• August 31, 2015

E-Mail: the Third Shift

Balancing Act Illustration #2 - Careers

Brian Taylor

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close Balancing Act Illustration #2 - Careers

Brian Taylor

Many academics have a love-hate relationship with e-mail. We know it has made communicating with colleagues in our own departments and around the world far, far easier. But we are also aware that e-mail is devouring a great deal of our time.

For faculty members, it is not just e-mail messages from professional associates, friends, family, and spammers that demand our attention. Students, sometimes by the dozens, e-mail their instructors daily, seeking an immediate response. For faculty mothers and fathers, e-mail eats up the extra hour or more a day after they have put the children to bed and prepared for the next day's teaching—or perhaps the hour before the children or the sun rise.

It is the third shift in an already overcrowded day. It means less sleep, or less time for weekend activities with the family away from the computer. Many faculty members enjoy the easy communication with students online. The problem is, there are no guidelines for how to hold the beast to reasonable limits.

The heightened concern about the demands of the third shift was brought home to me at a recent visit to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. According to a 2009 survey at the university, faculty members there are putting in between 60 and 70 hours a week on teaching, research, and service; including mothers and fathers, who simply added their second shift of housework and child care to their 60-plus hours of university work.

Our 2003 survey of faculty members at the University of California showed a similar second shift for faculty parents, but the time devoted to university and professional activities averaged about 10 hours less in the California survey than was reported at the University of Massachusetts six years later. A spirited discussion led to the likely culprit: students' growing use of e-mail to contact professors, often with trivial or inappropriate questions, like "Sorry I missed class today, can you send me the lecture notes?"

There is no doubt e-mail use is exploding. According to the Radicati Group, a company that publishes statistics on the use of e-mail and instant messaging, worldwide e-mail messages totaled 247 billion a day in 2009. By 2013, that figure is expected to double to 507 billion messages a day.

Today's students were introduced in grade school to instant messaging and Facebook; immediate access is the new cultural norm. The formal barriers between student and instructor in the university world have come down, with no real etiquette to replace them. Students expect instant replies, not a five-day wait until office hours on Tuesday.

What are universities doing to deal with this communication revolution? My quick survey revealed that many universities (including my own) have set up policies over the past few years to guarantee e-mail access to students and teachers, and to insist that much university business will be conducted in this mode. In addition, there are stern warnings about inappropriate behavior. The policies also warn that confidential and obscene messages are a bad idea.

The policy of Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York, provides more detail than most. It defines inappropriate e-mail as: chain mail that misuses or disrupts resources, or e-mail sent repeatedly from user to user, with requests to send to others; virus hoaxes; spamming or e-mail bombing attacks or intentional e-mail transmissions that disrupt normal e-mail service; unsolicited junk e-mail that is unrelated to university business and is sent without a reasonable expectation that the recipient would welcome such mail; e-mails that seek to defraud the recipient or misrepresent or fail to accurately identify the sender; and messages containing obscene material or offensive language.

Beyond those kinds of rules, however, colleges offer little guidance. No campus policy that I could find, for example, specifically states that it is inappropriate for students to e-mail their instructors several times a day.

A few campuses have attempted to present vague rules about appropriate use of e-mail in the context of a course. The language for those rules seems to have been copied from the same model, or perhaps it developed virally on the Internet. As the student e-mail policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder states: "Faculty may determine how e-mail will be used in their classes. It is highly recommended that if faculty have e-mail requirements and expectations they specify these requirements in their course syllabus."

In other words, you're on your own.

On the same visit to Massachusetts, I asked female faculty members at Mount Holyoke College, most of them mothers, to tell me how they deal with the excess of e-mail from students.

First I heard the cautionary tales. "I just don't allow e-mail," a senior professor said. "They can come to office hours if they want."

That comment elicited a low gasp from the other faculty members. "But the students will certainly knock down your evaluations, if you do that," a younger woman said. "Access is something they really care about."

