Sunday, August 12, 2007

On the Need to Protect One's Time

First of all, an aside: today I'm much cheerier than I was in last night's post. Thanks for the support of those who commented, and yes, part of it is really just the time of year :)

But what I want to write about is in response to this post over at Manorama's, which is written in response to this post (and the comments) over at Profgrrrrl's. To summarize briefly, Profgrrrrl complained about an incoming advisee who emailed twice within 24 hours, and Manorama noted that the tone (especially of the commenters) was not terribly supportive. (If you want the fuller story, read the two posts.)

At any rate, when I read P-G's original post, I've got to say that my first thought was, "this is why I don't check email when I'm not in town." And then when I read Mano's response, I thought, "hmmm, should professors be more supportive to this kind of student? I don't know."

So first things first. I think that I would have been irritated, as Profgrrrrl was, by this sort of correspondence from a student. Why? Well, the main reason is that this was a grad student, and NOT an undergraduate. If a person is entering grad school, while it's true that they don't know the ropes in many ways, they should at least have a clue about the academic calendar and the fact that professors are often not immediately available in the summer. Now, I understand angst and the desire to make a good impression. That said, by the time I was grad-school-age, I also understood that it would NOT make a good impression to seem needy and impatient. The student could have waited at least a couple of days. That's not to be dismissive of the student's anxiety - it is rather to note that by the time that a person is an adult (as all grad students are) they should have some sense of social protocols for not seeming overbearing and annoying. I'm not talking about the content of the email here, really, just about the time in between the two emails, and the fact that the student (at least from Profgrrrrl's report) wasn't terribly tactful in resending the email (at the very least the student might have explained why he/she was concerned that the email didn't go through and apologized in advance if the prof. was getting two identical emails). That said, Manorama is spot on when she writes: "Profgrrrrl was on vacation and could simply put the e-mail, and NGS's worries, completely out of her mind until it was a better time to respond." That's the beauty of email. One doesn't need to respond immediately.

Except it's important to note here: there was a time when I would have been much more irritated by such a situation, because I would have felt badly for not responding. What has happened to me, in four years on the tenure track, is that I no longer get irritated by such things because I no longer feel a responsibility to respond in a timely fashion, or to respond substantively in a timely fashion. I suspect, that whenever Profgrrrrl does respond to this student, that she'll be much more helpful than I would be. [Edited to add: she actually did post a basic version of her response to the student in her comments, and it is nicer - and longer - than what I'd have responded, in that she took the time to look up info online and to provide it for the student. ] Here's what I'd probably respond, if I responded at all before I were back in town: "Thanks for your email. I'm currently out of town, but I look forward to meeting you at orientation. Best wishes, Dr. Crazy." I suspect that a student who was anxious and looking for answers wouldn't necessarily respond well to such a reply. But that's what I'd write, and then I'd not respond to the student again until I met the student. Why? Because that's how my diss. director treated me, and I am apparently becoming him.

But really, it's not that I'm just a bitch who learned passive-aggressive and bitchy ways from her own advisor. Here's the thing: the fact of the matter is that being a good adviser, in itself, in terms of helping students to choose classes and such, is totally not rewarded, as far as I can tell, if one is a professor. Nor, ultimately, is teaching. Particularly at institutions with graduate programs. What matters, more than anything else, is publication. Even at my institution, an undergraduate institution that emphasizes teaching, things like being a good teacher and adviser alone will not get a person tenure, and one doesn't receive much reward for those things. And most people in professor-type positions are on nine-month contracts. What this means, for most of us, I think, is that we confine teaching-type duties to the time during which we're paid to do them. The "off time" is reserved for the things that "actually" matter, like research and publication. I'm not saying that this is good or fair or anything else. I'm just saying that this is the way that it seems to be.

The other thing to remember is that people ultimately are more likely to respond positively to requests when they actually know the person requesting them. Again, perhaps not good or fair or anything else, but human nature. I know that when a former student whom I'd mentored for two years asked for my help in the spring, even though she's no longer "my student," I was happy to help. And quickly. When students (and there have been a number throughout the summer) who don't know me and with whom I have no relationship whatsoever have emailed me for help, with getting into my classes where the enrollment has already capped, I'm much less likely to be forthcoming in meeting their demands. Because here's the thing: it comes off as a demand if you email and call me asking me for something when I don't know you. That's not because it is a demand - it just comes off as one. But here's the thing. That's why I don't check my voicemail in the summer regularly, and it's why I'm not obsessed with work email in the summer. Because ultimately, it's up to me to set the boundaries. Because, as Manorama notes, the professor is the one with the power in this situation.

