email overloadLast week the New York Times ran a story with the somewhat cutesy title “To: Professor @ University. edu Subject: Why It’s All About Me” (as usual with the Times, you may have to be registered to read the article). The complaints of the quoted professors seem to echo a lot of what I hear these days–but I think that in many cases these complainers (not just in the article) are missing the point.

A colleague of mine counted 300 emails from students last semester. The professors in the article complain that students are asking questions that are too obvious, or too demanding, or that reveal too much personal information, or that expect responses too immediately.

Others feel that the overload of messages adds to their workloads in ways that they just can’t sustain. That’s the one that I hear most often–especially from people who have never taught online or who have quit teaching online, and are using the possibility of increased workload as a reason (or an excuse). “300 emails?! How can anyone possibly answer all of those?”

But I think (as some in the article, and others online, have also pointed out) that teaching students how to interact with professors (and by extension, all kinds of other audiences, personal and professional) is actually part of our responsibility as college teachers. Students are, as the name implies ;), capable of learning–or at least that’s our primary assumption in doing this work. So it’s up to us, in setting up class rules, in discussing class policies, in thinking and teaching about writing and communicating across the curriculum (and across life), to work on email skills and techniques, and to discuss those, and the reasons for them.

Beyond this, though, the Times article raises another, more subtle, point about what’s beginning to happen with education more generally.

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.


While once professors may have expected deference, their expertise seems to have become just another service that students, as consumers, are buying. So students may have no fear of giving offense, imposing on the professor’s time or even of asking a question that may reflect badly on their own judgment.

I think this might be really the heart of many of the complaints–and it’s a phenomenon with much broader implications. We’re seeing a re-structuring, a re-imagining (or, as my favorite art historian points out, a return to an earlier structuring and imagining) of what a university education can and should be, and what the relationship between a teacher and a student can and should be.

Instead of passively absorbing, or jumping through hoops in order to be “certified” (some of this resemble hazing, I think), what if students move towards a more active picking and choosing–a deciding for themselves what to learn, what authority to trust, what information is relevant, how much help or assistance they need, how much personal contact they want, and so on.

If the authority, the deference, that professors are used to starts to break down, that’s a scary thing, for the people (me?) who have been through the hoops and the hazing, been certified, and now expect to pass along the tradition that formed them. But it’s an exciting thought, too. What was so wonderful about that tradition? How much of it, if students can argue about it, rather than being forced to accept it, will remain relevant? or desireable?

Maybe the email overload is not just a moment to teach students about netiquette and effective email and traditional teacher-student hierarchies. Maybe it’s also a moment to teach us (the teachers) about what’s not valuable, and what is, in the boundaries, the healthy distance, and the defence.