A third woman offered, "I just say I will answer within 24 hours, not immediately."

Then the group grew quiet as Melanie Guldi, an assistant professor and mother of triplets who are now toddlers, spoke up. "I rarely check my e-mail after I leave the office at 5:30 and before I return the next morning," she said. "If I do check it at night, I generally do not respond to student e-mails until the next day. Almost the only exception I make to this rule is that I will answer e-mails at night if I am traveling."

One way she limits e-mail messages, she said, is to direct students to an electronic blackboard where she posts general answers to common questions—or sometimes other students do. She also explains the course requirements to students upfront, including the e-mail guidelines spelled out clearly in her syllabus. Finally, she said, "I know how to say no, and I'm not afraid to do so."

By necessity, this mother of three has figured out how to tame the e-mail beast. But she and other faculty members—parents or not—could probably use some help from their institutions.

Shouldn't it be routine university policy to promote clear guidelines about the use of e-mail between faculty members and students? That would benefit not only parents, of course, but, particularly for mothers, limiting the third shift may make the difference between academic survival and burnout.

Mary Ann Mason is a professor and co-director of the Berkeley Law Center on Health, Economic & Family Security and the author (with her daughter, Eve Ekman), of Mothers on the Fast Track. She writes regularly on work and family issues for our Balancing Act column, and invites readers to send in questions or personal concerns about those issues to careers@chronicle.com or to mamason@law.berkeley.edu.


1. 22027212 - July 21, 2010 at 08:25 am

As tuitions rise, schools are competing more and more for students. All students want professors to be more accessible to them. What's the incentive for administrations to control student emailing?

2. 11179102 - July 21, 2010 at 08:41 am

Let's be honest: faculty and administrators are rewarded for the midnight and "wee hour of the morning" emails. We complain about it, but many brag about it in the form of complaining. An email sent at 2 a.m. has a different sense of importance or urgency than one sent at 2 p.m. - regardless of the topic. I've known junior faculty who've set their "sent" timer so that the email will actually go out sometime around 1 a.m. just so their department chair thinks they're working through the night...

Email overdose is not a problem - it is a symptom of a problem. We admire and reward obsessive-compulsive workers. Always have always will. Change that mindset and sane email practices will follow.

3. ksledge - July 21, 2010 at 08:45 am

I put a strict e-mail policy in my syllabus. I'm VERY accessible, approachable, and available to my students. Way more so than average. I learn all of their names (up to 100 in a single class so far...), hold extra office hours, get to know students individually, etc. I'm the type of person who gets asked for LORs by a huge percentage of the class each year. But e-mail is debilitating. So I told them that if they ask me a question over e-mail that is covered in lecture notes (which I always post) or the syllabus, they will LOSE POINTS from their class participation grade. It works great, because students care a lot about grades! Then you only get questions that you're willing to respond to. The other thing is that if they ask a content question, I'll post the answer to the whole class so I don't get the same question 100 times. The exception is if it's a problem set wherein the Q comes about some halfway progress, and I don't want to give that progress away to students who didn't even start. But that's pretty rare. I also put up a Q&A on our course website that the students can contribute to themselves, so they actually answer each other's content questions first. I just monitor it and jump in when necessary. All of these are time-saving measures that also encourage students to think on their own rather than having you do the work for them -- which is great pedogogy as well.

As for my university as a whole, our department set up a genius e-mail system recently for beginning-of-term messages. At the beginning of the term there is always a flood of messages about students trying to register for classes. I'm in a huge dept at a big state school, and the demand is much higher than the supply for seats in classes. Students are now required to e-mail the central dept's office rather than the professor or TA in order to get into a class. The central office handles all of these requests and sets up waitlists, etc for the professors, depending on what they want for the class. It is overall a more efficient process.

