Sunday, October 6, 2013

The (E)mail Bag Edition: Wherein I relate a mistake, vent in the guise of offering constructive advice, and briefly discuss response time

I made a rookie mistake this week.  Entering my office on Monday, I flicked on the computer as usual, paid my two minute dues to the start-up gods (I shudder to think what the temporal sum total of this tithe might be over the course of a lifetime), and, like all good little white-collar workers, set about my emails. I scrolled down the long list of black subject lines, all the while resisting the urge to answer them Strong Bad style, and arrived at the oldest missive, from HelloCitty88, descriptively titled “Issue.”  This can’t be good.       

“The video for week six doesn’t work.”

That’s it.  Possibly this student was fleeing a burning building and time was a factor.  Alternatively, he is a superhero of some renown that must closely guard his secret identity.  Regardless, without any identifying information, I must locate and fix the video.  This is my job.  Fifteen minutes later I have checked the clips in each of my four online courses, both in Firefox and Explorer (thank you, free market) and determined that everything is hunky dory (a very Monday phrase).  I then write back to HelloCitty88 the standard it-must-be-your-computer-contact-the-Help-Desk-for-assistance-and-keep-me-posted response.    

Twenty minutes after opening Outlook I now move on to the second email.  Easy one.   Zap!  I get lucky with the third and fourth too.  Zap, Zap!  Email number five is from HelloCitty88 again:

“Nevermind.  I figured it out.”

Over several years of anonymous abuse I’ve learned the hard way to look for multiple emails from the same address and begin with the newest, but occasionally I like to forget this lesson and start my morning with frustration calisthenics:

I’m sure your own emails periodically inspire similar exercises.  Indeed, any instructor (and especially those that teach online) can relate gruesome tales from the Inbox, and as tempting as such swapping is (either in this format, on Facebook, or in the breakroom) I think most of us eventually outgrow the desire to share or vent about it.  While student emails are regularly rude, demanding, grossly informal, panicked, grammatically inscrutable, and inadvertently funny, they ultimately come from a position of subordinance, and it helps to remember this power differential if a response is necessary.  When confronted with a particularly loathsome specimen of online epistle, I often compose two responses: the one I want to send and the one I do send.  The first is pedantic, chiding, and chock full of ten-dollar words sure to test the perspicacity of any college freshman.  It usually contains phrases such as “It’s in the syllabus” or “do you kiss your mother with that mouth?!” As a parent, a teacher, and a fellow human being, this email feels good.  However, like so many things that feel good, it can get you in trouble.  Thus, the second email.  This missive adopts a professional tone, politely points out where the requested information was initially available, provides said requested information, and gently requests that future communiqués come equipped with a greeting and identifying information.  Occasionally it is necessary to also include a cordial addendum on netiquette and what it means to write in all caps.  The "old-school" might bristle at such coddling and kid-gloves, but I’ve yet to regret being kind and polite.  I can, however, recall a small handful of sharp responses I’d like to take back.            

If I can now draw these threads together, let it be said that it is not always and entirely necessary to respond to student emails at once.  Delayed replies offer reflective time for both sender and recipient (time in which frayed nerves may calm) and inspire students to avoid Escalator Syndrome and even problem solve on their own.  That being said, during the week, I keep banker's hours on the web, and endeavor to reply to student emails quickly.  I am consistent about this and work hard to establish a responsive reputation that my charges can rely on.  However, unlike many of my colleagues, I do not check my email on weekends and holidays.  This separation is the result of a promise I made myself and my family as a working graduate student years ago, and it's been a delight to honor this pledge.  I've found that cultivating this bit of distance provides a healthy psychological harbor for myself and encourages my students to be proactive with questions and concerns.  It does create a larger workload the next week, and occasionally an important and deserving email must linger, but in general the policy has weathered the years quite well -even if does occasionally result in a rookie mistake.


  1. I can so relate, Jason! I have a whole file of emails I've never sent. :)
    On the other hand, I think we could get rich compiling a humorous book on the emails we've received. :) Great post!

    1. We'll keep the humor book in mind in case they ever go after our pension! :)