A close friend of mine shared the following email from one of her students with me (names have been changed for privacy). This student sent an email asking for an explanation as to why he got a question wrong. My friend emailed back explaining what she was looking for in the answer compared to what he had put for an answer. This was the response she received:
Okay, I understand now because that makes sense, but I think you and “Dr. Professor” should clarify those definitions in the future. I politely suggest rewording the slides or a clarification in class/recitation, because what you said doesn’t appear to coincide well with her notes.
Slide 16-21 of the 3-13-15 Enzyme Inhibition notes refer to “mixed” and “non-competitive” inhibition interchangeably (Slide 16-20), not labeling any distinction between the terms, like interchangeably using square and rectangle. Then, “pure non-competitive” inhibition is brought up (Slide 21) as the only difference from what was previously discussed (a case of the previous type where only Vmax changes, Km is the same). So, according to the notes, there is “mixed or non-competitive inhibition” and then “pure non-competitive inhibition,” which I think can be confusing if there is more distinction than that. This is why I thought mixed and non-competitive were the same, and why I didn’t assume you asked for pure non-competitive unless it was directly stated. Perhaps this confused other students as well.
Just a suggestion.
He was the only student that seemed to have an issue and this was the first time this had happened (what he felt was the TA and the instructor being on different pages). Had this happened numerous times where it was obvious that the class was suffering, I could understand getting frustrated and politely asking for the TA and professor to coordinate. However, this was not the case and the student did not handle the situation appropriately.
The question arises of how to deal with these types of emails and how to avoid them in the first place. Below is my advice. Some of these tips I already do while others are things I’ve thought of and plan to implement the next time I teach.
Set the tone. After receiving some inappropriate emails my first couple semesters of being a TA, I started to include an “email etiquette” section in my syllabus (or during my first lecture if the course doesn’t allow me to have a separate syllabus from the main one). In this section, I include times/days where they can expect a response (usually laying out I won’t respond on weekends). I also state times I explicitly won’t respond, now matter what day it is (such as a two to three hours before an exam or when a major assignment is due). Obviously there is some flexibility here. For example, if they are needing to upload an assignment to our class website and they cannot get it to work, as long as I am aware of the problem, I will respond and try to help them resolve the issue. Which brings me to my next point. I also make it clear that the email should have a subject that fits the message or I won’t open the email. I get between 25 and 50 emails on any given day so being able to sort through the ones I need to actually open and read is important.
Be a mentor. Something I’ve come to realize is that “kids these days” don’t view sending an email as sending a letter. To them, it is more like a text message. I’ve gotten emails with no greeting and lots of internet slang, even smiley/frowny faces! As such, I make it a point to use my responses as a teaching experience and allow students the opportunity to learn proper communication skills. The Association of Psychological studies has a great article on how to respond to inappropriate student emails.
Instruct them. By and large, most students do not mean harm when they compose their emails. Sometimes, you just need to put their own words into perspective. Most of the time, this can be done simply with your response, but sometimes a more drastic approach is needed. If you get so many inappropriate emails during a semester from several students, try setting aside a small amount of time during a lecture to outline the guidelines that you expect (which should be laid out in your syllabus already) and give them examples of both bad and good emails.
Ignore them (sorta). Sometimes the best response is no response. If the emails are so outlandish or personal in nature, I won’t bother with a response. When it comes to emails that I receive outside my normal response times, instead of never answering, I’ll reply to their email at my next “window”. For example, if they email me on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll reply first thing Monday morning. This usually will allow them the opportunity to realize their mistake. Also, if they have sent an angry email, by allowing them some time to “cool off”, they will be able to handle the situation much more maturely.
Be prepared for the worst. In most cases, graduate students are only a few years older than the students the instruct as a TA. This leads to the potential of students sending romantic requests or sexual innuendos (all though this may happen even between an older faculty and the younger students as well). You should not engage in dialog with the student. You should talk to them privately with a responsible third party present (just in case the student attempts to damage your reputation). If the situation continues, then you need to notify the proper channels within your department and university. This goes for any violent threats as well. I have thankfully never encountered any emails in these forms, but it is wise to have an idea of how you would handle the situation shall it arise.
How do you deal with inappropriate student emails? Share your wisdom in the comments below!