4. 22280998 - July 21, 2010 at 09:27 am

It is not students who are the problem (after all they are actually seeking real advice). It is the mini-administrators who forward every announcement so they can say they "told" their faculty. I often get four or five copies; the higher up the original official the more everyone has to be "on board."

5. alaiyo - July 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

I'm not sure why this article focuses on those who are parents. Email can be invasive to anyone's life regardless of their home life. Some people are caring for their elderly relatives, and others simply have obligations outside of work. The issue on the table is that email has become pervasive, and not that it's a problem because faculty who are parents have a harder time finding balance.

6. jack_cade - July 21, 2010 at 10:16 am

"But the students will certainly knock down your evaluations, if you do that," a younger woman said. "Access is something they really care about."
That kind of thinking, which is everywhere, is what is wrong when the chef cares too much about what the salmon he's cooking would think about his plating.
The STUDENTS ARE THE PRODUCT, they are NOT the customer.
The idiots in admin, who only kind of understand consummer theory and general economic theory, have completely gotten it wrong.
This stupid idea that the student is always right has got to die.
The university is not a business.

7. cmcclain - July 21, 2010 at 10:37 am

The last thing that I want to do is discourage my students from contacting me. Quite frankly, more of them need to contact me in a more timely manner. So I do not want to limit student email. Instead, I remind students that I do not read emails at the same moment they are sent. Email is not a chat room or an immediate answer on a cell phone. Email is more like an answering machine or voicemail. When a student emails me 2 minutes after the start of an exam and is agitated that I do not immediately respond, I ask them is they seriously expect me to simultaneously administer an exam in a classroom and read email in my office. (I don't own a "smartphone".) Email does not immediately arrive in my brain like Kramer's futuristic vision of communication on Seinfeld.

Students should freely send me email and expect a response within 24 hours, or 48 hours at worst, not counting weekends. If I receive several similar emails or feel that the topic of the email is relevant to the entire class, I will paraphrase the questions and answers in a message to everyone. I also like to create an online discussion forum for students so they may ask each other questions. I find that this alleviates some of my workload without discouraging sincere inquiry.

8. roro1618 - July 21, 2010 at 10:49 am

@jack_cade-A university is very much a business. If it ceases to be a business, it ceases to be a going concern. There are employees, employers, suppliers, distributors, customers (of which students are one-customer does not always mean that the "customer" is always right), HR, Finance, Accounting, and other functions. There is the need for fiscal responsibility, investments, etc. Students are not the product-the education of students, which is presumably determined by earning the degree, is the product.

9. roro1618 - July 21, 2010 at 10:52 am

I make it clear on my syllabus that students should expect to me to respond to my emails in no more than 24 hours. If I respond in an earlier time frame (which I frequently do), that is fine, but it is made clear up front that it can take 24 hours. Also, I do not respond to all student emails. It depends on their content. During the Thanksgiving and Christmas break, I do not respond to any student emails at all.

10. dennydenise - July 21, 2010 at 11:23 am

I disagree that the univeristy is not a business--our campus administration definelty views it in this way. Faculty members here don't but do get caught up in the "customer mentality" of our students and their parents. In recent years our students and parents think they are entitled to reach out to everyone via email including our president regarding their concerns and complaints at any time of day/night. I had one student who sent me an email at 2 am and a second one at 6 am that I had not responded. I emailed him at 7 am and told him that I don't answer emails at 2 am. He did apologize. I have my campus email on my Blackberry which has added the "third shift" for me! I am considering deleting it but like it when traveling and being able to respond to students.

11. a_voice - July 21, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I cannot believe this article. What I am hearing is:
- Faculty member cannot figure out how to deal with e-mail communications
- E-mail communications are contributing greatly to faculty workload
- Faculty member wants university policy with detail parameters for e-mail communications

E-mail has been around for a long time, but students actually spend less time now on e-mail and more in social networks such as Facebook. Aside from office hours, the administration should have no business telling faculty and students under what conditions they should communicate. As far as I know, we do not have policies about phone calls, and those have also been around for a while. In terms of the workload? Welcome to America!

