A Word About Sending Emails to Your Professors

Students send me email all the time. For many of them, it is the first time they have had to communicate with someone professionally. It can be difficult for them because they bring casual conversation habits and poor communication skills with them into the experience.  Recently, I had a student with whom I had an exchange.  One thing to note is how little thinking or work when into the student email and how much I had to craft a response. While I know I am teaching, it still shocks me that adults would not read information before sending email. Perhaps my expectation that people try to answer their own questions first is too high: Below is the communication between us:

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Student: You have not emailed me my url for the online book.

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Me (professor):

Thank you for contacting me. Actually, I have sent you the URL. If you look at the email you got from me the same way you got the email you are responding to from August 21, (where it is still available to you. See the VERY FIRST course announcement, August 21,  2015 See the attached picture) you will see the code and an updated ISBN. My expectation is that you are reading the announcements that I email. If you have not, perhaps you should do that first.  My questions for you are:

  • Did you purchase the book?
  • Did you open the book?
  • Why is it that you are asking me about this 3 weeks and 2 days into the course?

If you don’t have the book code: It is in the paper book if you purchased one or you can buy it where the area for your online registration shows a place where you can 1) Use the 14-day trial 2) enter the code that came with the book 3) or use your credit card to purchase it. The bookstore still has copies if you need them.

I need you to know that the tone of your email  sounds like I am a customer service person who has not done his job. It’s not clear to me that you intend to come across that way, but that is how this sounds to me. I can assure you that I have sent you the information that you need. Since I don’t recall having a conversation with you about this before and then you send me an email with an accusatory tone, you might be able to see where I am coming from.  Perhaps you should come at this with a question, rather than an accusation about what I have not done.

If you have a question about the process, then you should ask that question rather than to assume what the process is and that I have not done what I needed. If I have done something that needs to be corrected, I will apologize and take the appropriate action. That is not the case here. As this is an intro course and I an trying to teach you some things about how to behave as a college student (and sending emails and messages to professors is a behavior), I advise you to take the words to heart and know that I don’t hold this kind of stuff against you. I am just asking you to learn and encouraging you to do this to get better results with your professors. Please take the time to go through the process of looking through the information that you have before contacting someone (like a professor) to see if you can answer the question on your own and then come to the conversation with a question, not an accusation. Even if I hadn’t sent you the URL, it would not create a good starting point to say, “You haven’t…”  You might instead say:

  • “I am having trouble finding the URL, can you help me?”
  • “I looked in several places for information regarding the login for Connect. Can you tell me where this information is?”

If I hadn’t sent it I would be able to respond. If I had (and I have) I would be able to direct you. You end up looking like a student who needs assistance.

Peace,

Learning from Ambiguity

There is an unfortunate reality for most students that I see in a college class; they have been taught to avoid failure and ambiguity. Since they were little, whether they wanted to or not, they have been told that the goal of being a student is to make As. Even though many of them don’t they still feel guilty about not making As. It is as if every activity they have ever undertaken has been designed for them to succeed. The trouble is that no one designed the rest of their lives that way.

I had an administrator laugh at me one time when I said, aloud in front of a group of fellow teachers, that I design activities where I know students will fail, at least at first. I want them to regain the ability to struggle to achieve something, to not find the correct answer easily. It has been my experience that struggle in most of our lives is one of the things that causes us to grow and mature into full-fledged adults. But our K12 system wants students to be perfect in a narrow band of academic knowledge that can be recalled for standardized tests so they learn to avoid failure. They learn to avoid struggle and ambiguity.

Adam Smith, the man who is credited with describing the foundations modern capitalism viewed human beings as inherently lazy and needed incentives to labor. A few hundred years later, B.F. Skinner postulated that human behavior could be conditioned through a series of rewards and punishments. These two streams of thought run like a gutter in the ghetto of public education. It really doesn’t matter what students learn if our view of them is that they are lazy and need to be controlled to do anything of consequence.

My experience with students, when they enter my class, is that they are beleaguered by these views. They understand it for the crap that it is at a level almost instinctual. They expect every instructor to take part in this game with a system of tricks and points to coerce them into doing and thinking the right things even though they know they aren’t learning things of real importance. But they know that they will need to get the “right answer” because that has always been the goal. When I don’t play this way, they often get mad at me, at least at first.

They aren’t used to failure. They aren’t used to anyone talking about it with them honestly. It is disorienting. They don’t know what to do when the “right answer” does not spring forth from the back of the book or from their instructors’ lips the moment they don’t understand something. I help them exist in that space, to navigate it with inquiry and patience.  In short, I create a place to struggle and fail and then struggle some more. But in the end, they begin to realize that they aren’t lazy and they don’t need to be controlled. They need to have a process to deal with questions with no apparent “right answer” or several answers all of which could be the right answer. They learn to deal with that failure. They make friends with that ambiguity that is a hallmark of adult life. In a small way, they grow up just a little in my class.

