By: Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW, ABD
When did communication get so complicated? In my teaching over the past two years, I have certainly learned a lot about effective and ineffective teaching. During that time, however, I’ve been privy to some rather outstanding examples of poor communication, which, upon reflection, might have been avoided.
The idea for this particular column evolved from a day when, early in the semester, let’s call it week two or three, I opened my inbox to approximately 30 e-mails from students. I’m teaching four classes this semester, so I expected e-mail volume to increase, but this was crazy. After I spent at least three hours responding to these queries, I closed my inbox. When I checked again a few hours later, there were at least 16 fresh e-mails, some from the same students. I thought: Something is seriously wrong here. Am I a bad communicator or a bad teacher? Am I being unclear and my students have no idea what I’m talking about? Had I not already addressed many of these questions in class, in the syllabus, on our online course site (we’re testing out Moodle, http://moodle.org/), or via conversations with students? Was this simply a new expectation for teaching, spending hours each day conducting lengthy conversations over e-mail? Or were there ways to improve communication to decrease the volume of e-mails and make sure student needs were still getting met? Apparently, this is becoming a hot topic; while Googling sources for this article, I came across numerous seminar/workshop offerings by departments to help students and professors communicate more effectively via technology.
Although I believe students should first and foremost be given the benefit of the doubt (these folks are taking my class to learn, to do well, acting in their own best interests, and learning how to communicate effectively as professionals), there are ways to do this more efficiently and successfully. Professors want their students to succeed and learn course material, while students want to do well and get on to their post-student lives to do social work. There are no perfect professors or students here, and by no means am I a perfect communicator, but our goals are complementary. How can we accomplish these goals better together?
Please note that all professors will have their own individual preferences about the following guidelines, so when in doubt, always always, always ask your professors about their communication preferences.
In the technology-enabled communication age, and in no particular order, thou shalt NOT:
- Ask your professor what course you are taking with him/her. Seriously.
- E-mail your professor for information already included in your syllabus. Here is a sample list of items that should be found in your syllabus:
Course title and number
Day, time, and location where the class meets
Professor’s name, contact information, and office hours
Assignment descriptions and due dates
Late work policy
- Write an e-mail to your professor when seething with anger. It’s best to calm down, possibly reevaluate the situation (i.e., an unexpected bad grade, a confusing assignment you are concerned about, poor communication from your professor), take a deep breath, and start writing. Or if you are very upset, you might want to wait until the next day to send that e-mail, to avoid the possibility of saying something you might regret when not angry.
- Threaten your professor in an e-mail. Or in a voicemail. Or in general.
- Write an e-mail that is five pages long. If there is a complex situation you need to convey to your professor that takes more than a couple of paragraphs to explain, it may be more effective to have a conversation over the phone or in person. Even if your busy schedule makes it difficult for you to schedule an appointment during your professor’s office hours, you can always schedule a phone call with him or her.
- Expect an e-mail response from your professor in less than 24 hours. Or on the weekend. Or at 3 a.m. This rule also includes e-mailing less than 24 hours before class:
To get feedback on an assignment
To get a list of items that will/will not be on a test
Detailing the ways in which you hate the textbook, refuse to read it, and want a full explanation of the reading before class
- Send a text message to your professor. Please note that your professor may not use text messages, may not use a text message-enabled phone, may not want to use text messages (or pay for them) in his/her professional life, or may not understand your situation completely when communicated via text message. I’m guessing texting “hey my hw eta asap kthxbye!” may not be helpful anyway.