In recognizing that, maybe I've actually become less supportive of students. But it also means that I don't vent about this sort of crap on the blog anymore. You know why? Because I don't get irritated anymore, because I'm not personally bothered by the fact that I'm not responding to them. Is that a good thing? Maybe.

Maybe not.


working said...

I agree with you - we owe it to ourselves to protect our time. I think I still need to work up to being able to not be irritated though :)

Dr. Crazy said...

I think it's just that I've been irritated to the saturation point, and so now I feel nothing :)

rachel said...

These conversations are sort of amazing to me, a graduate student in her last year. What seems clear is that many professors remember feeling this way - anxious, needy, nervous, inadvertantly demanding in the attempt to settle down - and they remember their professors responding in an indifferent, delayed way, such that the anxiety was not assuaged. Then, those grad students become professors and feel entitled, eventually, to adopt that same response. What an incredibly healthy cycle and anxiety and entitlement.

rachel said...

"cycle of anxiety and entitlement" I mean.

Dr. Crazy said...

I see where you're coming from, Rachel. I suppose the thing I'd say though is that, at least in my case, I don't feel "entitled" to adopt the same response as my mentors. It's more a matter of having had to adopt that sort of response in order to maintain any semblance of a life outside of my job alongside doing my job.

There are many structural causes for professors - particularly professors without tenure - to adopt such response strategies. (See what I wrote above about the reward structure in higher ed, and consider the fact that being totally available to every needy student can actually hurt one's chances at keeping one's job when the tenure clock runs out. I shouldn't say more, but let's just say that I know people in the profession who've been burned by this very thing.)

Consider for a moment: next semester, with a course release, I will have 70 students. Add to that number the 20-odd advisees in the major that are assigned to me. Add to that former students with whom I've continued to maintain a relationship and who need things periodically. So let's say the number is about 100. Now imagine that on top of this one is also getting emails from random students who email throughout the summer for any number of other reasons, some of which don't actually have anything to do with anything that I can do for them or anything that I and only I need to do for them right this very second. Is it a good use of my time to respond quickly and at length to such students who aren't in immediate need of something that I can do for them in order to make them feel better? In terms of doing what one needs to do in order to get tenure, I'd say no. Now, you might say that responding to "just one" anxious student isn't going to kill me. True. I suppose my point, however, is that it's NOT just one. And if you respond to the "just one" in the lengthier feel-good way, then you feel like you have to respond to all similar comers in the same fashion, especially because if you don't then you will be accused of favoritism, which can also hurt one in the long run.

I should say that I'm more than willing to meet with students and I do care a lot about being available to students during the academic year, but what I've found is that I MUST exercise a lot of control over how much time that I allow such work to take. That kind of work is totally invisible and it's work that often gets piled on top of female faculty much more heavily than it does on male faculty. The only way that I've found to exercise the kind of control that's necessary is to adopt a fairly terse persona in handling non-essential student requests. Perhaps there's a better way, but I've found when I try to be "nicer" that ultimately the student continues to badger me, thus taking even more time.

I'd be interested to hear what others think about what I'm saying here. I'm not at all saying that my experience is the only one, nor that how I've come to handle these issues is the only way. And I'm not denying that such patterns as Rachel noted may be dysfunctional (although I wonder whether this is so different from how things work outside academe, and if it's not, perhaps this is just what the work-world is like?).

Ok, I'm hogging my own comments, so enough for the moment.

ajowen said...

I posted a similar response in Mano's comments....

Unknown said...

I mostly see where you are coming from. However, it strikes that the problem is that if/when most professors take on this attitude it only accentuates the poor opinion most people of academics and academia in general. Students really do have an outsized expectations about the sort of claims they have on a professor.

I think the fast response would be the best response. The 'I'm busy I will deal with in good time' response, allows the student to know they have been acknowledged, but reserves space for your life. It also opens up enough of a line of communication so that if time becomes an issue then the student can drop a reminding email. The other key is to be willing to pass the buck and quickly. If they need immediate attention point them to the chair or department secretary who are more year round types.

litprof said...

