Black Flies, Dragons, and Student Emails

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Being able to connect with students through email is a godsend, but this magical medium can easily become abusive. While some students’ emails are unremarkable when taken individually, the impact of a string of them quickly becomes unbearable. Another type of unwelcome student email lands in one big nasty surprise, a stinkbomb of fully articulated negativity. While the potential agony of dealing with student emails isn’t new, the intensity of the problem is greater in the online world where this may be our only form of one-on-one communication.

The cumulative drip-drip-drip abuse of repetitious, trivial emails is as easy to underestimate as biting black flies. As pests go, they are pretty small, and they so closely resemble the mundane housefly that, at least in the first moments, it’s hard to work up much aversion. Then one perfect summer day you’re at Michigan’s north shore, blithely spreading out your Wonder Woman beach towel, and here they come. Tiny, dense vibrating bodies thud into your bare arms and neck, your exposed torso, as you realize they aren’t stinging you so much as absconding with bits of skin. It’s the doggedness of the collective that wears you down rather than any one fly.

Similarly there’s the student who sends a stream of individually innocuous messages sprinkled with anodyne queries, questions clearly answered in the syllabus and assignment instructions. When the first harmless question arrives — and it is often before the semester even begins — the teacher doesn’t recognize it as the portent of a plague. She replies quickly and thoughtfully to this motivated new student, eager to demonstrate her values as a committed, student-centered, generally awesome teacher and human being. But an occasional student will then fall happily into the habit of emailing repeatedly, both because it’s so easy — like using Siri or the Amazon Echo — and because their high school adviser assured them that asking their professors lots of questions was a great way of “demonstrating interest and engagement.”

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The student as dragon, by contrast, rouses at midterm with a L-O-N-G message that includes gruesome details about her recent stomach flu, and tales of travel woes associated with her cousin’s long distance wedding. Oh, and there’s a plea for special dispensation about an assignment. In quick sympathetic response, the teacher accommodates. A little extra time? Sure. When the student then confidently gallops past this extended deadline and sends yet another lengthy plea, the teacher gently declines, citing concerns of fair play for all, etc. The student’s reply, which arrives instantly and in flames, is peppered with ALL CAPS and exclamation points!!! She is outraged by your insensitivity and, besides, your class is terrible (other students think this too!!!) and she can’t believe the university hired you in the first place!!!

The potential for such abuse has probably been heightened by the fact that many students have come of age understanding college education to be a consumer good. Their browser bookmark for my class is likely nested between tabs for Amazon and Zappos, and pounding out faceless customer complaints and reviews is second nature. Bad enough that many students and their families see us primarily in customer service terms, but many of us have, sometimes astutely, come to see ourselves this way too. It makes sense given how many university administrations — not to mention regional and national politicians — have nurtured the education-as-commodity view. An unhappy consequence is that we wind up encouraging unreasonable student expectations. It’s an especially brutal double bind for adjuncts whose livelihood hangs in the balance of what has become, in part, a salesperson of the month contest.

In my earliest online classes my mild case of guilt probably made the general email issues even worse. Because I was so deeply oriented toward face-to-face conversation, I struggled to accept that the normal online methods of connecting could be good enough, so I sometimes overcompensated. I’m sure there are still times that I contribute to a student’s inflated sense of entitlement. I grimace as he returns again and again to the complimentary snack bar when he may not even realize he’s taking more free peanuts than he should.

And though my very human desire for validation is only one tiny facet of this issue, I pay attention to its unintended impact, recognizing that it’s actually a little selfish. After all, how healthy is it for students to be confirmed in their expectation for lightening fast replies to trivial questions? And while I continue to offer compassionate, flexible responses to their tales of woe, I can be direct to a fault about the ultimate limits. I am also quick to decisively call out any rude or abusive replies from them. I make these efforts even when I really just want to envelop them in warm fuzzies during their crises, or when I would rather take the easier route of pretending that an abusive message wasn’t really that bad. But it serves no one’s best interest for me to give the flies and dragons further encouragement to feast on my meager flesh.

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