Wednesday, November 16, 2005

It's not inappropriate to blog about this if the person isn't my student

The high drama that resulted today began with the following email, which I am publishing verbatim sans the student's (not the referenced professor's) name, to protect their identities:

Professor Middents,
I know your new class Movie Star is full, but I need to be in that class. I heard there are other people trying to blue card in the class too. You can just tell me to talk to the registar because let me guess "There's a fire code" blah blah blah... but you can't let them do that. I am always getting shut out of classes I want to take. You should fight for more people to get into this class. Don't you want people in your class you enjoy being there? There are always people who dont show up for classes and dont go to the screenings. If you knew me better you would want me in your class. Ask Professor [M]. He gave me a 100 in participation... I know you're impressed, not. But you have to let me in this class. I really watch all the films and participate in class. I am super fun and [M] can back that up.
Thank you for reading my rambling.

[X]

OK, then.

My reaction to this was one of bafflement. Not at the request to let someone into my class: this happens every semester in the upper-level film classes and, while I like to tell my ego it's because I'm so super-cool, I know it's because we have a number of Cinema Studies minors who need to take my courses in order to graduate. This semester, the beginning number was set exceptionally low in order to control the number of students in the course. I was surprised, in fact, that my course had clsoed with 18 students, until I found this out. Many students had already emailed me asking (begging!) to be let it. After discussing the situation with several people, I happily decided to let seven people into the class, bringing the total up to 25 with no more. (I can't really go under that amount and expect people to be happy; I also would prefer not to go over that amount to make my own life easier, plus it's a good size group for this kind of class.

No, the key here is that I don't know this person. At all. I had heard her name from a student who five minutes before had dropped by my office for help from a paper, but I did not know her. If I had been familiar with this person, it might have been different. If someone like, say, former student Rusty had written this to me, I would have probably laughed before sending back a curt reply -- but that's because he's a lush from Cape Cod who used to sell me fish. (Doesn't that sound like there should be some kind of double entendre? And there isn't!)

(Tangent: I was shooting the breeze with recent alum C and current student M in my office hours on Monday, trading drunken idiot stories. M said, "Well, when I was a freshman, this drunk guy came into my room, got undressed and though I was his girlfriend, and I kept saying, 'No, no, Russell, you're in the wrong room!'" And C and I said at the same time, "Which Russell are you talking about?!" and then laughed because we knew we were both referring to good old Rusty. Alas, this was not who M was referring to, so I can still safely pretend that Rusty is a wholesome boy -- at least I could do this if I didn't keep reading his blog regularly. But I digress.)

I find this kind of email completely inappropriate on many levels, bordering on rude. Most students thankfully don't send email like this -- and if they do, they know me and (hopefully) know how to hit the return key to write more than a single block paragraph. To a stranger, however, such flippant tone turns into brazen and unearned arrogance. The same problem often occurs with sarcasm in email, which can become dangrous offensive. I showed her email to a few other professors in the department, who all agreed that this was really uncalled for.

Here is my reply:

[X] --

Let me start with a reprimand: you should really be careful about the note of your email messages for people that you don't know. Yes, [A] just stopped in and told me you were interested in the class; the cavalier and, quite frankly, unusually aggresive tone of your email may not be intentional, but that is the way it comes across. It does not work for me and actually strengthens my reserve to keep my policy the way it is.

It is true that the class is now full and I am no longer issuing bluecards. The reason for the current cap has nothing to do with firecodes and everything to do with the quality of the class. This will be a work-intensive class with a lot of class interaction and the larger the class is, the more diffuse the energy will be. 25 students is the maximum that I believe the course will work at and that is what I am sticking with for now. Had you emailed me yesterday, you would have been guaranteed a spot. Seven people got ahead of you, however, and so now you will have to wait.

You are currently #2 on the waiting list -- someone else just emailed me right before you -- and I will let you know if someone drops the class for you to swoop in and grab their spot. If you see a space open, grab it without telling me and you're in. Stay vigilant and hopeful and you will probably be rewarded.

And next time, read over your rambling and consider how a stranger might react to your email. I'm sure you're a wonderful student, which makes it a shame that we have started off this way.

Assuming that current student A had called X the minute after she left my class, I also brought a copy to today's screening and said, "You might want to tell your friend to phrase her email a little more appropriately." A said that in fact she had not said anything to X. I thought this would be a good lesson.

