Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Student/professor email boundaries

An article yesterday in the NYT (via Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber) examines the effect of email "erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance" from professors. Professors are complaining about emails they get from students asking them inane questions, or else admitting to embarrassing things (like drinking too much = can't come to class). The upshot of such emailing, the article says, is that students aren't showing as much "deference" to professors as they used to.
Christopher J. Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied technology in education, said these e-mail messages showed how students no longer deferred to their professors, perhaps because they realized that professors' expertise could rapidly become outdated.

"The deference was probably driven more by the notion that professors were infallible sources of deep knowledge," Professor Dede said, and that notion has weakened.
This conclusion doesn't make complete sense, since one of the complaints is that students are asking professors for TOO much help, or for help on issues for which they aren't expecting to be drafted into counselor duty (like what kind of notebook to buy for class). I suggest that while it's probably true that email has fostered kids sharing or asking some things they normally wouldn't (as one [the only, actually] student quoted in the article said, it's easier to email than to walk across campus to an office), email is also probably a tool that's been found useful to forward a trend that was already taking place: the division between professors and students weakening (see Daniel Drezner for more on this). Something like where professors are your "friend." I think there's a general and gradual shift, here in the States anyway, away from formally enacted power dynamics, especially in situations like academia - is it because of technology? I doubt it, but it helps it along. Any thoughts on this?

The article also mentions a trend of students criticizing either the teacher or their fellow students in emails to professors; this, of course, can be perceived of a stepping over of students' allowed roles by telling the teacher what to do. From personal experience, email has probably made students more comfortable asking for things they used to view as a big deal: paper extensions, grade raises, re-writes. What's important seems that professors and students actually communicate IN CLASS about what the professor's email style is - and I've had professors do this: don't email me on the weekend, I don't like email at all, etc. And let's not forget that not every professor finds these kinds of emails (the ones mentioned in the article) annoying; some people enjoy hearing more from their students, regardless of the modality in which that occurs, and regardless of how off-topic it might seem.

For more blogosphere discussion this article from those within the academy, see Easily Distracted, xoom, Discourse.net, and Althouse. (The comments sections are often the most interesting parts of these posts.)

i've always been surprised when a student has a very stiff, formal relationship with me in the classroom, and then emails me as if i was a guy from his fraternity. i gender that because, overwhelmingly, i see this in my male students.

i don't see it in terms of changing the entire respect/power dynamic, because these same students revert right back to stiff, formal mode when they're back in the classroom. i blame it largely on the way we treat the different modes of talk in terms of formality. i'd say it goes past email, too - i know there's a general trend among academic message boards and blogs to address profs in similar ways, and for interactions in general to be way more informal than those conducted offline.

for those of you who do this type of work (kris?) - do you see similar changes in respect/power dynamics in the workplace between employer and employee when using ICTs to communicate? i'd be hesitant to say (as the article implies) that this is a change specific to academia.
One of my colleagues mentioned this article in a department meeting the other day; I find it so sad that only a "few" of the professsors in the article had email policies. This is a given for me, something that I have been doing for as long as I have been using email to communicate with students. It seemed obvious that I should tell them how long I might take to respond, but I guess this is not obvious to other people.

I do see that there is a shift in higher education in that students are more willing to challenge professors' authority, it seems clearly different to me from when I entered college (in, um, 1990...does that make me old?), but also having worked at several differnt institutions in different parts of the country, the changes are not uniform, some student bodies seems much more willing to break down those barriers than others. (I think schools themselves are partially to blame for this, by buying into the notion of students as consumers. The technology just facilitates what is alredy underway and driven by other forces.)

As far as the organizational world goes, there are some similarities. Researchers were initially more concerned with how to best use specific technologies in the workplace (assuming a right way existed), but subsequent research has looked more at actual usage, and there have been studies that have demonstrated perceptions, at least, that ICTs act as equalizers, by making people in organizations more accessible, and also by providing more access to information. There is also interesting research that shows how people use technologies in ways they're not "supposed" to, for example, by using so-called "lean" communication channels like email to send highly equivocal messages, like negotiating for a raise, or handling conflict, etc. I tink these may be analogous to what students are doing with their email. Org. research also shows though that ICT use is highly influenced by context, so a very strong organizational culture can potentially inhibit these more challenging uses of technology.
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