Don't Ban Student Emails

Students learn something from the way professors respond, even to messages that never should have been sent, writes Danielle DeRise.

September 9, 2014

The article about Spring-Serenity Duvall, a communications professor who banned students from emailing her and lived to blog about it, caught my eye on the same day my own inboxes at two colleges spilled over with bewildered messages from students. Some had been told to purchase the wrong edition of our course text, resulting in their plodding through a chapter on meta-commentary instead of one on contributing meaningfully to group discussions; more simply hadn’t received their textbooks and didn’t know when they would; still others, I suspected, were so besieged by first-week information overload that they needed reassurance from a human who had seemed friendly enough on the first day of class.

When I announced to my Critical Reading and Writing classes the next morning that we wouldn’t cover the assigned reading so we could instead talk about “a professor who doesn’t allow students to email her,” many likely assumed I was using this hook as a launching pad for my own ban. Several — the ones who had dared type a few words or even sentences to me at quiet, unobtrusive hours of the night — looked somewhat repentant. We were going to read this article together, I told them, and in addition to identifying its purpose, audience, context, and noteworthy rhetorical moves, they would be invited to interject their opinions.

“I had a strong reaction when I read this,” I admitted, “and I expect you might as well.”

Turns out, the students generally endorsed Duvall’s policy more than I did. One young man remarked that he initially opposed the idea but began to see its merits as we dug further into the reasoning. Both classes and I settled unanimously on a valuable lesson that could be learned from the spirit of such a ban: Students should try to find the answers themselves, several pointed out, before they bother the professor, who they all (charitably) agreed would be busy with other matters. Others said it would be useful to practice reading course documents more carefully and researching answers on their own or with other peers.

As we identified potential audiences for an article championing such a ban, some responses were obvious, such as fellow professors with hectic schedules. Other responses were disconcerting. More than one student claimed their parents were a perhaps-unintended audience. Parents who foot the bill for this whole venture might be interested (disgruntled?) to discover a brick wall separating their children from the people who are paid to teach them important things.

I have no doubt the email embargo worked miracles for Duvall’s time management. Just because I find student correspondence one of the least complicated demands of the teaching profession doesn’t mean I should impose my preferences on others. And since 47 glowing course evaluations suggest that Duvall’s students not only didn’t feel cheated, but actually thought her in-person-or-by-phone-only rule made her more accessible, I won’t belabor my somewhat obvious challenge that such a policy could deter students — those, perhaps, who are at risk of doing poorly and therefore need the most encouragement — from asking questions down the line or even approaching their future professors.

But isn’t there something to be said for letting young adults — especially those enrolled in a communications course — navigate the delicate rules of student-professor etiquette on their own? For letting them fail at it even? Suppose you email about a problem your professor deems trifling. The two worst consequences are (a) no response or (b) a snippy response. In my own college days, I sent emails that at the time seemed vital but that I now recognize as self-absorbed and/or irritatingly Type A. After a few terse one-liners from professors I admired, I became a less zealous emailer.

There need not be an official ban committed in writing on a syllabus for professors to ignore or even confront messages that are petty or unprofessional. Furthermore, today’s students are attending college in the first place so they can land a job that might one day allow them to emerge from — or even to buoy — this faltering economy. Employers prize communication and collaboration skills more highly than ever, and it’s hard to imagine the 21st-century workplace functioning without people who can competently email.

Do we really want to graduate a generation of students who can’t decide for themselves what warrants pressing the send button? Or, to take this issue to its logical extreme, who think their employers should drop everything to schedule in-person conferences for matters that can be handled in one pithy sentence? If our wading through a bunch of syllabus emails can contribute to a larger discourse about the importance of good professional writing, then maybe we are — in the eyes of the public — one step closer to earning our keep as educators.


Danielle DeRise is an adjunct professor of English, literature, and writing at Piedmont Virginia Community College and James Madison University.


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