Gringo Manaba

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  • February 2006
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No One Writes to the Dowbrigade

Posted by glasscastle on February 21st, 2006

An interesting article appeared on the front page of the New
York Times
today concerning the balance between utility and imposition represented
by student email to college professors.

We are pretty much reading the Times from cover to cover these days,
as the morning trek to buy it at the Keno Spa on the corner, where swarthy
middle-aged Armenians with time on their hands sit around drinking coffee
and watching
numbers flash on faded, dusty CRTs hanging in the corners, has come to
constitute one of our three daily doctor-ordered walk-arounds, supposedly
to avoid bedsores and blood clots.

Inevitably, now that we are actually paying for the news, its quality
and blogability seems to have declined. So we were delighted to see a
front page article on a topic we actually knew something about, and on
which we feel moved to opine.

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors
much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible,
erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

One student skipped class and then sent the professor an e-mail message
asking for copies of her teaching notes. Another did not like her grade,
and wrote a petulant message to the professor. Another explained that
she was late for a Monday class because she was recovering from drinking
too much at a wild weekend party

It has been years now since we had a student without an email account. These
days, the first week collections of email addresses is more a question
of which email address to give out. The general catch-all
we use to sign up for every assorted thing and which has become such a
spam spa that the filters that make it marginally functional end up sending
at least one in ten real messages to the Davey Jones Locker of our Junk
Mail folder? The super-secret virgin personal address which is still thankfully
99% spam-free, but only because it is so jealously guarded? One of
the short-term, throwaway addresses we can create, divert or destroy with
a click on our personal Dowbrigade domain?

The reality is that we DO rely on email to keep in touch with out
students during the semester. Our email address, along with our office
hours and
office telephone are listed on the syllabus that students get in week
one. Because we are rarely in our office (favoring classrooms, the
Multimedia Learning Labs, the faculty computer room, the IT office or
the Starbucks down the block), have yet to master the remote review
of messages to that phone line, and as a rule refuse to share our cell
phone number with students, they soon discover that email is the only
method for getting our
on short

These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around
the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages – from 10 a week
to 10 after every class – that are too informal or downright inappropriate.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that our students are all foreigners,
and almost all from upper-class families who seem to have successfully
imbued them with very good manners, or perhaps with the supposition
we have heard whispered in the halls of academia, that our students
are intimidated by our intellect or attitude, but we actually get very
little email from students.

We encourage them to write, we really do. During the first
few days, we put together a mailing list so that we can communicate
the entire group in a single message, but we also write individual
notes to students on assignments, trips, student questions, issues
that come up in class, holiday greetings, etc. We tell them how much
we like getting updates from ex-students, holiday greetings, news on
academic milestones, anecdotes, etc. We emphasize the importance of
open lines of communication, the fact that they should look at their
professors as resources, the centrality of the skill of asking good
questions in learning a second language. We offer to help with homework,
provide personal advice on everything from combating culture shock
to putting together an appropriate winter wardrobe, assist in the process
of selecting and applying to American Universities, share
our wife’s
of Boston’s secret shopping gems and how to get to them via public
transportation. We promise to answer all emails, if not immediately,
at least within a reasonably short time frame.

It doesn’t make any difference. In the course of a 12-week
semester, with two or three classes of 12-16 students each, we probably
a grand total of 4 or 5 emails total, mostly requests for letters of
recommendation to be included in their college and grad school applications,
letters we are prohibited from writing by the University itself until
they are no longer actively our students.

Currently, for example, after getting the semester off to what
we considered a roaring start, with a really great group of students,
all in their 20’s, from 9 different countries, but all bright, well-educated,
with the kind or urbane international good manners typical of the
emerging globalized ruling class, we sadly informed the lads and
lasses that the old Dowbrigade was going in for some serious plumbing
repairs, and followed up with some truly gruesome photos on the
class Wiki.

Were we plowed under by the resulting wave of sympathetic email?
Hardly – other than the three Latin ladies in the class (thanks Carolina,
Ana and Tatiana), not a peep.

The stakes are different for professors today than they were even a
decade ago, said Patricia Ewick, chairwoman of the sociology department
at Clark University in Massachusetts, explaining that "students
are constantly asked to fill out evaluations of individual faculty." Students
also frequently post their own evaluations on Web sites like
and describe their impressions of their professors on blogs.