Silly me to think that this was over.

When I walked out of my office, packed up and ready to head home for bathing duty, I found outside my door a crumbled, weeping woman with another professor from my department in front of my door. I assumed this woman was in the other professor's class or something, or that she was being kind at what I assumed was the result of a break-up or something.

"Are you OK?" I asked them both.

Weeping woman could not speak, she was hyperventilating. My colleague looked at me, somewhat dumbfounded.

"Are you waiting for me?" I asked, thinking that I really needed to go home.

"I think she is," said the professor.

"But I don't know who she is, she's not one of my-"

Aha.

Sure enough, this was the person who had emailed me earlier, having now received my email and a phone call from her friend A, who said I was clearly pissed. (I was.)

Not one to leave a weeping student that I am the cause of in the hallway, I invited her into my office, where she eventually calmed down and, hopefully, finally udnerstood that email should not be so quickly or thoughtlessly sent.

I'm curious to know if you think I was completely out of line here. I really don't think I was, but I'm open to criticism.

Oh yes, the final question: did I bluecard her into the class? No. As stated in my email, I am full and she is now #2 on my waiting list. Tears did not change that.

Here endeth today's netiquette lesson.

16 comments:

Rusty said...

Wait! Who is "C"? Come on, you can tell me!!

By the way I think it's awesome you made a girl cry.

Middento said...

Weep, my friend. Not just cry. And personally, I don't think I made her cry. She also said she cried out of frustration at the whole registration process. I guess she just chose my office as a good location.

And C? I won't tell you. But you know what I was listening to in my car? Los Lobos. (Figure it out.)

Holly said...

In the two years of teaching at Michigan this happened every term. The most annoying were students who were in one section of my class (I taught three with 25 students in each) and wanted to change to another, more convenient, time. I got sick of it making more work for me and began a blanket policy of: come to the first class, monitor drop add, and get yourself in. It worked very well, at least from my perspective, and there were rarely compliants.

I don't recall ever getting an email that rude. (With the exception of one student who got upset that "Jeeves, Ask" was not an acceptable scientific reference.) I got one heck of a kick out of your response... I probably would not have been so direct but it is exactly what I was thinking.

the said "c" said...

Such a clever clue.

Former student who has probably made similar dumb mistakes said...

Hmm...

Since you aren't her professor, as you said, I don't think I would have used the phrase "Let me start with a reprimand." I know you are in a position of authority at AU and, if she does get into your class, she will be your student.

However, is it your place to "reprimand" her? She wrote an email, you interpreted it differently. Maybe she was (as I suspect) just trying to be "cute." To make herself seem unique so that you would let her in. But in your response, you leave little room for misinterpretation. You say her email was aggressive and cavalier, not that you interpreted it as being aggressive and cavalier. It seems hardly fair to her to humiliate her based on your interpretation of her words, as if your interpretation is more factual than her intention (since you never got to hear her side of it, if she meant it that way).

And as far an "netiquette" goes...

Perhaps she was a little brazen in her choice of words. However, does that mean you should print out her personal email and show it to other professors in the department (professors that she may have had or may have in the future) and embarrass her in front of them as well? I should hope not. So how they interpret it, therefore, should be highly irrelevent because they should never see it in the first place. It is a misunderstanding between two people that should remain on that level.

Granted, to make some comment about the tone makes a lot of sense. Perhaps you could have kept the email short and to the point about your policy and then concluded with a statement informing her of how you interpreted her message and how she should be careful in the future.

J.J. said...

Let's not forget the fact that she has the writing skills of a child. That, regardless of the e-mail's tone, would prompt me to block her from any of my classes forever. Can you imagine reading one of her papers, which would no doubt start with "My thesis is super fun and I can back it up." Teach this flake a lesson. There's no crying in college.

Anonymous said...

I would have used different wording in my reply but that original email was just pathetic. The tone was immature and that should not go unchallenged.

Some day she will think before she sends a message in a future workplace and probably avoid losing her job for unprofessional conduct.

