Friday, May 28, 2010

Grades and email

I submitted grades for one of my classes yesterday. Within less than five minutes (literally—the submission screen was still open on my computer), I received an email from a student complaining about their grade. This is annoying, but commonplace, and not really the subject of this blog entry.

This student’s note led me to think about how email has transformed the way that people communicate. First of all, the email was incredibly informal. It was extremely brief, written in all lower case letters, without punctuation, full of typographical errors, and without any of the courtesies that typically find their way into professional correspondence. It is hard to expect much if it was written in a couple of minutes. Certain etiquette in circumstances like this would be beneficial for students, because they would be presenting their case (to the extent that they have one) much more clearly.

What if there was no email (as when I was an undergraduate student) or if its use was limited (as when I started teaching). The student would have had to contact me either by telephone, in person, or in writing. The first two are possible but involve a level of direct confrontation that most people, especially those who, like me, rely heavily on email, find uncomfortable. I went to a residential college but I don’t recall extensive telephone conversations with my instructors beyond, perhaps, scheduling appointments. In a face-to-face, people generally need to come correct, though they don’t always do so. And a written note requires thought even if it were the written equivalent of the email I received (a note hand-written in green ink on a piece of ripped scrap paper, folded and slid under an office door).

What all of these possibilities share is a required forethought. It would take the communiqué longer to reach me. Even the time to walk to a professor’s office with a complaint takes longer than to send off an email. If the telephone caller gets through, I guess a call can be similarly impulsive, but it immediately becomes interactive. In writing a letter, there is forethought required. There is the time it takes to deliver it. What if this student waited a day or two or a week to reflect, or was somehow required to contact me through another channel. I don’t know if it would have an impact. Email has changed the way that teachers and students and other people communicate—even when they are not communicating via email. I have thought about requiring students to come see me to talk about things like this, in order to see if that would change the quality of our interaction, but I fear that it would open the door to more complaints and, frankly, I rely on email as much as they do (and for many of the same reasons).

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