I want to point out (not that you said this, Dr. C.) that I haven't suggested that Profgrrrrl should have written this student a lengthy, "feel-good" response. All that was required was precisely what happened--for PG to respond when she felt like it, and to respond as she did. Brief, to the point, and polite. What I was appalled by was the animosity and mocking of the grad student. Why is that even necessary? If you're a professor, you've got your own life, you're hanging out with your guy on vacation and you get this needy e-mail that you decide to respond to later, why even let it get to you so much? Seriously, I understand it's annoying (isn't work e-mail always annoying when you're on vacation?) but the kinds of things that were said about this grad student in comments were just out of line and plain cruel.

I think sometimes academics forget that to be brief, polite, and to the point is not unkind. That bit poking fun at the fact that the student's e-mail was three paragraphs and had "details of her life" is basically making fun of a vulnerable person for being sincere. People who do that show something very ugly about their hearts.

litprof said...

Sorry to hog comments, but in response to Rachel's comment, I've seen an amazing example of it going both ways in my dept. Two profs in my dept. went to the same grad school (though they didn't finish at the same time) and worked with the same person. The person they worked with is known for being cruel to grad students--she's just really a jerk. One prof (the woman, incidentally) replicates her advisor's behavior and treats her grad students that way. The other prof (who is male) decided not to go that route, and to treat grad students kindly (side note: he is incredibly busy and is very good at the brief, polite, to the point thing). I believe that his way of doing business is infinitely better, and it gives me hope that the cycle of emotional violence and dysfunction we put up with as grad students CAN stop. I encourage all profs to live something better than the trauma they were put through; at the end of the day you'll have to look at yourself in the mirror and own up to how you treat people. Would you want to see reflected back at you the kind of heart of someone who caused you so much pain and uncertainty?

k8 said...

I have been known to indulge in grad student anxiety, but I don't think I would have done what that student did. For one, I don't want to bother my professors too much. It's as much a question of manners as anything else. Two, I tend to think in terms of typical work day hours - this doesn't mean I don't work outside of them, but as a carry over from working after undergrad, I do think of others' time in these terms.

While I wouldn't be as annoyed as some of the respondents, I probably would feel a pinch of dread about meeting him/her based on this type of expectation.

Dr. Crazy said...

Mano writes: "I think sometimes academics forget that to be brief, polite, and to the point is not unkind. "

All I can say, though, is that in my experience, and in the experience of my female colleagues at my institution, as well as in the experience of women I know working as professors at other institutions, brief, polite, and to-the-point from female professors is often read as rude, uncaring, and "bitchy." Mostly, I take a brief, polite, to-the-point approach in dealing with non-essential student emails (and I don't make students wait for a response to teach them a lesson or any of that jazz - it's just I give a certain amount of time for email in a day, and if you're at the bottom of the list, you might need to wait a day, or if I'm on vacation, you'll need to wait until I return, and when I respond I'll apologize for not having gotten back to the student sooner), and I've gotten a negative reaction from students, however speedy, polite, and to-the-point my response to them is. Why? Because I'm expected to nurture them in ways that they do not expect male faculty to nurture them. (Once they get to know me, obviously they realize that I'm just not the girl for that.)

At a certain point, I realized that I couldn't expect to please everybody all of the time, so I've stuck with what I've described as my m.o. for dealing with non-essential email. But I suspect that some students continue to think that I'm perpetrating emotional violence upon them, because I'm not meeting their gendered expectations for how a woman should respond to a person with a problem.

I'm not saying that you're wrong that it's bad to perpetuate cruel behavior (obviously it is), but I suppose I just wanted to underline that behavior that students sometimes perceive as simply cruel is actually complicated by other factors outside of the professor's personal choice.

rachel said...

I get what you are saying, Dr. C. I do. My amazement at the conversation, as a whole, has to do mostly with the same as Manorama - the tone of absolute condescension over at PG's. I also will note that while your post is mostly about time management, her objection is not really about time at all (esp since the time it takes to write the blog post at participate in the comments is greater than responding to the student) but is rather more vaguely about the imposition on one's vacation mindset and the off-putting neediness of students.

