Last fall I heard a story about an international student who had the audacity to stop by a prof’s office hours and ask “how many cuts” she permitted. It wasn’t a surprise to find out the student had already missed a couple classes and wasn’t doing that well in class participation. It also wasn’t a surprise to hear that the professor sent a scathing email to said student (and copied others). Not only had he misinterpreted how to approach her and what to ask, but he also had the temerity to leave as quickly as he came, without discussing his negligible performance in class. While I feel for both the professor and the student in this situation, the professor’s many-paragraphed response–especially the spite with which it was delivered–was uncalled for and didn’t further any purposes beyond making the student feel small. It must have felt great to write. I know because I’ve written responses like it, right before I’ve erased them and rewritten a response more appropriate to my rhetorical situation.
“Teach, Don’t Mock” is a Jared Berezin article up on Inside HigherEd that contemplates the student side of email. In terms of function, these student interactions “shed light on [a] student’s rhetorical awareness, or lack thereof, amidst a moment of self-advocacy.” As soon as I started reading, I felt the familiar Us vs Them costume cape pressing on my shoulders.
It immediately took me back to a FaceBook share from a fellow teacher I read a few months ago. It was a spunky This-Is-How-It-Is post that seemed to address students about their annoying behaviors, but in actuality it was by a prof for other profs. It whined about true things, things that ARE annoying (such as missing class and coming in the next day with “Did I miss anything important?” on their lips), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was like being at happy hour with a colleague, a chance to grow closer with the teaching community by sharing a common enemy. I had been the victim of all the annoying student types in the piece, and I felt vindicated reading it, like my frustrations were heard. But they weren’t really heard. Not by the people who commit the crimes in the first place. And I felt icky about sharing it on my own wall (and I didn’t) because I want my moments of negativity about my job and my students to be fleeting. I want them to stay in the bar, spoken into my beer, and then drained with my beverage. And this is why I kept reading Berezin’s post.
He is a kindred spirit–someone who “rather than passively requiring explicit instructions on how to communicate effectively in every situation, [wants] students to proactively harness their rhetorical confidence when advocating for themselves in a variety of contexts.” (Proactively Harness should have been my nickname in college. It wasn’t. I learned the hard way just like many of my students are doing now.) He advocates for “guerilla teaching” during email responses that catches students “by surprise…likely mak[ing] the interaction all the more memorable.” And he acknowledges that time is not on our side and probably hinders those of us who would respond more analytically to our students. But he challenges himself anyway.
I caught a student by surprise once.
In the fall of 2012 I had a student emailing back and forth with me about a Dropbox assignment that wasn’t showing up. She emailed to see if I got it, I told her I hadn’t. She emailed me again, a few days later having not received my reply email (the whole university email system had been messed up for a few hours). I wrote back again, quickly, saying that I had received her email but not her assignment and that I was going to start grading them that evening. (I was intentionally not being explicit about whether she would receive a zero or not or whether she could send me the digital assignment another way or not.) Then she asked if she should email me the assignment, which is when I wanted to explode a little. Instead, this is what I wrote:
Yes, an attachment with the first email you sent would have been wise if you were worried about me not having it. Any time you are worried that a professor doesn’t have your work, it is best to attach the work asap to the email where you ask instead of waiting for a reply. It’s like asking for forgiveness over permission. (From experience, I know that I’m more willing to consider assignments via email if the student sends the work along as he/she is asking if I’ll take it.)
The email had a smaller less practical paragraph after this one too which offered my sympathy about her computer and D2L struggles as well as information on which web browsers were preferred and how to locate the computer gurus on campus. I had failed her in my response the first couple of times. But I got it right this time. Or so I thought. I knew she was concerned, but she didn’t email me back. The next day I reached out again, having reread my other email.
I’m worried that my tone via email is harsher than I intend it to be. I didn’t mean to offend you if I did, but I am still on the look out for your draft!
She emailed a long (for a student) reply–maybe a ten-line paragraph or so. She admitted she was taken aback by my email but mainly due to stress and that I was “right” and that she wasn’t thinking and then she broke the wall: she let me in to her struggle a little by giving me details about her intersectionality. She opened up. I couldn’t tell if it was merely a forced confession or a truer moment of connection.
In the weeks that followed, she wasn’t as participatory in class as she had been before. I was worried that I’d turned one of my hardest working students against me, all for the sake of teaching her a lesson outside the classroom. I was careful around her in class until finally there wasn’t any class anymore. The only things left were for them to turn in their final projects (via dropbox) and, should they choose, to turn in a printed reflection on the course outcomes and what they really got out of the class this semester (as an extra credit assignment). Her reflection piece was the most thoughtful one. It discussed each of the outcomes and, while it didn’t bring up our email chain mid semester, it focused on the transferable concepts and skills she realized she was already using for her other classes.
Perhaps it was a simple case of a wonderful student, but I’d like to think that my “being real” with her was part of what made her get so much out of the course.
In semesters since, I’ve been more intentional about my guerilla teaching responses during the first few weeks, when I’m getting emails from my new students about questions easily answered by reading the syllabus that’s been posted online since I opened the class website three weeks early. I can’t really know if my efforts are helping their future teachers get fewer poorly constructed, unaddressed, unsigned, un-subjected emails about questions whose answers are just a click or two away on a website, but I know I am getting fewer. And that makes it more than worth it.