CRY FOR HELP

The tale of a professor who "banned her students from emailing her" (note: that's not what happened, but good clickbait headline Mr. Editor!) made the rounds over the weekend as thousands of college courses went through the Syllabus Day ritual last week. This kind of story is tailor-made for social media, appealing to all the major demographics (young people, NPR types, and right wing assholes itching for a daily outrage).

Let me be clear up front that I would never do this, but I'd be lying if I said I would not like to do it. Obviously, part of what we are paid to do is answer students' emails as part of being accessible to them in general. But god almighty, I wish everyone who freaked out about this story/headline could see a semester worth of the emails we receive. Suffice it to say the highlighted comment in the link hits the nail on the head: 95% of them are questions that the students could easily answer themselves if they made the slightest effort to do so. The other 5% are excuses for absence, which do not interest me in the slightest; as college students are adults, they can be in class or not as they wish.

When I say that 95% of the questions could be answered with the tiniest bit of effort, you read that as hyperbole. It is not. Putting "The Constitution (available online)" on the reading list guarantees 5 to 10 "Where is the Constitution" emails because I guess Googling "The Constitution" never crosses their minds. Where is the syllabus? (It's on our course website, where it says "Syllabus".) What is the reading for this week? (It's on the syllabus). When is the first exam? (It's on the syllabus). How much of my grade is ____ worth? (It's on the syllabus). On and on and on.

I get basic questions that don't even relate to the class and are even easier to answer. Where is the Registrar's office? Who is the Dean? Who is our Congressman? Can I register to vote? I want to grab/shake/scream at them, "YOU ARE ON THE INTERNET 12 HOURS PER DAY, HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT YOU CANNOT ANSWER BASIC QUESTIONS WITH A SEARCH ENGINE." They can, of course. They just want either A) someone else to do it for them, because many of them are quite used to Mom and Dad doing everything or B) someone to hold their hand or tell them to do it even though they already know what to do.

This annoys us not only because we are lazy and irritable and hate having to answer stupid emails (although those things certainly are true, no doubt). It annoys us because it reflects an absence of basic life/coping skills that they were supposed to learn in junior high and instead we have to teach it in college. Remember in junior high or middle school when you were dragged down to the library and shown how to find something in a card catalog? How to look for books or other information online? Yeah we have to do that with 20 year olds now. And they still don't seem to get it.

Over time I've gotten really self conscious about "The Kids These Days" rants because in truth educators have been saying the same things about kids for…ever, really. But the tendency of this generation of students to ask questions they could easily answer themselves (more quickly, mind you, than they could answer it by awaiting my response) as a result of either laziness or helplessness is alarm. As I try to communicate to class after class of freshmen, their future employers are not going to hold their hand and do everything for them. If your boss gives you instructions and schedules – not unlike the syllabus does – and you continually email her to ask for information you have already been given, you will get fired.

The problem is that they all envision themselves as the boss in that anecdote.

50 thoughts on “CRY FOR HELP”

  • Well, great idea to ignore kids' mundane and pointless emails, but it probably just builds up more resentment on their end than anything else (but should we really care?) The last sentence really jumped out at me — why do students think they're the boss in the anecdote? It's probably because of the kind of attitudes and values that they pick up through family and more generally, high school (where, as you noted, they're actually supposed to learn how to learn for themselves). It points to the same ol' same ol' debate that I can't seem to evade: what problems does education really solve? Forget solving larger-than-life social problems, it can't even get people to think for themselves!

  • "LMGTFY". Seriously though: how do you reply? Scorn and disbelief are not sufficient. Read the questions in class and let peer pressure work its magic.

    Worst case scenario: you will despise them so much that you just put links in the syllabus. Which is probably what they're used to.

  • About 1% of the emails that reach me are totally legitimate, serious questions. The rest break down into the categories you describe. My email policy has long been that if a question's answer is in the syllabus, I will not dignify it with an answer.

    What's more, I refuse to have office hours in my large (400+ students) class. Students can ask questions on the forums, because if one student has a question there is a near certainty that others do as well. No point to repeating myself unnecessarily.

