Communicating with Students: A Suggestion About Email (CHE)

January 11, 2016

Here at ProfHacker, we’ve written several posts about email over the years. I don’t know about you, but it feels like I receive way more email than I know what to do with. And regardless of who is sending them, a significant percentage of the emails that I do receive are, shall we say, constructed in a manner than is less than ideal: vague subject lines, announcements that include all important information in an image attachment, requests for information that take the sender 5 minutes to ask but require at least 20 to answer. Enough. I want out.

My solution? Well, I don’t have a magic bullet that fixes everything, but I’ve started to explicitly encourage people to communicate with me through a different medium, and preferably one that takes place in real time. Come to my office. Give me a call. Chat with me on Skype or some other messaging system.

Demographically speaking, the largest (and arguably most important) group of people I need to communicate with regularly is students. There are more of them than colleagues, I see them more often than anyone I work with, and they need to tell or ask me something more frequently than anyone else. My course policies now specify that they may email me, if that is their preference, but the best way to get a quick and detailed response from me is to come by my office hours or to contact me on Skype. Any time I’m logged on to Skype, I explain, they are free to contact me, no matter what time it is; if I don’t want to be interrupted, I’ll just log out. An added bonus is that I can choose to be logged in on my mobile device or on my computer. (Skype allows for text messaging as well as audio or video conversations, and so far the vast majority of students have chosen text as their medium.) The result? More specific, short questions being asked outside of class time than usual, and fewer emails in my inbox to be dealt with. And if a student asks a question that requires a fairly detailed and involved answer, we set up a time to meet face to face. Mind you, I’m not prohibiting students from emailing me, but I’m encouraging other communication choices instead. So far, so good.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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