-G

Middento said...

former student: I did realize she was trying to be "cute." And I probably could have just replied briefly. But I chose to reply as a teaching moment because -- and I thought exactly like G here -- in the grand scheme of things, my course coutns for very little. But if someone doesn't make her realize her error here, she may continue this particular tone in her email when it really matters in, say, a job situation. And, not to excuse myself, but I showed it to my colleagues primarily because we all talk about how awful some of these missives are, yet we often do nothing about it. Perhaps I'm inspired by Chornicle of a Death Foretold, which my class read for today. If we all keep saying "someone else will tell them this is inappropriate," no one will.

And JJ, of course there is crying in college. I remember hearing about you sobbing into a beer. (Although perhaps this is because you were forced to watch another PT Anderson film?)

Mrs. Non-Gorilla said...

jeff -- i would LOVE it if more professors took the time to school students as to what is appropriate and inappropriate vis-a-vis e-mail. it would've saved me about a zillion teary-eyed interns over the years who i had to call into my office and explain that i wasn't their buddy, the director wasn't their buddy, and the president of the organization wasn't, either. college is a great time to start emphasizing professionalism in written correspondence. not to mention a great time to get bleedin' wasted...

Rusty said...

Baxter, you know I don't speak Spanish. I had to "babelfish" the term "los lobos." I still don't get it.

There are no C. Wolves! K on the other hand...

former student said...

So how did showing your colleagues help "do something about it"? You could have sent her your reply without their input.

Middento said...

former student: I did send my reply without their input. What I showed my colleagues was both. And in terms of doign something? Hopefully, I won't be the only one who responds to such emails this way.

Jenny: Good to hear a word from the other side of academia! Even if you're back in again...

Rusty: Sigh -- you don't need to know Spanish, my friend. Read those sentences over out loud and see if a name appears. (I enjoy making you work this hard, bwahaha...)

Anonymous said...

Jeff,
One day, I gotta tell you about my American Univ. experience, and the student who wrote the scathing review of my teaching...and then 3 months later apologized to me, admitting that after he'd taken other classes and had other experiences, I actually did know what I was talking about. But, due to his review, I didn't get the prof. job at AU. 'greg'

Your former non-student and friend, Rach said...

Jeff,

Job well done. I think you were right to point out to this student the inappropriateness of her emails and to protect the integrity of your class."Cuteness" is not the way to negotiate admission into a packed and popular course or to navigate the collegiate red tape (that requires an army of people who like you) and I'm glad that you set her straight. So too,you can't help that she cried. Crying, as you said is part of college. Suck it up and move on. I wept often in that hallway.

kgf said...

The tone of the student's email indicates an age of 19 going on 14. Pretty much typical of the undergraduates I taught in my day (before email).

The email was clearly inappropriate, but I didn't find it 'aggressive' (and she probably had to look up 'cavalier' in the dictionary or google it). I agree with the other comments who thought she was trying to be cute (as in Buffy cute?), trying to stand out.

Her reference to 'fire code' suggests that she thought the higher powers that be had limited the class size. And she did sign off with a 'thank you'.

What do I think? Let me turn the question around - how would you have reacted if she had showed up in your office and said the same thing face-to-face? I suspect your reaction would have been somewhat different in tone, but not in substance.

I guess I would have chosen my words a bit more carefully and perhaps re-ordered the response. Something along these lines:
1. I set the class size, not the university. The class is small to enhance the teaching/learning environment.
2. Since the class is closed, the best I can offer is for you to put yourself on the waiting list. I do not make exceptions for anyone, whether or not I know him/her (watch your referents here - your next-to-last paragraph has 'their spot' in reference to 'someone'.
3. In the future, do be careful with your emails, especially to professors and people whom you don't know. An email is a written letter, a permanent record. The tone of your email was inappropriate and flippant (again, I don't think it was aggressive) and leaves a very poor impression of yourself, especially if you want to be regarded as a serious student.

bagels, boobs, and beer said...

Hi, I'm a friend of DZ's and a former AU student who found your blog...

I say kudos for taking the time to reply to her wildly inappropriate e-mail. Even when I was a stupid 19-year-old undergrad, I knew to address professors- especially ones I wasn't acquainted with- with some level of decorum and professionalism.

It's best that this girl learns now that she can't be "cute" with professors, or employers, or colleagues, especially when she's asking a favor. It's crucial to recognize different types of relationships and the different types of communication they necessitate.

And if you must cry, cry in your own dorm room, for God's sake!

-Alanna