Professor to Students: Don't Email Me!

Pictured above is a screenshot from a course syllabus produced by Dr. Spring-Serenity Duvall, a professor of media and gender studies at Salem College in North Carolina. During the Spring semster of 2014, she prohibited students from emailing her unless they were requesting an appointment to speak with her face-to-face.

Dr. Duvall is no Luddite. She's simply tired of students asking her questions that she already answered in class or in the syllabus, or addressing her in an overly familiar manner. She explains what she changed:

In a fit of self-preservation, I decided: no more. This is where I make my stand! In my senior-level gender and media course, I instituted a no-email policy and (here’s the hard part) stuck to it religiously. I explained to my students that there were a few very solid reasons for this policy:

1. They needed to read and know the syllabus and pay attention in class, rather than use email as a crutch to ask superficial questions. Taking these small yet seemingly impossible steps would make them more aware and engaged in the class.

2. Reading assignment instructions carefully and asking questions about the assignments in class or in office hours would force them to begin working on papers early, thus eliminating last-minute emails about instructions.

3. More of our conversations would take place in person – whether in my office or in class – rather than via email, thus allowing us to get to know each other better and fostering a more collegial atmosphere.

Did it work? Yes!

I am happy to report it was an unqualified success. It’s difficult to convey just how wonderful it was for students to stop by office hours more often, to ask questions about assignments in the class periods leading up to due dates, and to have students rise to the expectation that they know the syllabus. Their papers were better, they were more prepared for class time than I’ve ever experienced.

It is also difficult to tally the time I saved by not answering hundreds of brief, inconsequential emails throughout the semester. I can say that the difference in my inbox traffic was noticeable and welcome.


(Photo: eristerra)

In an interview, Dr. Duvall explains that, like many professors, she suffers from "syllabus creep." That's "where the syllabus just gets longer and longer and you try to account for everything." The longer a syllabus gets, the less likely a student is to read the whole thing.

And course syllabi are getting a lot longer. Slate's Rebecca Shuman offers an explanation of why syllabi are now often 20 or more pages long:

First, the helicopter generation—raised on both suffocating parental pressure and the teach-to-the-test mandates of No Child Left Behind—started coming to college. Everyone needed A’s, and everyone needed to know exactly what needed to be done to get one. When that wasn’t abundantly clear, that made schools vulnerable to lawsuits.

Second, syllabi went from print to online, thus freeing the entire professoriate to capitulate to the aforementioned demands for everything from grading rubrics to the day-by-day breakdown of late assignment policies, without worrying about sacrificing trees or intimidating the class with a first-day handout they could barely lift, much less peruse in a mere 75 minutes.

Third, the skyrocketing percentage of hired-gun adjuncts—as opposed to tenure-track faculty, who have both a modicum of security and a minuscule say in university governance—meant that a substantial number of instructors were taking on courses a matter of weeks (sometimes days) before they began. Thus, they relied heavily on extensive syllabi already in existence.


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I agree with Allen: good for her! There is such a thing as a stupid question. If you can find out for yourself by reading the syllabus or *gasp* paying attention in class, it's simply lazy to email the professor to ask. There was a time, before email, when students couldn't ask a professor a question outside class unless they went to their office or called on the phone. It's better that way--students quickly learn to figure things out for themselves when it becomes less work than making an appointment. A professor's job is to get students to think and research, not to do the thinking and researching for them.
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Interesting as I, as a businessman , took steps those past 2 years to digitize more and more my relations :
- text messages are fast, much much faster than voice mails. My cellphone message pretty much says : no voice mail + text me + emergency number! (and then my voice mail is blocked)
- email are detailed and they leave a trail, especially with the increase of un-responsible business behaviors. Every email is a registered mail, is a contract!
- they allow me to work contacts outside regular hours
- I don't put a limit on those contacts on the provider side of my business, but I'm quite cautious with the customers, to keep it "human" ; but they welcome it :after all... I'm their provider!

The world is changing, I don't know if it's for good, but meh...
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I'm married to a college professor and my mother taught high school biology for thirty years. I know first hand the sacrifices that teachers make to better the lives of their students. Don't group me with those that devalue teachers simply because I think this is a poor teaching decision.

I will give you that I should not have linked it to vanity, that was very poor form, to hold the position she does she is likely an excellent teacher. Still, that this has worked for a tiny classroom in a tiny college is not an indicator that it is a good practice. Nor should the other commitments of being a college professor justify its need.
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How many classes does she teach each term? How many committees is she required to be part of? How many student theses does she have to advise on each year? What level of publishing and/or research is required for her contract to be renewed?

The idea that teachers spend 45 minutes in a class and then sit around eating bonbons the rest of the time is not only wrong, it's damaging to our future generations.
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