Solve Problems with Pedagogy, Not Rules

Lately, I’ve noticed some hardline email policies on syllabi. Students send emails to instructors at all times of day or night or weekends. It can feel endless and overwhelming and, depending on the nature of the questions, disheartening. To help address the issue, some teachers set a strict policy to not answer emails on the weekend. 

What is the instructor’s obligation to this open-ended inbox? We should set limits and define expectations about emails, so that we are not expected to answer emails all hours of the day and night. This is a job, with other responsibilities, and with limited compensation. Most people (students included) don’t realize just how busy we are with long lists of professional must-dos that reach well beyond teaching. And, we already struggle to acknowledge, let alone embrace, our right to a life and some downtime.  

I am writing a book called Teaching with Time in Mind, and passionately endorse the idea that we can teach well and efficiently. But I don’t think that those sorts of hardline rules are the best path. Case in point: hardline no-weekend email rules.

We ask students to work outside of class, and they often do that work on the weekend. Most meaningful out-of-class assignments are about more than following marching orders as directed on a document. Out-of-class assignments are asking students to make sense of things, to figure out what to do next, how to get unstuck, and how to make progress. In the midst of this work, students often confront questions that can’t be answered by “reading the syllabus.” If we can help them to make those out-of-class learning experiences meaningful, if we can help them to solve problems in the midst of process, why not do so? Isn’t that exactly what we want them to do?

Students–which is to say, people–will encounter questions, uncertainty, and problems in the midst of any meaningful inquiry. It’s our job to help them, and part of helping them is to teach them how to handle those roadblocks. To do so, we need to teach them strategies to solve problems and seek support while at the same time keep them from deluging our inbox and overwhelming us.

To start, we cannot assume that every weekend question is the product of whining, laziness, or disrespect for our time. Rather, I think that students are just not very adept at asking questions, and TOO focused on rules rather than thinking. If so, will this get solved with more rules, or by better teaching? 

There are better ways to deal with the problem—if you redefine the problem. It all comes down to TEACHING students how to ask _good_ questions to mentors at appropriate times with appropriate expectations. The bottom line for me is that I see the act of asking questions as an opportunity for learning: learning about how to engage with mentors; about how to figure out what you need and ask for it; about when and when not to rely on others to solve problems. So if you want fewer emails on the weekend, focus on helping students about the art of getting help. 

There are essential three issues here.

  1. Unrealistic expectations about when and how quickly I respond to email.

Yes, it’s helpful to communicate your turnaround times. But why proscribe contact so sharply that you can’t help them learn while they are doing the things you asked them to do in the first place? Establish expectations about when you can reply. But don’t focus too much effort–or pin too much hope–on hardline rules. Instead, redirect your effort into helping students to use their resources (i.e., you)  in a realistic and responsible way.

  1. “Dumb” questions.

Do you get questions that are already clearly answered on your documents? This isn’t solved by not answering email on the weekend. It’s about taking the time to help students to understand that it’s their responsibility to review the material that you’ve given them. Clearly, this is something that they need to learn. Leave a little time at the end of classes to have students write down one question about their out-of-class assignments and answer them. Oh, and require them to come to class—have an attendance policy. They will see you every week that way, and if you leave time for questions, they will ask them when they actually see you.

And, if you’re getting a lot of dumb questions, maybe, just maybe, there’s an issue with your assignments, and how you communicate about them with your students. 

  1. Offloading responsibility by writing an email.

The answer is simple: I try not to play hot potato. If students toss responsibility to me, I metaphorically put my hands by my side and let the potato drop on the ground. I tell them this outright, in a nice and funny way. They know exactly what I’m talking about. Help them stop playing that game by calling attention to the fact that it is a game. But do it in a nice way, that lets everyone feel good about clearing that air and finding a better way.

The trouble with instituting a new rule is that it just turns into another game. Stop playing games. 

More specifically, I have two explicit policies that have essentially solved the “offloading” problem:

– I don’t typically write an email longer than the one that I was sent. This is remarkably effective.

– In emails, students must ask me a specific question that defines the problem that they are trying to solve, and they must tell me what they did to try to answer that question on their own. It can’t be, “what should I write about?” or “when is the paper due?” Because I teach and encourage this technique, students learn to write me very interesting questions, and in the process of doing so, they are forced to figure out what they need in order to move forward. In fact, students often tell me in class that they were writing me an email, but they didn’t send it, because in the process they solved their own problem, because they had to figure out what their problem was on their own. 

I have at least 80 students most semesters (and often more), and I don’t have a rampant email problem. Most students treat me and my time with respect and they treat my assignments in the spirit that they are given: as opportunities to think, learn, and express that learning to others. To create this environment and relationships, rules are my weakest tools.

Thanks to Ashley Shew Heflin for feedback about this post.