To your more specific points about the time devoted to students being in opposition to the research one needs to do on the tenure clock, I can only sadly assume you are right. I do, however, find the rational that one should really privilege the thing one is more materially rewarded for to be slightly suspect, in part because we have chosen a profession in which one is notoriously poorly materially compensated, suggesting that this is not out primary value in the first place.
If, however, people find their research more personally satisfying than dealing with students, that is another matter, and a personal one which may not be changeable.

It is up to the prof to set boundaries, that's true; she is, as you note, the one with the power. BUt that is precisely why I am not at all persuaded that simply emailing someone with a request, even if it is repeated, objectively comes across as a demand. If I email a student and request an action on her part, I am the one with the power, so my request is really a demand. When a student emails me, or when I email a well-known scholar to ask for a reading or whatever, the latter person is in a position of power. The email is a request.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, I'm actually working on syllabi (note that my contract does not start until monday, so this means that this is unpaid work and unpaid work for students), so this will be a brief response to Rachel's last comment.

1. It's not about the fact that one is "more" materially rewarded for the research work that one does in the summer. That is what, at MOST institutions, that determines tenure outcomes. If one does not accomplish that work, one will be out of a job. And it does not matter AT ALL whether one was kind to students in that situation. Again, I'm at a regional comprehensive uni, and I've got no TAs and I have a 4/4 load - and yes, if I don't publish, I will not get tenure. Now, obviously I don't need to publish as much as I would at an R1, but if I don't publish as much as possible, it also means that I have very little chance of any job mobility, should I want it. So it's not about chasing money or other kinds of rewards so much as it is about keeping one's head above water.

2. I'll admit I was thinking about a specific situation I encountered this summer when I talked about emails reading as demands in some situations. Over the span of one week, I received 4 emails and 2 voicemail messages from I student I'd never met before saying that I "had" to let her into my class that had already reached its enrollment cap. Yes, that came off as a demand. And no, I didn't make an exception to the cap for that student, because I never make an exception to enrollment caps in my courses. But so that's what I was thinking of.

rachel said...

Agreed, the structure of the tenure system insists on publication and devalues teaching/time allocated to students. Agreed, one owes it to oneself to stay employed. I, personally, find this system to be deeply flawed. In order to retain the role of educator, one must devalue one's relationship with one's current students, in favor of one's research. It's structurally like applying for funding in grad school - in order to be able to keep writing my dissertation, I have to spend December through March doing nothing but funding applications, during which time I am not writing my dissertation. Dumb.

I get that these problems are built in to the system. My point, in addition to truly not understanding the excessively put-out attitude at PG's, is that this particular situation seems overstated to me. IF the issue is protecting one's time, allocating as much of it to research as possible, then respond to the student politely and briefly (as PG notes she did and aas you indicate you would too). That doesn't take much time at all. I'm not getting the grounds on which a person is irritated by a student's writing the email in the first place, unless it is displaced irritation, more appropriately directed at a profession which makes it difficult for us to do our jobs well.

gwinne said...

Dr. C's post and response really resonate with me. To Rachel on "I'm not getting the grounds on which a person is irritated by a student's writing the email in the first place": for me this has to do simply with the expectations of a quick response that arise because email exists as a mode of communication. I know I'm not obliged to respond quickly, but the very fact that in this scenario (descibed at PG's) the student wrote *twice* in a twenty-four hour period suggests that a quick reply is expected. I do check work email from home, but I *never* respond to a student (undergrad, anyway) after 5:00 or before 9:00 am, otherwise it gives the impression that I am available around the clock. And this semester I'm actually writing that on my syllabus.

litprof said...

Should not that policy of not responding to a student after 5 or before 9 *reduce* irratation at e-mails one perceives as "demanding"? I mean, isn't that why the policy exists in the first place?

I got caught in the e-mail trap, as well, and put a policy on my syllabus about how often I respond, and that I don't respond after 5:00 PM the night before a paper is due. And I don't. If student e-mail comes in during that time and I check e-mail, I don't respond. I don't feel bad about it, either.

You set a rule for yourself that you only answer work e-mail when you're on vacation if it's urgent? So do that. If you're still getting irritated by this stuff after that, I'd venture to say that the student isn't the one with the problem (though whose problem it is is already aptly suggested by the amount of sheer aggression going on here).

