Thursday, September 29, 2011

Can I email you about that later? Or maybe meet -- on Saturday?

Yesterday, I took one of my classes to the library. They're already supposed to have ideas for their long research-based paper, so, after a few general comments on their written descriptions of their plans, which I'd read over quickly just before class, and a very brief orientation to the library ("there's the microfilm; there are the stacks, where the books are; here's the listing of what books are on what floor; here's the circulation desk, there's the reference desk, this is how you decide which desk you need"), I gave them most of the class period to search for sources (on terminals or in the stacks), and consult with me and/or the reference librarians. Most made good use of the time, some taking off immediately to search and wandering back to ask questions later, others talking with me about their topics first, then heading off to search. And I'm sure a few simply disappeared in the direction of the food court or the parking lot as soon as my back was turned. That doesn't particularly bother me; they're going to have to refine their topics and find the sources eventually, or suffer the consequences, and this was an especially good opportunity to get a solid start on the process, with varying kinds of help conveniently available. Taking advantage of it or not was their choice, and at least they made the choice without bothering me about it. Yes, they'll get attendance credit on false pretenses, but their papers, which represent a far larger part of the grade, won't be as good, or they'll have to work harder, on their own time, to make them as good.

But then there were two who clearly had questions, but somehow couldn't quite figure out what to do with the opportunity to consult with me. One waited around a little while, eavesdropping on others' questions (which is fine; often one student's question is answered by listening to my conversation with another), then asked if she could email me, since her question would take far longer than the (quite productive 2-5-minute) conversations she had overheard. She was going to go find a terminal and email me right then, so I could answer that evening (which I -- perhaps foolishly -- agreed to do, and mentally added to my evening "to-do" list). 20 or so hours later, I haven't seen anything from her. And then there was the student who arrived 3/4 of the way through the class session "because he had to work," and couldn't make any of my office hours for the same reason, but wanted to know if we could meet on Friday or Saturday (when he's free, but I'm not on campus). With some persuasion, I managed to get him to talk to me there and then, and we had a fairly productive conversation. But it remains clear, from this and earlier conversations, that he really doesn't want to concentrate on my class on the day it actually meets, and would very much like to have my one-on-one attention, in person or via Skype, on weekends.

Admittedly, these students are in the minority, in this section and others, but I still find the combination of reluctance to engage with the class material at the appointed time and the expectation that I will be available to give more or less immediate feedback when they are ready to engage disturbing. Among other things, there are simply too many of them for me to offer individualized instruction on their schedules (though I try to offer it on mine). As I wrote on Monkey's recent thread, I wasn't always, by some definitions, the most engaged student during class time, but I knew that, if I wanted feedback from a professor, I had to seek it according to his or her schedule, not mine. And as a teacher who actually does try to accommodate my students' preferences and schedules when possible, I find it quite disturbing to set aside time to answer a detailed student email, then not hear a peep from the student who was so anxious to consult me (and to know that the question is still out there, lurking, ready to demand my immediate, extended attention at the worst possible time). I know some of them are struggling with the assignment -- which is a pretty challenging one, not the sort of "research paper" most of them have written before -- but how am I supposed to help if they won't talk to me? And, when we're standing there face to face, both of us clearly available, should I really have to spend energy persuading them to talk to me (and rejecting alternative times to talk) before we get down to business?


  1. ThiS really sounds like it's not your problem. Their expectations that you will be availavle 24/7 are due for a rude awakening, that's all. Student A emails at an inconvenient time? Answer it when it IS convenient. Student B can only meet when you're not on campus? What a pity you can't get togethwr, then. They'll figure it out, or they won't. Bit it is Not Your Problem.

  2. I feel your pain. The office hours I have posted on my door offer three different times, on three different days, for students to come and see me. I intentionally vary the times of day, knowing that different students have different types of timetables.

    I also, under those three different options, have the well-known "and by appointment" option. I make clear to my students that, if they can't make my posted hours, they can contact me via email to work out a different, mutually agreeable time to meet.

    I'm thinking. however, that in future I might actually not offer the "and by appointment" option, because it has become clear to me that it is being used by students who could make my regular hours (i.e., they're not working, or in another class), but who insist on meeting only at the specific hours that are most convenient to them. The idea of hanging around on campus for even one extra hour, or arriving a half-hour early, in order to come to office hours, is just too difficult for them.

    Where I really draw the line, though, is those who come up to me at the end of my evening class and want to meet, right then. My evening class finishes at 8.15, and by that time I've been on campus for almost 11 hours. For much of that time, I'm sitting in my office working and/or holding office hours. There's no way I'm going to hang around even longer for a student who can't be bothered coming to regular hours, or even contacting me to set up an alternative time.

    I simply tell it like it is to these students. "I'm sorry, I've been on campus since 9.30 this morning, and I've just finished teaching a three-hour class. This is the end of my day, and I'm going home now. If you want to meet at an irregular hour, send me an email, as suggested on the syllabus, and we'll work out a time."

    Of course, when I say this, they either get huffy or they whine.

  3. Sorry, typing on a tiny touchscreen. I should have resisted the urge to respond, since the print is too small to proofread...

  4. I do feel your pain. Right now I have a student with a perfectly valid excuse for being late on some of his work. He is turning it in now, but has not apparently read the line in my syllabus that extensions can be offered to those who ask for them with a legitimate reason for missing class.

    He is losing 20 points off of each thing he gives me just because he hasn't reached out to ask me for the extension that I will totally give him (he had a *really* good reason for falling behind). But at the same time, I don't want to be the pushover who anticipates his needs and gives him the extension without him asking. So I sit, and grade, and penalize, wishing he would add 2+2 and ask for the frikkin extension.

    What can we do? Sheesh.

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  6. I will confess that when I was a particularly naive 19-year-old serving in the U.S. Navy, I didn't think that the dental clinic was open at a time convenient for me, so I asked them if they were open on Saturday. They asked me if I was drunk.

    Never, never, never, never, never agree to meet with modern students on a Saturday. Chances are quite good that they will not show up. If this happens, at their earliest convenience they will ask if you can make another appointment for Sunday. They won't show up for that one, either.

  7. @Merely: Don't worry, the post was quite comprehensible, despite the typos (maybe I have too much practice from reading student papers?). I know it's not my problem, I really do; it's just that I'm worried (still; again) about evaluations (about which more one of these days; there's been an interesting development), and flexibility/availability is one of the areas in which I've always scored high. But the students' expectations are also getting higher, and I think I'm going to have to cry "uncle," or at least draw a few boundaries, and *not* feel guilty about it, or worry about the effect on evaluations.

    @Frod: you've nailed it, I think. This particular student is always ready to discuss his work -- 48-72 hours from the present moment.

  8. They say "Saturday", you say "It's Shabbos."

    Even if your last name is O'Reilly.

  9. CC, You sound like such a wonderful, dedicated employee. Thorough, thoughtful, hardworking. It shines through in every single post you write. A pox on the student evaluations! I just simply detest the idea that someone like you could be held hostage to something like that.

    But I know it is true.

    I hope your institution understands that the practices and techniques of high quality instruction, by definition, do not always please every student.

  10. @Bella: thanks! One (I) can only hope.

    @Strelnikov: I already semi-observe one Sabbath (Sunday morning, for at least 3-4 hours), but perhaps I need to cultivate my interfaith/seeker side, and claim another. I could use it.


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