Professors, students, and emails

A recent article in the New York Times details some of the changes that email has wrought upon professor-student relationships in higher ed:

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.

I agree with the first statement: email can create virtual open office hours, and there is no doubt that I hear from (and respond to) students who would never–often for very practical reasons–be able to make my real world office hours.

But I have problems with the second statement: that students should somehow be kept at a healthy distance, as if they carried a transmittable disease that I, in my pure, uncontaminated Ivory Tower, must be protected from.

Yes, it can be annoying when I receive emails like some of the ones mentioned in the articles: naive students asking what kind of binder to buy for class, drunken students offering excuses for absences from class, and angry students writing about a grade. But these kinds of messages are extremely rare. And when I do get one, I don’t feel as if the hallowed walls of academia are under assault by a new generation of disrespectful hooligans.

But perhaps what bothered me most about the Times article is how it ends:

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor’s response to an e-mail message.

“One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back,” Professor Worley said.

This directive–that “the less powerful person always has to write back”–I find especially troubling. There’s the simple practical matter that the fewer trivial email messages I receive, the better. If I received a “thank you” message every time I emailed a student, I’d be wading in a flood of insignificant, gnat-like emails. But my real concern is that this directive encapsulates a Miss Manners type of social hierarchy full of scraping and bowing. Yes, in a way, I am more powerful than my students, since I have a Ph.D. and I am evaluating them. But, in another way, I could care less that I’m more powerful than my students, and foregrounding that kind of power relation short-circuits my pedagogical approach to the classroom. Add to this the fact that, truth be told, most students could care less themselves that I’m more powerful than them–since it’s only symbolic capital that I yield–and you are left with a directive that seems to be more about stroking professors’ egos than about conveying respect.

I’d rather drop the farce, treat my students as adults, and put up with the occasional annoying (but usually hilarious) email.