• December 22, 2014

Students Without Borders

Ms. Mentor Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question (from "Edwina"): Why, oh why, do faculty members and instructors of all stripes have to put our e-mail addresses on our syllabi? In the past, students could contact us in class, before and after class, and during office hours. But now, with smartphones, we've somehow become 24/7 personal assistants.

In any week, I average about two students in my office, but I get more than 50 e-mails, mostly from students who aren't even embarrassed to tell me, "Oh, I didn't read the syllabus." So they e-mail to ask: When are papers due? How much does the exam count? Do you take off points for late papers?

Some really have no sense of shame. They missed the pop quiz because they were in jail, or their computer crashed because they were surfing for Internet porn, or they were too drunk to ... whatever. One wrote, "Wassup, doc?" Another wanted to know how to get an abortion.

Mostly these e-mails come in a flurry at 3 a.m., with follow-ups demanding immediate responses: "Did you get my message?" It's a haunting refrain, repeated every 15 minutes.

I've put an FAQ on my course Web site. I've more than hinted that I'm not equipped to handle their personal problems. Yet the messages flow in, wave upon wave. How can I protect myself from being assaulted by beeping e-mail alerts, all night long?

Answer: In less barbarous times, you would have had a butler for this ("The duchess is not currently available"). By the 1980s, while your home address and phone number were still printed in a paper directory that anyone could get, there were answering machines to intervene. Students might call you at home, at all hours, to vent or wheedle ("What do I have to do to get an A out of you?").

Ms. Mentor also remembers young "Lenore," in her first academic job, rudely awakened one Sunday morning by a rap-tap-tapping at her apartment door.

"I know we've never met," said the disheveled visitor, "but I'm a grad student in your department, and I wrote this paper for Dr. Big Man, and I want you to look it over and make sure it's OK."

"Why don't you ask Dr. Big Man?" Lenore asked.

"Oh, I couldn't possibly bother him."

Still, students should be able to contact you outside of office hours. Most have part-time jobs as well as other classes and responsibilities. At elite, ivy-shaded universities, students may have gobs of unstructured time. Those may be the students you're used to, but you must teach the students you have, not the ones you wish you had.

The ones you have, the ones calling for reassurance, are apt to be on the young side. Some of them live at home, while others live on campus but check in with their parents by phone between classes: "Hi, Mom. Nothing much. On my way to psych. Bye, love ya." Their lives are narrow. Compared with past years, fewer 18-year-olds now have drivers' licenses (60.7 percent) and fewer are having sex (61 percent). They worry a lot about money. They sleep with their phones.

These students don't understand your life, in which you separate work and leisure. To them, you're not in an ivory tower. And that's why they're sometimes in your face.

"Janine," for instance, was buying asparagus when the checkout clerk demanded, "Why did I get a C on my paper? I worked so hard on it." "Michael" was on a coffee date when a student hopped over to his table, thrust a phone in Michael's face, and said, "Hey, Prof! Is this gonna be on the test?"

A prof can say yes, or no, or "Don't bother me, I'm having a life"—but Ms. Mentor suspects you'd rather prevent these awkward moments.

You can begin on the first day of class by talking about "responsibility to our class community" and "professionalism" and "what's private has to stay private." No gadgets allowed, unless they're needed for classwork. No hats in class.

And "you must read the syllabus." Ms. Mentor suggests putting that on a big sign for the first day. You can also tell your students about "Our friend the syllabus. Keep it with you. Love your syllabus." You can be blunt: "If you don't follow the syllabus, you won't pass the course." You can hide a shocker in the syllabus: a quiz worth 5 percent of the course grade, due the next day.

You can build in bribes: "If we go through a whole semester without anyone asking a question that's answered on the syllabus, there'll be a Big Treat." (No class in Ms. Mentor's files has ever won the Big Treat, but some come close.) You can suggest teamwork: "Before you ask a question about the course, have a friend read the syllabus and sign it to agree that the question isn't answered." You can build in punishments: "If you ask a question that's answered on the syllabus, you'll lose 5 points."

"This is job training," you can say truthfully. Bosses today do complain about young college graduates' "heightened sense of entitlement" and "lack of motivation and focus." Your polite, diligent students can easily pull ahead of those laggards.

If they don't want to, you can have standard answers, as in, "You want to go to Disneyland the day of the exam? Well, life is a series of choices. You can choose to take the exam, or you can choose to go to Disneyland and fail the exam. You're an adult, and you should choose what's most valuable to you."

You, too, must make choices. List on your syllabus the hours in which you will answer e-mails, and do not deviate from that schedule. You'll be teaching students about boundaries, and about keeping your word. You can also say, with whatever humor or fierceness you wish: "When your professor is not on campus, your professor is not on duty. If you have personal emergencies, consult your doctor, parent, or spiritual adviser. Or read the syllabus."

You can also explain in loco parentis, the doctrine that universities are responsible for students' personal lives. That was abandoned during the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Your parents may be local or loco—but your teacher is not.

Finally, Ms. Mentor has one more suggestion that you may choose to take, or not—but it will dramatically improve your life.

Overnight, turn off your phone. In fact, turn it off now.

Don't you feel better already?


Question Is it normal to whine a lot at the end of the semester, then roar back in August with great vim and wild hope?

Answer Yes.


Sage readers: As the semester ends, Ms. Mentor's readers—like other humans at the end of a long voyage—feel exhausted and exalted, drained and delighted.

Ms. Mentor recommends that you write down all those feelings now, then lock them away. In July or August, ferret out the diary, and see if your ideas about teaching, time management, research, and collegial relationships have changed. Then devise a plan to do what you've gotta do. Make the syllabus scarier, give up on a hopeless job search, resolve to charm your poisonous colleague, and find a new passion.

By September, you will need it.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries, especially for the summer. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and recommends that her flock become regular readers of The Chronicle's forums. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always masked. Your colleagues won't suspect that you wrote this month's letter. They may wonder if they did.

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Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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