Well, we have checked and so far none of the faculty in our
category (non-degree affiliated programs) have made it onto the
Rate Your
Professor type web sites. And although we have been asking
for 10 semesters now, only one young Korean woman had her own blog,
and it was only marginally a blog, and pretty lame to boot.

On the other hand, our students would have real reason to
worry, had we not sworn a solemn oath not to blog about specific
past or present, even with the names and national origins changed
to protect the paying customers. It just isn’t worth the
potential problems, especially for someone who depends as much
on his main gig as the Dowbrigade does just now. After a near brush
with disaster for merely commenting on the case of a colleague
who web-published astonishingly inappropriate comments about students,
we have learned our lesson.

Once we are retired or win the lottery, however, all
bets are off. You can bet we are collecting all sorts of juicy
and anecdotes, ready for eventual incorporation into the loose
fabric of reminiscence and fantasy which constitutes our body
of work.

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.

Perhaps this is one of the hidden perqs of teaching
foreign students – they still defer to their teachers. Or maybe
its just
us.  In all of our 20 years teaching at major American universities
we have never had a student call us out or lack respect to our
face. God knows how they talk about us behind our backs.

We have had students lie to our faces, but without exception
they have been amateurs in the lying business, and it was usually
pretty easy to catch them in their lies and make them regret
thinking they were smarter than us in the first place. Plus,
so far we’ve managed to stay a step or two ahead of them on the
technological expertise stuff as well.

Students also use e-mail to criticize one another, Professor
Ahdieh said. He paraphrased this comment: "You’re spending
too much time with my moron classmates and you ought to be focusing
on those of us who are
getting the material."

This, now, is a real problem for the Dowbrigade, and here we are
being serious.  On the didactic level, we can justify spending
more time with those students who are honestly struggling with the
material.  The
Dowbrigade was once one of those students. It took us four years
to get through the two years of French we needed in High School to even
apply to the good colleges.

The kids who have that natural knack for languages digest the material
like hungry Sumos after a 10-day tournament. With a little guidance and
encouragement, they make steady, swift progress. But its the kids
who are working overtime, trying as hard as they can, and for whatever
reason having problems mastering some of basic language skills, these are
the kids we can relate to, and can help the most.

What frankly chaps our ass are the head cases, the "special" kids,
who think the rules don’t apply to them, that they don’t have to attend
regularly, or show up on time. There are ways to deprogram these
individuals, but it must be done carefully, and fully documented, and
it demands an inordinate amount of time. Unfortunately, this time comes
out of the extra hours a teacher has to dedicate to the kids who are coming
every day and doing everything else asked of them.

Quite frankly, this is a crime, these egotistical losers are robbing
time and degrading quality of services for the honest, hardworking majority,
who are paying top dollar and deserve a teacher’s full-time attention.

We seem to have strayed rather far from student-teacher email. The
bottom line here is that email itself is no longer a reliable or reputable
of doing business.  Between spam, lost messages, over-amped filters
and identity theft, it is impossible to depend on email for serious academic
obligations. Lately, we have started insisting that our students put the word ESSAY in all caps
in the subject line of any message containing an attachments, making it
easier to fish them out of the Junk Mail Box, but this is an imperfect

We find it easier and more reliable to post a message to the class
Wiki, or create a short entry on the class blog, or even upload a change
class web page. Then the onus is on the student to check the site
indicated (which we write on the board in class), and they have no excuse
if they do not.

from the New York Times

2 Responses to “No One Writes to the Dowbrigade”

  1. ~b Says:

    I would think, in the position of a professor, I would set aside my .edu email address for student and colleague communications only, and since that’s a fairly closed system, avoid all the other pitfalls you mentioned. Yours is too cluttered, or had you given it out previously? Plus, when addressing a concern specific to one’s self, it would make sense to send it to a prof via email, that out in public via wiki, blog, etc… I’m in a position of advising many college students on technical choices, and I tell them to use their .edu address for college concerns, and to get a GMail (etc) address for their personal stuff, and keep them separate. Both in that the .edu is “more professional” when conducting college biz, but also, it’s just easier, and would get less spammy…

  2. Michael Feldman Says:

    Actually, my problem is that, as an early adopter, my .edu address is now over 15 years old and has more spam in it than a 1963 Hawaiian fall-out shelter. Although the blog and web page are theoretically open to the public, the Wiki is password protected and seems a reasonably secure, spam-free zone, so far….