How to Leave VoiceMail for Your Professor that Gets Results

Dear Student,

I think I got a voicemail from you. I think you need assistance with the class. I would like to tell you what I got:

  • Only your first name, so I had to figure out who was calling. I have three classes online and you aren’t the only person with that name in my classes.
  • Your phone number was garbled so I could not call you back without guessing who had called.
  • A vague idea about what was wrong.
  • No time that would be best to call you back or any other way to reach you.

This is actually one of the things I have been teaching: How to leave an effective voice mail for a professor,

  • State your first and last name clearly.
  • Indicate the course name and section number.
  • Give the professor an indication of what you need.
  • Leave the professor an some options for reaching you with a response like best time to reach you by phone or an email address. Saying your phone number or email twice slowly helps.
  • Follow up the call with a quick email with your contact information and the question you have.

This is how you practice professional phone behavior AND get results from professors or other professionals (like employers) with whom you wish to communicate. Many students get poorer results than they should because they don’t use the best communication strategies. Follow these steps for better results. Professional people value their time. If you leave good messages, you are likely to get your situation dealt with.

Why don’t you call me back and follow these steps and we can take it from there.

Student Q/A About Online Learning

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Do you feel it is possible for those of us taking our courses online to receive the same benefits from this class as those in a traditional setting? Do you have any specific suggestions for those of us who are taking the classes online to optimize our learning experience?

Those are two really great questions.  I struggle all of the time with how I make the online experience as rich as I feel the face-to-face classes are.  That is one of the reasons I have more longish assignment, but those take longer to grade.  It’s easier for and instructor to do low- value, low-quality assignments (like multiple choice stuff) because it is easier to do.

In terms of suggestions, I would take every opportunity to interact with others.  Talk with the professors. You can join me during online office hours. Those types of things will make the course feel less impersonal or mechanized.

– On the PowerPoint presentation, it shows attendance/daily quizzes/assignments as accounting for 40% of our grade. Can you advise how this works for those of us taking our classes online.

These are the smaller, shorter assignments. Attendance is how I can see if you have logged in and really if you are working on pace.  Many students think they can blow all of this off until the last minute.

– (Another online specific question; sorry) It’s ok Will we have the opportunity to work with partners or smaller groups in this class (communicating via email, etc.) or will this class all be individually based?

I am working to put together activities which will have you working with each other in meaningful ways.  You will have to let me know if you thought they were effective after.

– In the video you stated that we would need to develop a career plan. For those of us that have already chosen their career field and are returning to school, how will this work.

This will help you do research, specifically career research if you find yourself looking for a new job within a career or you are looking to change careers. There are lots of things packed into the project that even some of my more seasoned students have found valuable.

Why are we taught the way we are in high school if it is not the best way to teach us?

Why do you think that high school doesn’t do the best job? What is the purpose of high school? People lived on this planet for thousands of years and have rich and fulfilling lives and never went to high school. Somebody thought up the idea of high school. Who do you think that was and what was it’s purpose? Is it possible that the real goal is different than the stated goal?

When my son was about 3, he ran around all the time, especially right before bed. He would run and run so that he wouldn’t fall asleep. I would tell him, “Come her and sit next to me.”

“No,” he would protest. “I don’t want to go to sleep.”

“You don’t have to, just lay here for five minutes. Then you can keep running around.”

He would stop and lay next to me on the couch because I wasn’t telling him to go to sleep. Once he stopped moving, I knew that sleep would catch him and I could carry him off to bed.  Is it possible that high school is doing something similar to that?

My only question for the introduction video is why I have to even take this class in the first place. I really don’t have any questions about the syllabus. I don’t know how you can even form any about it.

I am sorry that you feel that you are forced to take this class.  I am trying to get you to harness the power your brain has by switching it on. Questions do that.

You seem to be saying that you simply are not curious about anything in this class. If you have no questions as you pass through this or any other class, you will see earning your degree as a series of obstacles to be avoided, not opportunities to grow and learn.

The short answer, frankly, is that you don’t need to take this class. You don’t need to be in college. You signed yourself up for this course and you are the one that can sign yourself out if that is what you think needs to happen. YOU ARE GROWN. No one in “making you” live your life. Decide what you want to do.

On a final note, I feel bad that that wonderful and creative person you are and the passion with which I am sure you entered this world with got kicked out of you during an educational process that turns learning to a chore.  Let me know what I can do to assist you

Great questions, thanks!