The Internet seems to consume all students of this university, with hook-ups in residence hall study lounges, wireless hot spots in classrooms and countless numbers of computers for student use. The Internet is part of a student’s daily routine. Get up, check your e-mail, check your Facebook account and the Weather Channel Web site, walk out the door.[email]
The Web, with its capacity to distract, amaze and create links and relationships, is becoming a replacement for face-to-face communication, especially between students and professors. New York Times reporter Jonathan D. Glater recently chided students for being too casual with e-mail interactions and clogging professors’ inboxes with unnecessary questions and elementary concerns. But in a college environment where office hours sessions are becoming obsolete in favor of a quick e-mail to a professor, students are simply utilizing the Internet to connect to their superiors.
Elementary education junior Morgan Hartwig uses e-mail to ask questions about assignments or to ask her professors to look over her papers. Sometimes, though, her system fails when professors do not check e-mail regularly, said Hartwig. “That gets really frustrating,” said Hartwig. “I think [e-mail] is the most effective means of communication that we have and I think students are more apt to check their e-mail than professors.”
Ron Fisher, dean of the Honors College, said the e-mail system works well for mass communications or quick questions. Fisher teaches honors macroeconomics every spring and he said his students use the e-mail system in a formal manner. However, Fisher said there is a division between faculty and students that separates those who use e-mail with ease and those who don’t.
“We’re old, incompetent fuddy-duds,” said Fisher, chuckling as he described his fellow educators. “Over time, as technology evolves, people’s excuses will evolve as well. [E-mail] is not perfect, but it’s effective for certain kinds of communication.”
Teaching assistants know both sides of the e-mail war, often experienced at both sending and sifting through piles of e-mails for their classes. Fourth-year graduate student Lisa Tang has been a TA for eight psychology classes and has taught two classes, and she says she receives about 10 e-mails a day, with more around exam times. Disrespectful e-mails are unusual, although they do happen, she said, especially when she taught an online class.
“This is the only time I felt they were abusing e-mails, if they were unhappy with their grades,” said Tang. “Sometimes it comes across as offensive…but I would say that’s rare.”
Instant Message?
Professors and students can both play the “I’m too busy” card when it comes to the need for instant communication, but when does e-mail cross the line from persistent to downright annoying? The ability to hide behind a computer can make it easier to ask questions, but is it too informal for student-professor relationships? Although Tang has not received unprofessional e-mails from students, she said students expect instant replies, since e-mail has been dubbed one of the quickest forms of communication.
“Sometimes I get the sense that when students send e-mails, they expect us to respond right away, within the hour even,” said Tang. “If it’s an issue that’s critical, e-mail is not the way to go.”
In addition to receiving e-mails, TAs see the generation gap between students and professors when it comes to the use of technology. Human biology senior Nikki McGahan has been a TA for two biological sciences courses, and said her approach to e-mail varies with her position: as a student, she is formal, but as a colleague with professors, she is more casual. She said e-mail creates a closer bond between students and professors, but some faculty members are slightly behind their student counterparts. “There’s a generation of professors that are resisting it, but I’ve also had younger professors that use technology very well,” McGahan said. “It’s just a matter of what they prefer.”
Like Hartwig, James Madison freshman Sarah DuRussel-Weston uses e-mail to communicate about assignments. DuRussel-Weston said the inclusion of an e-mail address on a syllabus leads students to believe that e-mail is always acceptable, but it is important to remain professional, especially when asking for a favor. “When [professors] read it, they get a sense of what kind of student you are,” said DuRussel-Weston. “Professors take it seriously.”
Proper Address?
Type “e-mail etiquette” into a basic Internet search, and a wealth of guides about correctly using e-mail is available at one’s fingertips. Linfield College, in McMinnville, Ore., has a guide called “Netiquette.” It provides students with both general advice for composing e-mails and tips to prevent legal difficulties.
The guide echoes many sentiments of professors, including writing in a professional manner and keeping messages succinct. In addition, students are advised to exit out of their e-mail accounts when they are finished messaging and to monitor the use of language, as to prevent harmful or embarrassing e-mails from being sent. Warning students against the dangers of misinterpretation, the producers of the guide also lobby against the use of sarcasm or humor; the recipient of an e-mail message can read the same sentence in a much different way than the sender.
The permanence of an e-mail can be dangerous, Fisher said. He warned students against being too casual in e-mails; sometimes, embarrassing statements can be immortalized on a computer’s hard drive. “E-mail is very easy to distribute,” said Fisher. “I think people have to be pretty cautious about some things they write in e-mail.”
Having been firmly established as a distraction aid for students, instant messaging has permeated some MSU faculty computers as well. Academic adviser Nancy Ehret of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences uses an AOL Instant Messenger account and screen name to communicate with students. IM is a step down from e-mail, and Ehret said this kind of communication removes formalities that are often expected with e-mail. Ehret will usually rectify errors in language, signatures and addresses of e-mails. “On IM, they are very casual, and I often don’t correct them,” said Ehret. “It creates a division between IM and e-mail.”
Human biology freshman Drew Alwood said he uses e-mail for extra clarification, and his professors have requested that students make the lines of e-mail communication less casual. “I’ve had teachers ask the class to be more formal and put proper subject lines,” said Alwood.
Psychology professor Cheryl Kaiser said she never reads through e-mails initially, and she only looks at e-mails if her teaching assistants feel she needs to see them. “Otherwise, I would go bonkers saying [answers] for silly things students should do themselves,” said Kaiser.
While e-mail provides students with quick responses, it can often be overwhelming, said Kaiser. After an initial read-through of all e-mails, Kaiser said she sees only about two or three a day from undergrads, but many more from graduate students. She said some of the e-mails are not concerns about an assignment or questions about an upcoming exam, but are rather positive.
“Students wouldn’t come into office hours and say, ‘I really enjoyed your class,’” said Kaiser.
With e-mail providing a quicker way to ask questions and receive feedback, office hours are usually a last resort for the information-seeking student. McGahan said her office hours have rather low attendance and this trend is not unique to teaching assistants. Fisher said he has noticed a significant drop-off in the number of students attending his office hours. Students should use this method to answer complicated questions, he said, in order to establish a personal, in-depth relationship. “I think students have substituted e-mail for face-to-face contact,” said Fisher. “I’m not sure that’s always a good thing. Sometimes, it’s better to have a conversation.”
As students and faculty members, we are expected to put everything into a computer-friendly format. Papers cannot be turned in by hand; send them in through e-mail or an ANGEL assignment drop-box. Office hours are rather vacant, as students opt for the quicker and more convenient method of conversation through e-mail. The entire university is linked by computers, and as the Internet is certainly not going away, neither are e-mail communications between students and professors. Asking for advice on an assignment a few days before it is due is acceptable; beginning an e-mail with “Hey Prof” and rattling off a request for that day’s lecture notes, is not.

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