Return to sender – in person, during office hours

What happened when a US academic instituted a no-email policy for students and required them to meet her in person?

September 4, 2014

“Last semester, I tried something new: prohibiting my upper-level media studies students from emailing me for any other reason than to set up a time to meet in person.”

These are the defiant first words of a post on Serene Criticism, a blog by Spring-Serenity Duvall, assistant professor of communications at Salem College in North Carolina. “For years, student emails have been an assault on professors, sometimes with inappropriate informality, sometimes just simply not understanding that professors should not have to respond immediately.”

Professor Duvall says that, most often, student emails are “a waste of everyone’s time” because the enquiries are so basic that the answers are “ON THE SYLLABUS”.

“In my effort to teach students appropriate use of emails, my syllabus policies ballooned to cover every conceivable scenario – when to email, when not to, how to write the subject line – and still I spent class time discussing the email policies and logged hours upon hours answering emails that defied the policies,” she says.

Then, she decided to put an end to it. “This is where I make my stand!” She instituted the no-email policy, and “stuck to it religiously”.

The policy, Professor Duvall writes, was an “unqualified success”. “It’s difficult to convey just how wonderful it was for students to stop by office hours more often, to ask questions about assignments in the class periods leading up to due dates, and to have students rise to the expectation that they know the syllabus.”

The idea attracted much praise online. “Not sure I am brave enough to do this starting a new post,” tweeted Sara Barker (@DrSKBarker), whose Twitter profile describes her as a lecturer in European history at the University of Exeter, but “moving to Leeds Sept 2014”. “But I like the idea.”

“Superb! Adopting this policy for my fall class,” added Rachael Ferguson (@RHFerguson), a doctoral candidate and lecturer in sociology at Princeton University.

The comments beneath Professor Duvall’s blog were also overwhelmingly positive. “As a college student, I really appreciate your approach to email,” said one reader, Logan Reigstad. “Not only is it distracting for the professors and TAs, but it’s also distracting for students as well, especially when a professor ‘replies all’ to avoid the same question.”

However, some people had less confidence in the approach. “I feel like, done [without] careful thought, this could foster at best, a cold, and at worst, a hostile learning climate,” tweeted Kisha Tracy (@kosho22), assistant professor of medieval English literature at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts.

“That’s insane,” added a tweeter named barefootwriter (@bfwriter), a “grad student” and “geek of many stripes”. “Not everybody has time to show up at a prof’s office to get a simple question answered.”

Despite the concerns, Professor Duvall intends to continue. “I plan to expand and adapt my email-free zone in the coming semesters,” she writes, “and I’m curious to know what (if anything) students will write about the policy on their student evaluations.”

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