    A few students always complain about the office hours, and I grade on a steep (state-school steep, not namby-pamby private-school steep) curve. Yet somehow, I still get great teaching evaluations. Go figure. Treat students like adults, and eventually a lot of them realize that it's a measure of respect for them. The rest? Too bad for them.

  • Moncrief Lanier says:

    I've been told that research shows current college-age students, for all their technical hobbies, actually don't know how to use search engines. It seems counter-intuitive, but anecdotal evidence seems to back it up.

  • I went to college and later graduate school before there was such a thing as email or the Intertoobs, and yet managed to receive a good education, one that prepared me to be a competent practitioner of my profession. Yes, we called or more often visited our profs when we had questions that couldn't be answered during class and this more often than not led to us developing personal relationships with faculty that mostly were a benefit to the academic experience.

    So I would do it, Ed. Ban emails, ban electronic devices, force your students to function as people who have to develop interpersonal skills (email does not do this in any way) and take some responsibility for their growth as people. Start a movement at Bradley, maybe it wil become university policy. It will only be for the better.

  • @RosiesDad

    Whatever happened to dealing with the disease and not the symptoms? Or do you really not know where the problem is?

    This suggestion is as inane as the banning of guns.

  • Coming into the semester, my emails from students have been mostly "can you give me special treatment for bothering you and jump me over everyone else on the wait list and into your class" with a sprinkling of "I bought the 9th edition and the class requires the 10th, how screwed am I" for variety. I anticipate the switch-over to "sorry I wasn't in your 150-person lecture I'm sure you noticed" mixed with "why would I need to read the syllabus" shortly.

  • My student days are decades behind me. We were still using manual typewriters, paper, and pens. The question that drove me absolutely bonkers, and I'm sure it's still number one: "Is that going to be on the Exam?"

  • Nothing much has changed, Ed. I graduated in 1983 and I could not believe the dumb fucks who were awarded degrees.

    To my mind, if you cannot negotiate the campus car park, find the library, or follow instructions then you should not be at university.

  • Subtract a point from their semester grade for every question they e-mail you that you can successfully respond to with a LMGTFY. Do this enough and they might notice a pattern.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Somewhat OT:
    I graduated from college in 1981.
    I went back to be an Adjunct in 1994.
    I went to the library in the early summer before the semester to do some research.
    I walked all over – it was a newly-built library, replacing our old one – and I couldn't find the card catalog.
    I looked in every corner, nook, and floor.
    Nothing.
    Frustrated, I finally went up to a young woman at the take-out/return desk, and said, "Look, maybe I'm blind – or stupid – but where's the card catalog?"
    She looked at me as if I'd just stepped out of a time machine.
    "How long has it been since you've been in a college library?"
    "About 13 years. Why?", I responded.
    She said, "Everything's on the computer now."

    And I knew I was in deep doo-doo, because I'd never been on a PC in my life.

    She had to walk me through, to find what I wanted.

    So, sometimes, we professors don't have a clue either.
    I knew I didn't.

  • It's not just the kids – my wife does a lot of that and she's my age and has two Master's and lots of experience. I have had colleagues who were incapable of doing simple, basic things for themselves, presumably because they grew up with a mother (or perhaps father, as unlikely as that sounds to this father) who did everything for them. There are even times (as hard as that may be to believe) when I would really like to have somebody tell me what to do, where to find things and do the work for me. Sometimes life is just f'in hard. However, yes, kids these days – why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way (what's wrong with Danny Kay?)…

  • Ed,

    You fail to understand:Sending stupid/ pointless emails IS preparation for their lives as middle managers who send stupid/pointless emails.

  • Would they be allowed to email you if the information you say is in the syllabus is ambiguous, the titles of the required texts are incorrect, or if the syllabus is not in fact present? I see that in the the library every day, and always encourage an email to the instructor. Sometimes, as with incorrect titles, it's the instructor's fault, but most of the time it's just one of the fun results of course management software.

