September is upon us. Colleges have opened their ivy-laced gates; students have new backpacks and shiny iPads and have likely invented ingenious ways to ingest alcohol. With all of this happiness and excitement about learning and fun comes the arrival, on dark faraway sites like Slate, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, of the time-old Professor Complaint Pieces, waiting to suck the life out of anyone who reads them. Professors love to complain. I know, because I am one.
What's hot in the Complaint Dept. this year? Grade inflation, as always. Debates over "trigger warnings" to assist our worthless and weak youth's incapacity to be exposed to disturbing content. "Syllabus bloat" has also, weirdly, become a thing. The modern college syllabus apparently encapsulates all that is wrong with higher education. Professors bemoan the tyranny of the syllabus, have called for its death before it leads students to zombie corporate slaughter. Comments on your average Professor Complaint Piece look back breathlessly to the succinct, one-page mimeographs of their youth. Today's syllabi are obese, America. Get Michelle Obama on it.
And then there's the latest threat to intellect, email. Should students be able to communicate with their professors via email? This a serious debate happening right now, in academic circles. That's right. Spring-Serenity Duvall, assistant professor of communications at Salem College (yes, communications), won't let students email her unless it's to arrange a one-on-one, in-person meeting. Here's Duvall's email policy, quoted in full:
E-mail: You should only use email as a tool to set up a one-on-one meeting with me if office hours conflict with your schedule. Use the subject line "Meeting request." Your message should include at least two times when you would like to meet and a brief (one-two sentence) description of the reason for the meeting. Emails sent for any other reasonwillnot be considered or acknowledged. I strongly encourage you to ask questions about the syllabus and assignments during class time. For more in-depth discussions (such as guidance on assignments) please plan to meet in person or call my office. Our conversations should take place in person or over the phone rather than via email, thus allowing us to get to know each other better and fostering a more collegial learning atmosphere.
The pilot policy, Duvall writes, strikes a blow for professors' "self-preservation" against the "zero-sum" game that college teaching has turned into. Students need to be more self-reliant. They should have more face-to-face conversations. The predicable reactions? Bravo, Professor Email Ban, you sure taught those pesky digital millennials a lesson or two about proper and efficient communication!
I'm still not sure what, exactly, is wrong with getting an email from a student with an informal tone. Millennials who send an email with a "Yo Prof" or blank subject line may very well perpetuate their own (usually male) privilege, but how else do we begin fixing bad communication without, well, more communication?
What Professor Complaint Pieces have in common is what they don't address: learning, or what we now call "outcomes" in administration-speak. Email bans appeal to professors' steampunk notion that college was once, and can be again, a tidy, walk-and-chalk affair run by men in panama hats. In this bygone era of podium lectures and elbow-patched unicorns, the student-apprentice's job was to shut up and take notes—and by hand, not on their dad-blamed keyboards, let alone taking photos of whiteboards to upload to their Evernotes.
A couple years ago, I was talking with a professor from another college about brass tacks—should we use Blackboard, which I regard as a tool of the devil, or maybe shared Google documents, for class discussions. Nerdy teacher stuff. This professor then mentions her "secret Facebook group" for her class. Secret Facebook group? I say.
"It's no big deal," she said. "They're engineering majors. It's the most efficient way to interact with them."
I tried a secret Facebook group with an online class over the summer—we didn't have to be Facebook friends, which was a relief, and far from creepy, it reinforced for me that it's during these informal interactions outside the classroom where actual learning happens.
Some professors do see value in the emailed lecture notes, holding class conversations on Twitter. To do any of this means long syllabi with explanations and tutorials on technology to get everyone up to snuff. Some students do not grow up with computers in their apartment.
When we have conferences on Google Hangouts, students did not speak in emojis. They codeswitch, as academics like to say. The medium is not always the message. Sometimes the message is just the message.
As far as my own syllabi, here's what I do, and what countless other professors do as well: I post it online. Radical, I know. On the first day, I show it on a projection screen to my students, and hand over a single piece of paper with the website's address. One piece of paper. On that same sheet is my email address. I encourage them to contact me anytime. Here's my email policy: "Email me anytime." Am I overwhelmed with emails? Sometimes. Email is part of my job.
I've often asked myself: Why do professors complain about their jobs so much? We know that, even as full-time faculty are replaced by low-paid adjuncts and liberal education is overtaken by glorified trade schools, the general public thinks we're secretly making blender drinks in our offices, taking catnaps while TAs mark our papers. So we circle the wagons and complain about our students. It doesn't reflect well on anyone.
I'm not saying you're a bad person if you don't want to receive emails from students. I'm just saying that you should re-think being a professor. Sure, we can rile ourselves up and complain about tyrannical syllabi and brag about how we've banned email. Or we can live in the world as it is, stop reading stupid complaint pieces, check our emails, and get back to work.
Daniel Nester is a professor at The College of Saint Rose. His memoir, 99 Notes about Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects, comes out in 2015.
[Image by Jim Cooke]