Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Email (mis)Management

I’ve just spent the better part of the last three days answering student emails. I’m responsible for some large courses this term and, due to the last-minute finalisation of my teaching schedule, my name is also attached in various ways to courses I’m not teaching, so I’m the proximate target for several hundred students trying to get their term organised and off to a smooth start. At a staff meeting yesterday, one of my staff members teased me that I’ve taught half the catalogue in my time here, so students reasonably think they can contact me about any course on offer… ;-P

Student emails have cycles. One of the things that always strikes me about mails at the beginning of the term, is how many of them operate under the clear assumption that the only thing I do, is whatever I would do in relation to that particular student – that I teach only one course (and so the course doesn’t need to be specified) or that I only teach (so it should be obvious the mail relates to me as a teacher, rather than to me in various other roles). I spend hours sending out requests for additional information: who are you? what class are you taking? are you already registered? what are the details of your registration? This step then doubles the interaction, since they’ll reply, and I then need to respond to that. Sometimes we have to go round the bend again, if their response isn’t particularly forthcoming…

I’ve spent so much time on this, this term, that I’m seriously considering putting an auto-responder in place next term, that advises anyone who emails that I will need specific information before I can help them. This would prove mildly embarrassing when it responds to colleagues who are emailing for other reasons. But at this time of year, colleagues are perhaps 2% of my incoming email traffic – and presumably they can judge that I’m not demanding extra information from them before I’ll reply… ;-P

I’ve occasionally considered writing into my course guide that certain kinds of emails should never be sent. These are the ones that come later in the term: the ones that ask “Did I miss anything important today?” If the first type of mail causes me to want to go into Taylorist, assembly-line, auto-response mode, this second kind brings out my anarchistic tendencies – I’m always tempted to reply, “Well, there was a pop quiz worth half the course mark…”

But all this aside: I think mainly I’m just sort of shell-shocked at the quantity of email traffic generated while I am teaching. My inbox fills up – exceeds its capacity and starts bouncing messages – if I don’t log in and trim it every few hours… I type extremely quickly, but it still takes immense amounts of working time to slog through the backlog. There must be some better way of managing this… What do other people do?

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4 responses to “Email (mis)Management

  1. drew March 11, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    1. Could you, wherever in course guides or faculty web pages where your email was published, have a short form guide for students?

    Ie. If you are a student please make sure you include a,b,c etc. when emailing.

    I don’t teach such large courses, so I’m guessing here. I’m sceptical though that many students would notice it though. Email formats are so blahdeblah@uni.edu.au distinctive that one can remove them from a wall of text without needing to read any of the surrounding text.

    2. the only thing I do, is whatever I would do in relation to that particular student

    Two thoughts on this: is this limited to younger students? or does it persist into 3rd, 4th years? Ie. Is it a stage of educational consciousness?

    2nd, Universities aren’t very transparent in their operation!

  2. N Pepperell March 11, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Oh it’s definitely a stage issue – both the “did I miss anything important” and the “you must only teach one course” reactions are pretty much confined to students in their first couple of years. If nothing else, after that point, students start running into instructors who taught them in the first year, who are now teaching them something else, so it becomes empirically evident that staff aren’t physically attached to that one podium like the computer equipment, etc.

    At the moment, I’m covering two standard “methods” course that are obligatory for students in particular programs, so I’m the point of convergence for a large number of second-year students who may actually be being taught by other people – and my name is also floating around in courses I’m not teaching this year. So the sheer volume has been unusually high. I should have anticipated this, and done some sort of autoresponder that – yes, as you say, advises students that they need to tell me which course, which tutorial, etc., so I can help them more efficiently…

    And yes: not very transparent :-) I don’t expect students to know that staff spend a lot of their time doing things other than teaching – and I don’t really expect students to know how much information they need to tell me, to make it possible for me to help them. It’s not unreasonable that they just email “help me”, and expect that I can. It’s just that, on the 80th email asking people to tell me who they are, I get a sort of dissociated, surreal deja vu effect… ;-)

  3. Russ March 12, 2009 at 9:35 am

    I’m not sure what I’m doing, but talking to other people, I seem to get very few student emails. Even when I had 150 students across 6 tutes I only seemed to get 2 or 3 a week.

    But, in a technical sense, can you sort mail? Anything with a student address could get an auto-responder. Or better yet, redirect them to a web form that gets the required information, and emails you sensibly, with a cc to their tutor if necessary. Anything from an edu address could go to the normal place, the the rest to ye olde sort pile.

    I suppose technically I could find out these questions myself…

  4. N Pepperell March 12, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    If students email from their university account, it would be easy to sort (this would still catch a few students from previous terms who need to contact me about older issues – nothing’s perfect). The problem is, in my experience, even though I ask students to use their university mail, almost everyone emails from their personal account (occasionally from personal accounts that use addresses that should be shielded from the innocent eyes of a naive teacher such as myself…). I could, I suppose, sort for university student accounts, plus anything that isn’t a university account – again, it would cast the net too wide, but…

    I don’t really know how to channel correspondence through a form – as in, I could create the form, but I don’t know how to get people to use it, when they can just email…

    One reason you might not get email: do you send out mass emails yourself? I tend to send out something at the beginning of the term to everyone in a course, outlining basic organisational issues. So it’s an easy thing for people to click on that and reply, if they have anything they want to ask… On balance, I think the mass emails solve more problems than they cause – but they definitely do increase the email traffic immediately after I send them…

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