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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Do You Think About the Idea of E-mail Office Hours?

When I went to college (1995-1999) and law school (2000-2003), I never considered e-mailing a professor a question about a class. Rather, I would come up to the professor after class or stop by during the professor's office hours. When I started teaching (2007), I received some questions via e-mail, but the vast majority of student questions came from students after class or during office hours. But over the last 3+ years, I have seen a change to the point where I receive a majority of questions about class via e-mail.

As a result, I have considered converting one of my office hours to an e-mail office hour or adding e-mail office hours to supplement my traditional office hours. Basically, with an e-mail office hour, I would tell students that during a given hour (say, Monday from 2-3), I will be by my computer, answering student e-mails. Of course, I currently try to be diligent in answering student e-mails, but that still means that it is often hours or a day after a student's e-mail before I give a response. And, if the student has follow-up questions, we can be talking about a matter of several days before the student has his or her exact question(s) answered. With e-mail office hours, students would have complete answers within the hour.

Of course, the student could get such a quick response by coming to office hours, but many students have conflicts or do not want to come by the school just for office hours (especially at commuter schools). I give students the option of scheduling times to meet outside of office hours, but some students just feel more comfortable e-mailing questions than meeting with a professor face-to-face. So, what do you think? Have you noticed an increase in the number of e-mail questions and a decrease in students visiting office hours? What do you think of the idea of e-mail office hours? Would they be a good response to changing student behavior or should we be encouraging students to stop by our offices for a variety of reasons? You can respond by leaving a comment and/or responding to the following poll.

Do you think that e-mail office hours are a good idea?

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Free poll from Free Web Polls

-Colin Miller 

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on September 22, 2010 at 11:10 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Giving students question answers is not an easy task on e-mail. It will be a big fatigued. Teachers have to give extra time on e-mail. I always encourage my students to ask me question after my class as this will be more feasible for me and also for students. They will easily understand what they can not on e-mail.

Posted by: Tim Berry | Sep 23, 2010 2:48:17 AM

I have the same policy as Glenn and Jason, for essentially similar reasons. In my first semester teaching a student sent me a list of twenty-five questions over e-mail. To answer them all would have been the equivalent of writing a small treatise. I find that it is always more constructive to discuss questions in person.

Posted by: Carlton Larson | Sep 22, 2010 6:03:59 PM

I don't answer substantive questions by e-mail and if I get them I ask the student to come and see me. This is for three reasons. (1) I have found that unless the student is really on top of things, e-mail exchanges are not pedagogically effective. Often a student isn't asking quite what the e-mail suggests the student is asking and therefore the answer can create greater confusion. These risks are much lower in a face-to-face exchange where clarifying questions can be asked and a student's puzzled look observed. (2) I can talk much faster than I can type and so I can answer many more questions in person. (3) Because e-mail is costless, it leads students to think of the professor as the first resource for an answer.

I do know that some professors who e-mail answers circulate those answers to the entire class.

Posted by: Jason Mazzone | Sep 22, 2010 3:03:39 PM

Email office hours would defeat the point of email for many students. Email is asynchronous, so they can ask questions on their own schedule, spontaneously, quickly, as they think of issues.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Sep 22, 2010 2:28:54 PM

Thanks for the comment. I haven't added e-mail office hours yet for some of the very reasons that you mentioned. In particular, your second point is exactly the point that I had in mind when I asked "Would [e-mail office hours] be a good response to changing student behavior or should we be encouraging students to stop by our offices for a variety of reasons?" When students stop by, I get to know them better, which allows me to write better letters of recommendation. Often times, we also get into a discussion of the student's desired career, the student's extracurricular activities, classes that the student might want to take. I would hate to sacrifice those discussions for the efficiency of e-mail.

And, with regard to your third point, I agree as well. When a student comes to office hours with a question, I try to help the student work through the question to reach the answer, and I am usually satisfied that the student gets the point at the end of the discussion. With e-mail Q&A, it's just me providing an answer, and there is no guarantee that the student learned anything.

Maybe, then, the more interesting question (because I think that most professors wouldn't do e-mail office hours) is whether professors take substantive questions over e-mail or not. I think that you highlight some of the pros and cons in your second paragraph, and I would be interested to find out how many professors do not answer substantive questions over e-mail. Such an approach seems similar to the approach taken by professors who ban laptops in class, another approach that has both pros and cons. Maybe I will raise that question in an upcoming post.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Sep 22, 2010 1:53:04 PM

Colin, I have adopted the opposite approach you do. I specifically tell students that I do not do substantive questions over emails. I do so for 3 reasons: (1) I get 60 to 100 emails a day without substantive questions, and I worry that I'll miss substantive questions over email in the shuffle. (2) Office hours are important as actually offering an opportunity to get to know the students on a personal level, which is essential for me when I write letters of recommendation. (3) Perhaps it is the subjects I teach, esp Civil Procedure, but I find the staccato iteration of questions and answers over email is likely to lead to confusion, or at least incompleteness. I'd rather talk through the question with the student to determine what is really afoot, including underlying premises that are off that might not be detectable by the simple email back and forth. I also live in fear that I'll accidentally screw up an FRCP number or the like in a quick email and get it cut and pasted back into my final exam, and be in a quandary about how to grade it later on. Such mistakes may happen in face-to-face communications as well, to be sure, but I am more confident I can detect it in real time the conversation.
Obviously emails would be quicker for the students and make them more likely to ask more questions. Whether that is a benefit or not depends on some elements of one's own pedagogical theory, i.e., how much you want students to try and work through their own questions and pare them down versus have easy and constant access to the professor. In my own view the benefits of face-to-face office hours are large enough that I would rather just schedule more of them to be accessible than shift to email questions. Perhaps I'd feel differently if face-to-face office hours were constantly overflowing, but thus far that has rarely been a problem.
Perhaps I am outlier (or a luddite) in this regard, so I'll be curious to know what others have done.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Sep 22, 2010 1:10:21 PM

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