    You're right about the catalog, though. Almost no one knows how to use one to effect. Which is one reason that libraries, being practical and empirical, increasingly bypass them with "discovery portals".

  • I think that for a lot of people, it's just a fancy form of procrastination. Emailing a professor asking where to find The Constitution feels kind of almost sort of like starting your assignment to a procrastinator (hi!).

  • The students are trying to get adult attention by reaching out in the way they have been taught, using electronic media. Our young people have a true loss of human connection in their lives, because they have been dumped into the electronic world instead of interacting with human beings in real life. They crave human interaction with adults they feel are trustworthy without knowing what it is they need. It is a compliment that these students are trying to interact with you.

    Another issue is information overload. The students need to know which website you want them to use to get the constitution. I did a quick search and the number of hits for constitution was overwhelming. Give them a hint like "US Archive", that way they do not get stuck using some nutty right wing troll version.

    Any professor who refuses to have office hours is just being a jerk, IMO. There are lots of reasons to meet with students, including the fact you may have made a mistake in grading or made an error during your lecture. That happens a lot, whether you admit to it or not. Refusing to have office hours is not treating them like adults.

    @Rosie'sDad's suggestion has some merit to it, but may not be completely practical.

    Your interpretation about what managers want is a little off. In my experience, the employees who run to the manager for every little thing are the ones the managers love. That behavior makes managers feel powerful. The workers who figure things out on their own are looked at as a threat to the manager and are often the ones who receive harsh evaluations and are almost never offered promotions in the office environment.

  • This is an new version of an old story. I taught full time for a year then have done it part-time on and off over quite a few years and in very different places. I've gotten the same questions, regardless of the technology or the number office hours and often in ways that don't engender sympathy. I can recall someone calling me by phone one morning while I was showering about some trivial question related to an exam. This was shortly before caller-id.

    @greatlkaurel–you can be very specific about your expectations, what to do, etc., and even some grad students will say they don't understand what you want.

    This isn't about wanting a connection it's about being clueless and often extraordinarily entitled. The worst experiences for me came from a Big 10 school with a weak undergraduate program–the best and worst students came from out of state, but the in-states were pretty dim, products of a weak state with low expectations (yes, it was Indiana!). Almost as bad were the post-community college students at a branch of large state university that drew from "chip on the shoulder" grads of overrated suburban public schools (yes, greater DC!). No motivation. No study skills. A lot entitlement and a lot of surprise when I said "no" or directed them to figure things out for themeselves.

    I'm guessing that Bradley gets a lot of IU-like students–couldn't get into U of I or Northwestern or U of C or someplace like Grinnell (the safety school for would be Oberlin entrants). "Too good" for SIU, ISU, UIC, or NIU. perhaps they wanted some place smaller than IU, although the good out of state students there came from the Midwest (the not good from the East Coast). So, they're not very academic but do ok on standardized tests, but don't really try very hard at anything except shopping. So you probably do get a lot of these clueless types. My masters came from a safety school private institution like this and the students were odd–too rich for where they probably belonged, too lazy or stupid to be doing anything else.

  • I think Ed deserves a much higher quality troll. How can we get that? It's insultingly predictable, boring and brings shame to the very term. How's about a little effort, eh!

  • @c u n d gulag: I had that exact same experience when I was trying to research old articles for a literary critique I did on Flannery O'Connor. I couldn't figure out what the hell happened to the microfiche machine; imagine my shock when I was told it had all been uploaded to the cloud!

  • It all began when mommy and daddy told them they were the center of the universe. Nobody had yet informed them of the lie. Is it time to bring back the draft?

  • I went to college in 1988 in a C.S. program, and I'll never forget a second semester class where we were suddenly required to program in a new language (C vs. Pascal, if you must know). All of us Freshmen started raising our hands and whining we hadn't been taught the new language.

    The professor (and maybe only engineering types can get away with this) sternly informed us, "You think an employer is going to listen to you whine every time they need you to learn something new? You'll be looking for a new job. Now toughen up."