12. akprof - July 21, 2010 at 01:27 pm

I agree with #7 - though I am perfectly comfortable with responding to e-mails even late @ night, something my students often comment on, usually by asking "Do you sleep?" (In fact, my circadian rhythm makes me more awake at night that early in the day.)

But the point of the article - i.e., that e-mail can add greatly to an already overfull day - is valid. In the early 80s, before e-mail became ubiquitous, a colleague and I did a time student of nursing faculty time, learning that full-time faculty spent, on average, 56 hr/wk engaged in professional activities.

No counted in that time was the time spent explaining to legislators that spending only nine hours/week in the classroom did not mean that we worked only nine hours/week!!

13. blackbart - July 21, 2010 at 01:44 pm

#11 (a_voice) stole my thunder.

"Oh, no, students are contacting me! They have questions! How will I ever find time to answer them? What I need is a university policy spoon-fed to me by an administrator so that I can achieve balance in my life once again!" Are these really the problem and solution being proffered by this article?

Students have always contacted professors with questions. It's called teaching. Those questions should be answered, whether in email or in person. It's called courtesy. If you're really getting that many (dozens? hundreds?) of student questions a day that require responses, perhaps you're not making course content and policy clear enough in the first place.

Students used to visit during office hours or call on the phone. Mine don't anymore--they email. I find that much more convenient, as I can answer their questions at my own pace without interrupting my own work.

Students have always asked inappropriate questions (whether in email or in person, though I'll grant that it's easier to ask an inappropriate question in email). That's also called teaching, and teachers have always had to deal with that, too.

Email does not constitute a "third shift." It's an element of the first shift (being an instructor) that some instructors don't know how to manage. If email magically disappeared tomorrow, the number of hours the overworked worked wouldn't change a bit.

14. aeonelpis - July 21, 2010 at 02:32 pm

I agree with @blackbart -- students do not visit office hours as frequently and channel many of those questions into email. Thus, I have found it helpful to schedule "online" office hours. I schedule blocks of time that I guarantee I will be online. Students can expect a quick email response during that time or can meet me online to chat via AIM or our LMS. Because they can get a quick response during this time period, they are more understanding about limits set during other time periods. They don't have to come into the office to get their question answered, and my office hours are once again hopping.

15. mwilsonk - July 21, 2010 at 04:25 pm

Given the shift from students making office visits to relying on electronic communication, it would be helpful if universities would quit requiring us to physically sit in our offices for a certain number of scheduled hours per week. I often feel like I have doubled my "office hours." There are my physical office hours and my late night office hours answering email. I could use some of those daytime hours for other activities: library visits, committee meetings, and other work that takes place outside my office.

16. angela3511 - July 21, 2010 at 05:01 pm

I'm an advising coordinator for an honors college. I get email almost constantly during the school year, but certain times are busier than others (pre-registration advising and registration weeks being the worst). During those extra busy times, I set up an auto-response to anyone who emails me telling them that it is a very busy time and I will respond to their email as quickly as possible, and that I appreciate their patience. I also include links to the FAQs and the advising/ registration calendar, since that's very often what the emails are asking about. I usually get a "nevermind, found the answer!" email back and can ignore the first email.

I also tell students when they arrive as freshmen that we all have lives outside of work and often do not check our email other than during business hours. They are welcome to send emails at any time but to only expect an answer within 2 business days. I'll occasionally give out my cell phone number to students who have legitimate problems that may need after-hours assistance, usually after walking them to the counseling center to get help with their issues.

I too have had the student agitating outside my office door as I arrive in the morning, upset because I didn't answer their 10 pm email. I just remind them that I don't usually work, and emphasize that email is work, after hours. Because I look younger than my actual 28 years, they often expect that I'm as email-addicted as they are! I'll admit that I'm a bit of a technophile, but I finally had to draw the line since email was taking time away from my family and free time. Watching my husband chase my cat is way more entertaining than their emails are! :-)

17. bjmathis - July 21, 2010 at 05:12 pm

"Shouldn't it be routine university policy to promote clear guidelines about the use of e-mail between faculty members and students?" The article asks.


