What I learned about emailing students… from my two-year-old.

Feeding-your-1-2-year-old rollercoaster.ie
Courtesy of http://www.rollercoaster.ie

I recently posted about writing emails to lecturers in New Zealand universities. I made some suggestions for appropriate email etiquette in NZ based on deconstructing a few representative emails and my own personal preferences. The flipside of the story is of course lecturers who email students in anger, frustration, annoyance and with little sensitivity to the adjustment students are making to a new and stressful environment.

My first semester of fulltime tertiary teaching began in mid-2011. In our hemisphere of course that is the second semester of the academic year, so even first years have been around for a cycle of one semester.  It went relatively smoothly. I went in assuming students were capable adults who could manage their own lives and for the most part they did. With a few exceptions, which I brushed off as oddities.

By the time my second semester of teaching rolled around in early 2012, I found that the oddities were not so unusual as I first assumed, and that first year students in their first semester were quite a different bunch from first year students in their second semester. I also got my first smartphone, and became enamoured with checking my email notifications right before bed. I would spend several minutes fuming and ranting to my husband about their inappropriate email requests. These often included one line emails, and emails asking me to summarise classes they missed. My husband eventually suggested I stop checking my emails at home, since it disturbed my rest time. Good call.

But there was another group of emails that did not anger me as much as puzzle me. The university I was teaching at (in Australia) had very strict policies about extension requests and special considerations, and all of these had to be applied for via the college office (not directly with the lecturer). The students could only get extensions for medical or bereavement reasons, and they had to provide evidence. Otherwise they just had to hand it in late, and get the standard penalty rate of 1% per day (1% of the course total grade. So if an assessment was worth 10%, there was no point handing it in after 10 days as all the value has been eroded away). Yet I still got plenty of emails outlining various circumstances that were not in any medical or bereavement in nature: I lost my laptop, I broke up with my boyfriend, my cloudfiles were overwritten by an earlier version of the assignment, I missed the bus and so on. Why did they keep writing me these, when there was nothing I could do anyway?

At the time, my two-year-old was going through a difficult period, where her strong ideas about how things should be did not always measure up with reality. We were having issues with such things as pasta being the wrong shape, favourite clothes becoming too small, stories coming to an end,  drinks being served in the wrong coloured cup, not having enough hands to carry more than two toys at once and what not. One of the things I learned was that acknowledging her emotional state was more important than trying to fix these often unresolvable problems. You could say, for example, “Oh dear, you wanted the curly pasta not the short pasta. You were really looking forward to that! I guess we will just have to eat this one today and put the other one on the shopping list” and get a shorter bout of tears than if you said “Oh for goodness sake just eat the stupid pasta who cares what shape it is!?”. (I recently saw this modelled on the excellent film Inside Out with the role of Sadness being as important as Joy).

I gave it a shot with a student email, to see if this would solve my puzzle – and it worked! I gave it a go with:

Dear [student],

Thanks for your email. It sounds like you have had a really awful week with all the issues you have described. I hope it improves soon!

As you know, extensions are only granted for medical and bereavement reasons. But if you get the assignment in to me by Monday, that will only result in a 2% drop in grade as per the  course outline. What this means is that if you get a 14/20 (a B), that will drop to 12/20 (a C+) and you should be OK if you do well in the other assessments too.

Please make sure you still submit the assignment through the proper box in the college office, so it gets stamped with the right date – and remember to get there before 5pm!


[sign off with all my work contact details]

The idea was to first acknowledge the student’s emotional experience, and then to inform them of the consequences. I didn’t give them a special deal – I just informed them of the consequences as laid out in the course outline and the college office regulations. But I personalised it with a bit of math that was realistically related to their current achievement levels (if I knew this or had access to this).

The effect was instantaneous: this student (and many others I used the same approach with) emailed me back thanking me ‘so much’ for my help (!?).  The lesson for me was that the emails from students were not a request for special treatment, but a request for human recognition. Like my 2 year old, the basic need to be acknowledged was important to their self-esteem and their ability to cope with the things life threw their way. It was like they wanted me to know that they were not lazy or a bad person, but just had a rough week and could not cope with the work. Wouldn’t we all like a bit of recognition in those weeks?

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