Dear professor…

phd072508s

4/18/2015

Dear Professor,

I am very sorry about the lateness of my assignments. And my absences during the semester. I am graduating after this semester and I found myself swamped with a ton of work I was not expecting. All of this piled up with vet visits, caring for my new puppy, and other things getting in the way I lost a lot of my energy this semester. I’ve attached all the assignments in this email. And if there is anything else I can give you please let me know.

Thank you for a great semester and for understanding,

All the best,
William

This is a real e-mail to a real professor who teaches art history at a number of universities across New York City and is an author of the book titled “Dear Professor: A Chronicle of absences” and is a guest of the Teaching Matters podcast Episode 102: Stories of Students’ Apologies.

This book is a compilation of 200 hundred students’ emails explaining and apologizing for absences and the podcast is aimed at exploring the motivation behind publishing the book and lessons to be learned about the electronic way of communication with students and how it changed the nature of the teacher-student interaction.

There is no denying that digital age has had huge both positive and negative influence on teaching and learning; however, e-mails are rarely considered to be the factor as they blend in so nicely into our everyday communication. Professors and teachers are one of those categories of people who deal with e-mails every day. More often they receive e-mails from their students than they send them. Regarding the e-mails containing excuses for the absence, the author states that some of them are pragmatic, but most are aimed at getting sympathy or understanding. There are a lot of oversharing or details that professor would prefer not to know about, and there is as he puts it “a sense of entitlement” as if he was a private tutor that is available 24/7.

First, I had the impression that the professor is quite cynical towards the students and their problems as I was listening from a student’s perspective. As we as students do not really think about a professor as a human being and are occupied with what we have. However, as you listen to the podcast you get the sense that he actually is sympathetic and tries to read between the lines that maybe there is something there that is not written directly. He explains that those are “a portrait of the modern student body in the USA”. Those are real voices from real students who deal with real problems as commitment, entitlement, anxiety, exhaustion, insecurity, depression and a desperate need of individual attention.

It was then when I started thinking from a professor’s perspective, as it must be overwhelmingly difficult to deal with unexpected and serious situations when there is a need to decide upon the seriousness or truthfulness of the situation and react appropriately. In addition, how to find balance and not to be caught up in the routine of trying to be sympathetic in every situation and finding the way to secure a student good grade. As the author of the book puts it there is “a moral and ethical dilemma”.

One of the main statements that author wanted to make by publishing his book is that the nature of teacher-student rapport has changed due to the information-driven and rapid decision-making society. It has changed but not for the better. The emotional distance and easy access via e-mail somehow imply that the roles of teachers and students changed to “teachers as service providers or private tutors, and students appear as more customers”. I find this statement something that is difficult to disagree with. Unfortunately, the author does not offer a solution to this problem.

In sum, I would definitely recommend listening to the episode as it provided me with the insights about teacher-student online rapport and interaction. Even though it is not considered to be “a problem” in a Kazakhstani context I think that there is a great message* that we should listen closely to what students have to say as behind each voice there is a person.

*pun unintended

 

9 thoughts on “Dear professor…

  1. Thanks for the post, Dana.
    This is actually a really interesting topic, because it does give a perspective from which I had never considered academic communication – the teachers. To me it is still a little bit unusual, just like when as a kid you would be shocked to encounter a teacher outside of because you did not at that time consider them to be autonomous human beings with their own lives and worries.
    Looking at the process of emailing your professor from this perspective makes you think more about them as a real face behind those pixels on your screen.
    At the same time any time I email any professor, I still have a lot of questions about the procedures and politeness within this kind of communication.

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    1. Dear, @sagidaserikbayeva! Thank you so much for your interest in this blog post. I can relate to the analogy you made about meeting a teacher outside the school setting for 100%. And in the era of technical progress and internet advances when sometimes e-mails are the only way we really can communicate with the teacher it makes it much easier to forget that there is “a real face behind those pixels on the screen”. And it may possibly change the nature of human communication as a whole. If it hasn’t yet done so.

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  2. Dana, as one of those “real faces behind those pixels on your screen”, and as a podcast fan who hadn’t heard that episode, I really enjoyed reading this post. Great work connecting the summary of the episode with your reaction to, and finally analysis of, the ideas presented there.

    There is one sentence that could use some proofreading:

    There is no denying that ___ digital age has had huge both positive and negative influence on teaching and learning; however, e-mails are rarely considered to be ___ factor as they blend ___ so nicely ___our everyday communication.
    5/5 late -> 4.5/5

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  3. Dear Dana,

    Thank you for giving an insight into this podcast.
    Firstly, I was quite surprised that there is even a book dedicated to this topic.
    Secondly, my opinion corresponds with yours in a sense that we, as students, do not often think of our professors as of fellow humanbeings and that should change.
    Thirdly, I believe when writing to our professors, we should stick to the “golden middle”: do not overload them with the details of our problems, but still include enough information.

    Kind regards,

    Lenera.

    Like

    1. Dear, @lenerakezlevli! Thank you very much for your insightful comment on my blog post.
      Yes, I was surprised as well. However, if you think about it there are so many things that are not taken into account but are worth investigating. And I think as we live in times when digital communication sometimes prevails real-life communication it is important to consider the matter from different aspects.
      Also, you are absolutely right that in teacher-student interaction there should be a balance of personal and professional. But in order to reach that balance, we need to think of teaching children and students about digital literacy in schools to prevent negative outcomes and consequences.

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  4. Thank you, Dana, for such an interesting post. It was really surprising for me to read that in some countries people pay attention to such issues which are not considered as a problem in our context.
    Actually, I first experienced mailing to the professors here in NU as in my previous university we used email conversation very rare.
    I think it is a good experience to learn how to write emails properly in official settings since this skill can be useful in our future jobs.

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    1. Dear, @gulzhaina13! Thank you for your interest! Indeed, it is surprising and sometimes shocking to see how what is considered to be a problem in one context is not much of a problem in the other. However, I think that it is important to teach our children about digital literacy starting from the school age so that they are ready to communicate via emails in a professional manner in their future.

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  5. Dear Dana for sharing this interesting and pertinent topic to our academic life. You metioned that the rapid descision-making nature of nowadays academic and career process that students as well as professors are always overloaded with deadlines. Thus, it seems some luxurious for us to share the personal feelings with someone else in person because everyone is busy with his or her own things. The internet communication looks like solved this inconvenience issues, but it has brought some problems at the same time. For instance, people are more isolated and get addicted to online conversations, which leads to the loss of personal communicative ability or willingness, as “”moral or ethical dilemma“。

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    1. Dear, @sharapat812! Thank you very much for your comment! You raise a really important issue of real-life communication. And how the nature of personal communication started to change over last few year due to information overload and technological advances. Now, when people have access to the internet and are able to speak almost to anyone around the world through a mobile device or computer it is of paramount importance to explore the negative consequences it might have in the future and seek ways to solve such kind of problems.

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