I prefer to have ownership in how I govern my communication with students.

18. 11242283 - July 21, 2010 at 06:14 pm

Wow! #5 had exactly the response I did to this article: why is the email overload a bigger issue for people with families? Almost everyone mentioned in the article is identified by whether or not they are a parent. Is the implication that somehow email isn't an issue for the rest of us? I guess she assumes that becasue I don't have kids, I can start answering email at 8 (rather than waiting for the kids to go to bed), so I don't have a third shift. I know Mason is particularly concerned with what she calls work/life balance issues (which is a code word for parents, particularly mothers, in academe --- the rest of us apparently don't qualify for it) but in an article that purports to be about universities setting email policies (bad idea all around) it nevertheless advances the notion that parents are somehow special and deserve special consideration because of their special problems. Parents are treated like they ae some kind of rarity in the academy, when (if my dept is any guide) they are in the majority.

19. visualturn - July 22, 2010 at 03:20 am

I could not help but notice that Professor Mason ranks "spammers" together with "professional associates, friends, [and] family." Yet it is not the spammers who raise Mason's ire -- it is her students and all their pesky questions.

Perhaps Professor Mason should simply add her class roster to her spam blocker every semester. That should allow her ample time to reflect on why she chose a profession where she might be expected to communicate with those whom she so greatly disdains.

20. duchess_of_malfi - July 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Answering student email is part of the first-shift job. Calling it the "third shift" trivializes the work and effects of, and scholarship on, the gendered nature of the second shift.

I teach 300-400 students per semester and encourage students to use email to ask questions and get advice. And they do! I answer a lot of email. It's quicker and easier for me than talking to them in person. I have to help some students learn email etiquette, but that's not a big deal and they are appreciative. Contrary to comments that our jobs reward workaholism, I am in no way a workaholic and I don't expect anyone besides my students to notice anything I do. I'm non-TT; I don't fool myself about that. I don't see the problem or the need for official guidelines because a) I think student email is worth the time I put into it. It helps students and that is my goal. b) Any reasonable person should be able to figure out what is manageable, what department norms are, and how to get the work done efficiently (boilerplate answers, see syllabus p. X, attendance is not taken but hope you feel better, etc.). c) Additional layers of rules are not the direction in which we should be headed. I worked in Office Space-type jobs for several years before grad school, and the freedom of being able to work where I like, with no one "helping" me by micromanaging me never gets stale.

Email from our university telling us what a fraudulent email looks like, or mass mailings from the department that are about meetings to which I am not invited--yes, those clutter up my in-box. But it is part of the job and not terribly time-consuming to delete. I have sympathy for administrators who deal with hundreds of emails, but at my level and from students, it is simply not a problem.

21. dboyles - July 22, 2010 at 04:23 pm

There's the complaint for accessibility of faculty by students on one hand, while on the other there is quality service which can be rendered preferentially in person and when both parties can see the whites of each other's eyes. Let's stop conflating the two.

22. jnell - July 23, 2010 at 01:54 am

I'm with #21. Email is a messaging system. Many questions I get as an academic advisor require counter questions and real discussion. I frequently invite a phone call or a personal visit. Discussion via email is good evidence of what is said, but it's not much faster than sending "snail mail" even with the folding, stuffing, and stamping. This is why I am convinced that the "e" stands for evidence. Evidence mail, lol. But an email can be a good conversation starter.