And Dr. C., there are a few very short yet "nice" phrases that can keep students feeling ok without the professor playing mommy, like "Welcome to the department" or "I look forward to meeting you at orientation." I can't imagine a situation in which that's going to be read as "bitchy."

The_Myth said...

I am concerned by the rhetoric of "nice" and "cruel" I see emerging from certain commenters. This ascribes a great deal of deep investiture to attitudes that most likely vary culturally [and as Doc C suggests, genderly too!]. Who is the final arbiter of what constitutes being "nice" or "cruel"? I know there are certain commenters I believe swing one way or another too far from center to make that call for everyone.

What several people call condescension, several of us see nothing wrong with it. Others feel professors MUST be kind, considerate, polite...even when faced with rude, invasive, and/or potentially disruptive behavior from students.

While I confess to be speaking in vagueries, I think this is something certain people need to understand: No one is mandated to be kind in the same way. As the old saying goes, sometimes it's cruel to be kind. Molly-coddling your students does not necessarily make them GOOD students. If I recall properly, ProfGrrl's e-mailer was asking questions that were answerable if the student had just perused all of the literature sent by the department. E-mailing a prof during break just to soothe your own anxiety is unwise, and I think that (if we prognosticate for a moment) ProfGrrl may have subconsciously been forecasting that this student might become a problem later for the simple reason that s/he was demanding attention now without true need.

Is it right to prognosticate? Yes and no. No, because you can be wrong, but yes, because we as human beings can make predictions based on social patterns. Any angst we may feel regarding this situation is most likely because we've seen it before!

Anonymous said...

I honestly don't think it's a professors job to keep an anxious student feeling okay. Professors do offer support. I certainly get pep talks from my dissertation director. But I also know it's not her job to take care of all of that for me. It just isn't. I don't expect it. I shouldn't and I don't. I also don't think it would be healthy for me to rely on her that way.

I say that as someone who has dealt with unsupportive advisers. Actually, both of my original advisers were very concerned about my emotional well-being. Honestly. They wrote nice emails to put me at ease now and then. Nice, sure. But not really helpful in the long run.

I thought both of them were very nice. But what I learned from them is a new definition of supportive. Supportive means read my work promptly, critique it mercilessly, introduce me to your connections and advise me in the same way you do your other students. In sum, do your job so that I can get my work done. I can still get in my own way, but that's my problem.

In terms of compassion, I'd say overlook or forgive my foolish mistakes, even if technically i could have known better, offer reassurance now and then but keep your boundaries firmly in place so I learn to deal with my anxieties and what not by myself.

I have no patience whatsoever for professors who hold up student progress by not taking their time on this or that, for whatever reason.

This wasn't one of those cases. The woman didn't need anything from P-G to continue making progress in the program. So what makes this new student anxiety P-G's job? Well, I think it kind it isn't.

I also think, frankly, some of the "animosity" in the comment thread was in the eye of the beholder. And I say that as one who defends all sorts of grad student behavior.

To be clear, I don't think this student did anything wrong. At all. I also don't think P-G did anything wrong. I don't think P-G owed this person an immediate reply, either. Because the student was clearly letting her anxiety eat her brain. That should not be encouraged. Going out of one's way to assuage the anxiety is a short term fix.

Okay, so maybe I've become cold-hearted but I don't think so. I think I've learned the difference between professors who humor me, placate me then put me on the back burner when I really need them and professors who are too busy to worry about my anxieties this week but come through with substantive feedback when I really need it. In other words, those who are professional about their work.

Ancarett said...

I agree with a lot of your post, particularly in that advising and teaching work go largely unrewarded at many graduate institutions. Speaking as the graduate coordinator of a very small program, I field about a dozen similar emails each summer from accepted students, despite sending out orientation packets and letters. I've gotten pretty good at responding (drawing from a file of boilerplate information with basic personalization) but find that the best thing, in the end, is to suggest either a phone call or meeting.

