Saturday, December 17, 2011

Email Etiquette and a Contemplation of Generalized Exhaustion

I awoke yesterday, the last morning of the semester, after a week of extended office hours and in-class writing workshops, to an email from a student from my intro lecture class who had attended neither, asking if he could meet with me and my co-instructor to go over his paper (the required first draft of which he had, incidentally, never handed in). My colleague was going to be in meetings all day and I have a drop-dead deadline for a not-yet-finished journal article in two weeks and have really set working on it aside of late to be available to students in the last weeks of term; given all of that and given that the student who emailed me hadn't even bothered to come to the writing workshops and meet-with-the-professor-one-on-one opportunities that we held during and outside of class time, I felt little compunction about reminding him that we had offered many opportunities to confer with us and telling him that neither of us would be in the office to see students that day.

I received the following email (with no salutation, reproduced here entirely as-is except for replacements indicated in brackets for anonymizing purposes) in reply:

Very well then. It's just that I've had other things to attend to regarding my schoolwork and I have been trying to polish my paper so that it makes sense. It is too bad that you cannot help out and help see that this paper is exactly what you ask for.
I was going to ask you about the format of the paper, because on your instructions it says that the format is based on primary sources. The thing is that with the topic of my paper being [TOPIC FOR WHICH PRIMARY SOURCES DO INDEED EXIST], it is quite impossible to get primary sources. I was going to ask how should my paper be set up to account for that.
Thanks anyways,

After several hours in which I allowed my blood pressure to return slowly to normal, I replied:

I think you've missed the point somewhat. If a student does not fulfill some of the basic requirements for a course, requirements like class attendance on a workshop day and submitting a first draft (even a late first draft) that were put into place to ensure that all students could receive adequate face-time and  feedback on their work, and then waits until the last day of the semester to ask for help with something as fundamental as not being able to find primary sources for an assignment that requires their use, it is simply not a reasonable expectation that his professor would necessarily be able to reschedule or neglect her other professorial responsibilities to accommodate those deficiencies.
To answer your question about form, you'll find that the assignment sheet says that the sample organization that is offered is merely a suggestion, that the primary concern of this assignment is content rather than form and that students are welcome to organize their papers as they see fit. Hope this helps.

I'm just baffled. I understand that the student was frustrated that neither of us was available to meet with him. But I have trouble understanding the lack of self-awareness about the wisdom of asking for exceptions to deadlines and modifications to schedules (and ex post facto, to boot!) from a person after you've just told her that her class is a low priority for you; it's not a question of offending me (this is not something my ego is caught up in that way at all) but of making me wonder why I should make any given student's work for the class a higher priority than he himself makes it. And I do definitely understand the temptation to take blocks of "free" time and rearrange or re-prioritize the work that's meant to be done over the longue duree; but I can't see making a decision to do so somebody else's problem. Nevermind that passive-aggressive is rarely the right tone to strike with anyone. I was pretty pleased with my response.

I took a while to consider the advisability of publishing this post, and I think what drove me, ultimately, to go ahead with it is that it wasn't really just about this student. This email is emblematic of what the semester as a whole has been like. I'm so glad it's over. First year on the TT is really rugged. More on that later, though. For now, back to the article.


  1. If I had a penny for each time a student got married to some obscure tangential half-baked topic & wanted *me* to hand them primary sources last minute. During my last run of student conferences (and J will testify to this) a student actually told me he wanted help with sources because he'd decided to "write about everything." (No, not everything we studied in class.. or everything related to the class' subject matter - he wanted to write about EVERYthing.) It was the end of the day, we were sitting in Olin's NES resource room and I wanted to throw one of those hefty Bible concordances at him (both to knock some sense into the guy and maybe give him a primary source to start writing about *everything*, in 8 to 10 pages.)

  2. The thing here is that it was actually a good, interesting topic. It was definitely difficult, and I had advised the student of that when their research questions were due. But it sounded like he had done work in other classes related to the topic and using the particular methodology and kinds of sources, so I sort of figured, well, great!, gave him some bibliography (which included primary sources and references to additional primary sources, natch), and sent him on his way. So (as with so much of what happened in this course this semester) I'm not really sure what happened between there and here.

    Anyway... I do hope you told your student that "everything" could be the topic of his doctoral dissertation but that for a ten-page paper, he needed to choose a more limited facet of the subject. For me, at least, the problem of the overbroad topic (again, not really the issue with this particular student, although definitely the case with others) is especially frustrating because the research paper assignment was designed specifically to keep them from writing overbroad questions and so many of them just totally disregarded the guidelines...

    As far as biblical concordances and dictionaries go, I think that my first inclination would be to throw Even-Shoshan because it's compact and in one volume, and the corners aren't especially pointy, so it wouldn't really do any damage; but ultimately, I think I'd have to go with both volumes of K. Jami' al-alfaz just because including Arabic in the mix brings one closer to universality than a Hebrew-language-only volume.