23. aydub1978 - July 23, 2010 at 11:40 am

I tend to agree with those who've said they'd rather set the groundrules for email on their own than have the university do it for them. Before big assignments are due, I tend to be very explicit in class about how available I'll be over email. I've found that as long as students know when they can and can't get in touch, they've been very respectful and responsive to me setting some limits on access. More often than not *I'm* the one frustrated by my students' own ability to forget they have a university email account. Last spring I emailed my class on a Thursday night to announce that I was canceling class the next morning and holding office hours to discuss their papers instead. I was shocked to learn that about 6 out of my 33 students never read the message and showed up anyway on a Friday morning!

I'll also note that there are some time- and energy-saving virtues associated with having an electronic paper trail of interactions with students, especially when it comes to disputed grades, assignment extensions, and plagiarism cases. I'll happily spend an hour or so on email during a typical work day in order to cut down on unpleasant wranglings over any of those issues at the end of the semester. Email time is far less draining than crying/fighting/pleading time.

24. markstoneman - July 23, 2010 at 01:44 pm

I don't see how universities could establish policies on excessive email usage when professors' own communications styles vary so widely. I see it as my responsibility to tell students how best to communicate with me. No phone calls at home. Use email and office hours, and use your university email account, so I can prioritize (and not have to deal with inappropriate usernames).

I deal with a flood of emails, I know, but I've found I can reduce stress by only reading and replying to such emails a couple times a day, especially if I have too many students that semester. If I focus on email at specific times, it doesn't seem like such a chore.

Also, communicating with regular announcements on a course blog seems to help (not emails flooding their inboxes). So does emailing everyone a detailed breakdown of their grades at the end of the semester, which I do by merging a serial email program with my spreadsheet. That last step means I get very few "But why?" questions at the end of the semester, even in general education classes.

Finally, I've actually been running into cases where I need to teach students to check their email in the first place, because that's something they've never had to do before, relying on Facebook and texting for their electronic communications needs instead. If students are using email, they're at least getting ready for professional life, even if they need some tips on how to do this appropriately. (And yes, I do tell students, if I have a problem with their emailing habits.)

25. duchess_of_malfi - July 23, 2010 at 03:04 pm

I've changed my mind about a department or university policy. I read a post by someone on the parallel thread about this column in the "articles" section of the forums who said he or she answers email only in the time left over after seeing visitors during office hours--and might not get to it for weeks. That is unprofessional, even if someone has tenure and doesn't care about student feedback. If there is really that much range, a reasonable policy would be a good idea. But now I see why students are so appreciative of same-day replies.

I think email is not an inferior means of communication to face-to-face conversation; it's different and more self-expressive. In some cases, that's very good. Many of my students tell me things that they would not tell me face to face, or more extensively, or that they wouldn't be able to begin as a face-to-face conversation, because email is less intimidating.

26. tcli5026 - July 25, 2010 at 03:34 pm

The commentary on this topic just illustrates why there should be no university-wide policy, at least one that is restrictive. We all have our own ideas on what is and is not appropriate. Leave it to individual faculty members to decide. Period.

27. tmbasford - July 27, 2010 at 08:28 am

Well, here's the author/bio:

"Mary Ann Mason is a professor and co-director of the Berkeley Law Center on Health, Economic & Family Security and the author (with her daughter, Eve Ekman), of Mothers on the Fast Track. She writes regularly on work and family issues for our Balancing Act column..."

so it doesn't seem surprising to me that her article reflects her interests.

Email is a great tool and I use it often to communicate w/ my students and encourage them to do the same with me. Personally, I think it's a wonderful way to send and recieve memos (and you don't have to worry about misplacing them) and to spend more class time for learning the subject and less for administration. I also encourage use of the message board for questions that everyone can ask and answer, and love the idea of a FAQ that was mentioned above.

What's unreasonable is the expectation that I'm going to be checking email 24/7 and answering immediately, or that I'll do it at all on the weekends. I tell my students that I do often check emails on the weekends, but am not always. Period. Then I usually break into "back in the olden days we had to go entire weekends without contact w/ our professors, and somehow we managed to make it through". Too much hand-holding is not a healthy thing!

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