• April 17, 2014

Adjuncts, Students, and E-mail

A recent article in The Chronicle about the demands of online teaching touched on the pros and cons of so much student-instructor interaction taking place these days via e-mail messages. Obviously, all of the interaction for online courses is through the Internet and e-mail. But even students in conventional courses now expect to communicate much of their business with instructors via e-mail, and those of us teaching these courses face longer and longer lists of new e-mail addresses. E-mail communication used to be the wave of the future; now, it's the norm.

Some professors and instructors are not so happy about that. A veteran adjunct recently sent me an e-mail message (naturally) to say that I was wrong to tell instructors to deal with students as much as possible by computer. Adjuncts especially, he said, should limit their e-mail interactions with students since we hardly spend enough time with students as it is.

Last December, in an opinion piece in The Chronicle, Frank W. Connolly wrote that students have no idea what they're missing when they don't come by his office and, instead, rely on e-mail to contact him with questions or comments. He fondly recalled his own student days and the memorable moments he spent with his professors in their offices. Early in his own career, he remembers, students would come by his office to discuss the course, and end up staying awhile and talking about life. Students are missing out on a vital part of a college education, he says, when they don't hang out in their professor's office.

Sorry, I just don't buy it. Granted, any medium can be abused, but I still maintain that adjuncts should convert as much of their student interaction as possible to e-mail.

Instructors need to get with the program and stop waxing nostalgic for a past era. From here on out, most students are going to communicate with us via e-mail most of the time. Virtually all university systems are "hooked up" and issue e-mail addresses to every student, professor, and staff person. We could, I suppose, refuse to use e-mail and insist that our students deal with us in person. But that would turn us into relics and the students would resent it, as they should. Adjuncts need to accept the reality of this technological world, be aware of the potential problems, and then find ways to make it work for us. Lamenting an idyllic past is boring anyway.

I disagree that an e-mail exchange with a student is necessarily of less quality than a face-to-face interaction, especially when the primary topic of conversation is course-related. Even allowing for those students who would, without e-mail, come and talk to us about their lives or interests, most of the time we talk to our students, it's about the course. Questions can be asked, comments can be made, outlines for papers can be reviewed, and textual passages can be analyzed perfectly well by e-mail. Good communication has more to do with the communicator than with the medium.

Of course, some students do prefer in-person interactions, and adjuncts need to set aside some time for them. I've taught an average of 130 students every semester for the last eight years or so, and for the last five years I've actively encouraged students to interact with me through e-mail. But I routinely have a few dozen students each semester who come by the office regularly (up to 10 times a semester), or stay after class to talk to me, or stay in class during breaks, or walk with me to the next class, or get coffee between classes. While I encourage them to e-mail me, I also make myself available to them, and they take me up on it. We talk about the course, but we also talk about movies, politics, current events, and, yes, life. In other words, the students who want this face-to-face contact continue to seek it out. They aren't missing out on anything.

Just as some students favor in-person interaction, other students will opt for e-mail interaction only. I began my teaching career about five years before e-mail came to dominate the world, and I can say without hesitation that I interact with students now more than ever precisely because of e-mail. Students who before the advent of the Internet would never have sought me out to ask a question or talk about an issue now will conduct an e-mail correspondence with me. They write to make a comment about something said in class, or about a passage from the reading. Or they send me a Web site or an article they think I might like. Far from shutting down or minimizing student interaction, e-mail often opens it up and increases it.

For adjuncts, e-mail interaction is the best way to stay in touch with all of our students at the myriad campuses at which we teach in any given semester. I resent the seemingly ubiquitous and often unchallenged assertion that adjuncts, as a rule, don't give their students as much time as full-time professors. I walk by the perennially closed office doors of the full-timers as often as anybody. If we adjuncts are too busy burning the freeways to see students, then the full-timers are too busy doing research or languishing in committee meetings to see students. That said, it is true that adjuncts have commitments on different campuses and, therefore, face a difficult challenge in maintaining quality student interaction.

E-mail is the solution. I can sit at one campus holding office hours and answer e-mail from students at another campus. I can send group e-mail messages to all of my students, regardless of campus, about course assignments, exam schedules, and much more. Often, I even instruct them via e-mail when, for example, a few of them will write and ask the same question about a particular reading assignment. I then e-mail the whole group with a lengthy explanation of the passage. My students send me rough drafts, paper outlines, sample exam essay answers, and more for my review. It's convenient for them and for me, and it's effective. And as long as I keep boundaries on my time -- by telling them I'll get back to them within a day or so except on weekends -- it works like gangbusters. The students feel as though they get 24/7 access to me, even though I protect my time and answer mail when it suits my daily schedule.

And we don't always talk only about the class in these exchanges. Students routinely send me jokes, funny stories, headlines, articles, Web sites, and gobs of other stuff that they find interesting and want to share. This is generally the same kind of stuff we'd talk about face-to-face in the office, that is, if I had one at all my campuses (which I don't). Let's not forget: We adjuncts don't have offices to speak of, so e-mail is the way to maintain a "virtual" office for students in the absence of a real one.

Resist the regular "dis" from the academic establishment about how shoddy we are for not spending "quality" time with our students. Resist the nostalgia for "the good old days" as well. Embrace the Web, and turn a potentially negative part of our job into a positive.

Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, writes a monthly column for Career Network on adjunct life and work. She is author of a self-published book, How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual. Her Web site is http://www.adjunctsolutions.com and her e-mail address is adjunctsolutions@aol.com

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