- Friend your professor on Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking sites, especially while taking a class with that professor. Depending on what information you have on the social networking site, it may not help your professional reputation with your professor if he or she can see the photos of you from that party. Yes, that party. Or that vacation to Amsterdam. Or anything from your personal life that you wouldn’t want a potential boss or supervisor to learn about you. As a student, it is important to give thought to your burgeoning professional reputation and how much you want your personal life to comingle with your professional life. It’s okay, even in this day and age, to keep some things private, especially when you have a choice about how much to reveal about yourself on a social networking site. For example, I wouldn’t put something on a social networking site unless I was comfortable if it somehow showed up in The New York Times or if my mother read it. Please keep in mind that some professors, myself included, do not “friend” students on social networking sites while you are taking a course with us because it can raise a host of boundary, privacy, and dual relationship issues. For example, the privacy settings on some social networking sites are becoming increasingly complex and, thus, more difficult to navigate (see “Novel boundary challenges: Social networking,” http:// bit.ly/aGJkXJ, and “Online professors pose as students to encourage real learning,” http://bit.ly/cpFqF5). Even if privacy settings are where we think they should be, there is no guarantee that items posted to social media sites will stay there (see “Not so private professors,” http://bit.ly/blRpXJ and “Project ‘gaydar,’” http://bit.ly/cAgrvz). I should note that there is no shortage of opinion on this subject (see, for example, “‘Online social networking on campus,’” http://bit.ly/9TDfic).
In the technology-enabled communication age, and in no particular order, thou shalt:
- Be nice and be polite.
- Begin an e-mail or voicemail with a salutation, addressing your professor by his/her name, identifying yourself, and identifying the course and/or assignment you are concerned about.
- If you are not sure what to call your professor, ask. Or check out this handy guide: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1153.
- Include the course number in an e-mail subject line.
- Be direct about what you need. For example, if you do not understand something, tell me what you need to understand, i.e., more information, or an example. For more information specifically about writing effective e-mails, check out Dennis Jerz’s Top Ten Effective E-mail Tips (http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/e-text/e-mail.htm) and Michael Leddy’s tips for How to E-mail a Professor (http://mleddy.blogspot.com/2005/01/how-to-e-mail-professor.html).
- Communicate you are going to miss class. You have a life outside the classroom that will sometimes conflict with your scheduled class time—so do I. You get ill, need wisdom teeth pulled, have to take your sick child or pet to the hospital, can’t leave your house due to inclement weather—me, too. Unless it somehow relates to your class material or your performance in class, I don’t need every single detail of the situation; “I’m sick” or “I’m unable to make it to class today” will normally suffice. Please be advised that different professors and universities have different policies on this rule, so when in doubt, ask your professor. In general if you are going to miss class:
- Do make an appointment with me during office hours if you are having difficulties in the course, to reschedule quizzes or exams you will miss, or if you will need to take an extended absence from class.
- Do not ask if you are going to miss anything “important.” If you won’t be in class, the answer will always be YES.
- Do not ask what you will miss. If our class calendar is included in the syllabus and/or the online course site, what you will miss will be listed here. You are responsible for getting notes from a classmate, turning in your assignments, and keeping up with whatever it is that we will cover in the class you will miss.
- Schedule meetings or appointments using e-mail and voicemail in under 20 communications. I absolutely abhor the volume of messages and “phone tag” call backs that can result from trying to schedule a meeting. If you cannot make your professor’s office hours and are trying to schedule a meeting, please list at least three days and times you are available to meet.
- Leave constructive voicemail messages. When leaving a voicemail message, if you would like me to call you back, please leave your name, a number where I can reach you, and the best time to reach you. Please mention what you are calling about and how I can best help you.
- Turn off your cell phone in class. Or set your cell phone to the vibrate setting. If you have an emergency and need to take a call during class, please excuse yourself from class and have the conversation outside the classroom.
- End your e-mails by saying “thank you” and including your name. If you are using a personal e-mail address to e-mail me, i.e., CutiePie98764@aol.com or TechGuyRob@gmail.com, I honestly may not know who you are or if the message is spam.
I once dated someone who had a cell phone, a landline phone, used text messages, instant messaging, had a blog, used personal and work e-mail addresses, used MySpace and Facebook, and used some online chat site. I had absolutely no idea what the best way to reach this person was. I still don’t. So should you phone, e-mail, stop by office hours, chat after class, or other? By default, ALWAYS ask your professor what he or she prefers.
Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW, is an ABD doctoral student at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College. Her research interests include the role of technology in social work, the effects of information communications technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet and e-mail, poverty and class, aging, social informatics, socioeconomic development, public policy, and community practice. Karen is the chief editor and founder of EditMyManuscript.com, providing manuscript editing services to students, faculty, and other social work professionals. Her Web site is http://www.karenzgoda.org. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/karenzgoda.
This article is from the Spring 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2010 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.