Despite all of that, I still get worried when a student sends multiple emails in a short time because that usually portends a very needy and time-consuming relationship which, as Dr. Crazy so right points out, won't be recognized in any good way.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

To add back in my $0.02 in something that became much bigger than I had anticipated ... my irritation at the emails stems from 2 issues (and it was because there were 2 of them in less than 24 hours most of which were not business hours, the second expressing concern that I had not yet replied and the general issue not being at all urgent in terms of actions needing to be taken -- and this I can certainly say, for reasons I cannot elaborate, but the student is not worried about scheduling other things around classes, etc. I know that):

1. I've seen this student before (well, this type ...) and based on past experience, things said in the email that I will not repeat, the double email and concern about not yet getting a reply ... this is going to be a student whose world (rightly) revolves around herself and but who (incorrectly) doesn't understand that no one else's world does. Vacation or no (I agree, she had no way of knowing ... but I was checking email all the same, and more frequently than many colleagues do while on campus), that was an unreasonable time frame for expecting a reply.
2. Also based on past experience ... this is the kind of student who, if she doesn't get a quick reply, will start calling the department trying to hunt me down. I had someone else do this earlier this summer and, funny enough, it turns out that I wasn't even the person she wanted to talk to. However, the talk of the department became "where is Dr. PG because this insane person is trying to find her and we're not giving out her home number." In that instance, the person left me 4 voicemails (and there were 3 more hangups) in less than 24 hours, checked in with the dept assistant and the secretary in the satellite office, the dean's office, etc. trying to find me. I was not emailed (when I eventually was, she got a reply that I was not who she wanted). Anyway, what arose from the issue was a whole "where's Dr. PG?" thing ... not what you want people asking moments before you go up for tenure, y'know? So maybe I'm a bit paranoid, and it is my issue, but this is not the time for me to be dealing with an insane person making others think I'm not around. And so this double email thing made me feel intruded upon and a bit panicky. My problem? You betcha. And thus my post.

gwinne said...

All this conversation--I've read all the posts involved here, at Mano's, at PG's--has me thinking about what it means to be a professor, what our obligations are, the time commitments involved, etc. I just received an email from a student with the proposal for her comprehensive exams (a student I very much like) and, yet, my immediate reaction was "ugh." Because I feel obligated to read something under the gun, so to speak, even when this was a document that was supposedly forthcoming back in the spring. It *is* my job to read her proposal, and I will do it well, giving her all the feedback she needs. But do I have to do it in the next two weeks? I suppose that's up to me... And I probably will, but only after all my syllabi are sparkly, my coursepack is made, and my own summer writing projects are as polished as they can be.

Shaun Huston said...

One minor point in this discussion that resonates with me is profgrrrl's note (on her blog) that the student has not responded to or acknowledged profgrrrl's e-mail in response to the original messages. This happens me to all the time. I get an anxious message from a student, I respond, and then nothing in return, including in circumstances where a return reply is warranted given the issue involved, the nature of the student request, or that my response included questions to the student that needed to be answered before action could be taken on their "urgent" need. Of course professors should be polite and respectful of their students, but I don't see why students don't owe the same in return. I let my students know that accessibility is a two-way street: e-mail, etc. means that they can get to me, but I can also get to them, or at least should enjoy similar expectations to theirs when it comes to communication.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I said this over at Mano's, but to repeat briefly, I think that one of the issues here is that while for the student in question, this is her only experience of grad school, for the profs, this is not our only experience of students. Our responses are conditioned by the context in which we work and knowing things like what profgrrrrl describes, in terms of patterns of student behavior in one's department and so on. I respond very differently now to requests for extensions than I did when I first started teaching (internally, that is!). Students who want an extension because they're freaking out, overwhelmed, or sick don't irritate me. Students who want an extension because my paper is less important than their bio exam do irritate me. I don't treat them differently, but I do feel differently about them, because they're part of patterns I've come to identify in the institutions I've worked.

Also, a quick response to Rachel: the idea that higher ed is actually about education is a nice one. But in a lot of institutions it is precisely about bringing in money, by doing research, and I don't think this can be overestimated. I think it's hard even to say that this is a bad thing across the board, as it's like saying that it's a bad thing that corporations make money. It's just the nature of the beast. Even the small liberal arts colleges can be completely driven by desire for tuition and donations, and good education is really just the pretext for getting such things. (Sorry if that sounds too cynical.) I'm not saying individuals should buy into this, necessarily, I'm just saying that it is what it is. I don't think it's bad for people to go into higher ed because they like research, not teaching. (I should add that I comment as a medieval historian, not someone who has the option of industry jobs for continuing my research. If I want to do research, I get an academic job.)