same conference. Or, if you are in certain trendy disciplines, you can “attend” a conference online -- though that would force you to stay home, deprived each night of turndown service and the before-bed mint.

The next technological wave promises podcasting of our lectures and discussions, and some schools have already contracted with Apple’s iTunes. “Our students are digital natives,” says one University of Missouri official. “We seek to meet our students where they are and iTunes is the interface with which most of our students are already familiar.”

Where once it seemed students would be content only when they could park their cars inside the classroom, today they want faculty (and the knowledge conveyed in their classrooms) as available as 24-hour cable. 

Of course, regular e-mailing between faculty and students fosters overfamiliarity,  chipping away at the deference many academics used to take for granted.  A dean at Georgetown recently told The New York Times that the tone students often take in e-mail is “pretty astounding, with a familiarity that can sometimes border on imperative.”  (He may have meant “impertinent,” but no contemporary university administrator would dare use that term, holdout from the British Empire that it is.) One might also argue that annual tuition in excess of $25,000 fuels a sense of student entitlement. In this world, faculty are the “servants”; but the trend is not limited to private universities and pricey colleges.

This e-mail frazzled academic can rationalize one consolation. When my students receive nearly immediate e-response, they are at least one step away from the impersonal world of much university education. The contact may be virtual, not face-to-face, but the effects can still be impressive. If your college uses a program like BlackBoard, try the online chat option for real-time “conversation,” especially near a paper due date. After one of these sessions you’ll see a marked improvement in the quality of work submitted. 

Late-night virtual office hours are not so bad occasionally when you are at home and sipping on a beer. And however tempted I am to curse an ever-full e-mail box, I often wonder how we managed without it. How else would I have been able to stay in contact with a student who recently missed several classes because she and her teammates were busy winning the NCAA Division II basketball championship? Talk about athlete-students. She e-mailed me about the course on the very afternoon of her final game.

Yet unrelieved e-communication with our students eats into time we need for intellectual recharge, thinking and writing.  Enticing digital waters can also drown us. Be it from the clutter of my study or from the comfort of a high-end hotel, every time I respond to student e-mail during “off hours” I may be writing the script for my own obsolescence. How long, I wonder, before a collective of ambitious Ph.D.s in Calcutta is both willing to teach all my classes online and to remain available 24/7 fielding queries about the next day’s assignment -- like the revolving “Mikes” who help resolve my wireless network problems? Is this the end of the virtual path upon which I blithely trod?

Such musings, I suppose, are born less from genuine fear than from computer fatigue, despite my new LCD screen. Yes, our students are now and will remain “digital natives.” But I’m confident that, much as we try to “interface” with them, we won’t easily surrender the face-to-face pleasures of the seminar room and the office. After all, how else could I have witnessed Terry, when he actually did find his way to class that Tuesday night, regaling his peers with fresh prints of his fiery adventure -- from Nos. 127 through 143.


Rob Franciosi is professor of English at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan.

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