Academia and teaching

Emails from students

The New York Times carried this article discussing student emails to their professors, which has been generating subtantial debate on academia-themed blogs (for example, here, and here). All the posts so far are from campuses in the US and Canada, where I’d imagine it rare to teach around 2000 students per year, as I do.Most of the posts offer the opinion that professors can answer emails at no great inconvenience to themselves, or at least not at such cost that it outweighs potential benefits to students. Some posts even imply that this is part of the function of a professor. And this is true for those cases where a student mails me to ask some specific question, where that student has actually read a) the course outline and supporting documentation, b) the lecture notes and prescribed readings, and c) any additional material I’ve posted on the course website.

The simple fact is that the majority of student emails are not necessarily rude, but they are typically from students who aren’t doing their jobs. And why is it so readily accepted that they no longer need to do their work? If a student mails you a question they should know the answer to, I’d argue that part of your job as professor is to explicitly tell them that the question is out of order, and that they need to work harder.

As I’ve said before, education has largely become commoditised. Knowledge is mostly treated as a product, and professors are employees of the supermarket. Discussions around students mailing professors have not as yet made the connection between these phenomena, and they have not bothered to wonder why it’s acceptable, or even encouraged, for professors to assist their students in becoming lazier and increasingly detached from investing something of themselves in their own educations.

On a related note, I’m going to post a few examples of emails I’ve received from students in the new “Rants” category, for those of you who don’t experience the joys of receiving them yourselves.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

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