    That was one of the most important things I learned about my eventual career. Maybe the most.

  • "it reflects an absence of basic life/coping skills that they were supposed to learn in junior high …. As I try to communicate to class after class of freshmen, their future employers are not going to hold their hand and do everything for them."

    Actually, I have a vivid memory of Mrs. Kruse, stern-faced terror that she was (the enforcement arm of the Safety Patrol!), saying that to us 6th graders about Jr. High School. Probably 1967, for the record. So, next generation the interns will hear that about their first paying job?

  • I mentor a high school FIRST Robotics team, and many of the kids do the same thing. I figure in high school, they are so used to having the answers mostly handed to them, that the easy thing to do is just ask.

    I give them a blank stare and/or a sarcastic answer, depending on the student. "Oh, then I will just see if I can figure it out myself, then?" "That would help you on the road to self-determination, bunky."

    Mostly, though, I am kind of like Nate's engineering professor: "sack up and figure something out for yourself, you lazy bastards. It's good for you and will make you a better person, not to mention smarter and more useful to those around you."

  • "The problem is that they all envision themselves as the boss in that anecdote."

    Dear God. I burst out laughing at that one because it really and truly happened to me. I was telling some freshman arrogant frat boy type that it was unacceptable to hand in lab reports with grammar so bad they were incomprehensible. "I don't have to know that shit," he said. "When I have a job, I'll have a secretary to do that."

  • TOTES PARABLE FOR BIG GOVERNMENT. RUN WITH IT.

    Hah. The scariest professor I had, while earning two associate degrees and a bachelor's degree at two different institutions, the one who took no guff and seemed most likely to backhand a student who dared to ask her a stupid question, was a woman who was born in Uruguay, is very left-wing and very proud of the fact that her home country is a welfare state.

  • Anyone who advocates doing away with big government without first doing away with big corporations is an idiot.

  • Ever notice how those who are most vocal about "personal responsibility" are quickest to blame teachers for student failure.

  • @ Rosie's: we still have guns. It's just that we don't let every dip shit who wants one get a personal arsenal. We haven't had a spree shooting in 20yrs, and the incidents of 5yos shooting their siblings with a pocket howitzer that was left laying around are not the weekly occurrence that you get in the US.

  • Cookie Monster says:

    THIS BE PARABLE FOR COOKIE?
    NO?
    COOKIE MONSTER GUESS COOKIE MONSTER JUST SEE WHAT COOKIE MONSTER WANT TO SEE.

  • While reading the post it occurred to me that it (the post) would be a perfect stock response to all such enquiries. No preamble. no further explanation. Just send the poor dears to toddle off with that tucked under their virtual arms to ponder their future.
    Education doesn't need to be so complicated. Sometimes it's just a slap on the back of the head and a shout in the ear of, "WAKE UP".

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  • With modern software each course should have a forum. Let students ask their questions there, instead of sending email to the prof. Letting students respond to each other is good pedagogy. Also, if it is a good question, many students will want to see the answer, as well.

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  • To be fair, a lot of kids are never taught how to figure things out for themselves. My mother was an English teacher, so she taught me how to use a card catalog. Everyone else had to learn from a single group session with the school librarian, back when schools had librarians. Do schools teach kids how to use search engines and evaluate the results? I doubt it. They assume kids will pick it up on the virtual online street corner.

    Is there a freshman intro session to explain how to use a course's home page? (Let's not get into the issue of just how bad university home pages often are. See http://xkcd.com/773/ for one take on it.) To you or me, some things are obvious. For other, perfectly intelligent people, they are cryptic. People need to be taught. The problem is that teachers, professors and TAs are being paid to teach subject matter, not the infrastructure of figuring things out and learning.

    In some ways it has gotten worse. I remember the first day few days of class being completely devoted almost completely to infrastructure. What are we teaching? What is in the textbook? What are the references you'll be using? How is the course structured? What are you expected to know already? How are you going to be graded? Breaking the parallel structure, I'll ask: Do courses still have this preamble? I always found it saved me lots of time and grief.

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