Some Professors Don’t Like Student Email?

The NYT has a reactionary story today about professor-student email interactions. The subtext of the article is that some professors don’t like some of the emails they get from students:

“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.”

The article also implicitly laments that professors are now more accountable to students, and students have high (in some cases, aggressive) expectations for professor availability.

All of this may be true, but it strikes me as a universally good thing to eliminate some of the unnecessary barriers between professors and students that may hinder student learning. When a student emails me, the student opens a new channel of communication that extends the pedagogical space outside the four wall of the classroom into a format that may be more comfortable for the student. What a golden opportunity for me as a professor! And while I expect students to exercise discretion and common sense in communicating with me by email, it’s my responsibility to set boundaries and establish appropriate norms for our interactions. In some sense, this boundary-setting may be equally or more pedagogically valuable than the substance we cover in the classroom.

I felt particularly uncomfortable with the decision by some professors not to answer a student’s email at all. If a student emailed me a question about which binder to buy, I can think of several responses that would be more helpful than silence, such as:

* “do what works for you”

* “either choice is a good one”

* “you might consult your peers for perspectives about how they manage their course information that is more current than my experiences”

I’m not suggesting that I’m perfect with email, but I can’t imagine many circumstances where I would deliberately ignore an email from a current student.