How Not To Be Driven Nuts By Student Questions You've Already Answered
As we get deeper into the semester, one of the weirder aspects of the teaching life--the constant emails from students asking questions we've already answered in the syllabus--goes from being a minor annoyance to a real productivity problem. I've thought about this a fair bit, and here are two strategies I've adopted to help alleviate the problem.
- Be generous in your outlook. I used to wonder why students would rush up to me at the end of the very first day of class to ask me questions that I had answered literally moments before. It seemed a strange use of my and their time. I also wondered why this kind of behavior seemed to ramp up again in the week or so before their first paper was due. Then I thought back to my first year or two of college, and I remembered the fascinated, apprehensive young person I was, how interesting and cool I thought (most of) my teachers were, and how much I wanted them to perceive me as a distinct human being and not as "blurry face in the crowd #35." I think that sometimes, for students, asking questions they already know the answer to is a way of trying to feel seen. And this is a legitimate human need. If you remember that, you'll feel a little less irritated, and the experience of the first weeks will be more pleasant.
- Deal with it in advance. But you've still gotta deal with the behavior. For the last few semesters, I have made a point of sending out a lengthy email a few days before classes begin. (It's one of those emails you write once, save, and then cut-and-paste, changing minor details from semester to semester.) I welcome them to the class, attach the syllabus, explain where my office is, and then I link them to a couple of essays that I say will be "helpful to them in their college career." I emphasize that these are not homework or assigned readings, just things that I wish someone had told me when I was a student. The links I use are this essay about "how to email your professor," and this essay about grade-grubbing and why it won't help them. (Another, shorter, but less engaging read would be this piece from USA Today; it does both jobs.) I then include a disclaimer about how these articles are a little snarky in tone (so that the students won't attribute said snarkiness to me--Lord knows I'm snarky enough the rest of the semester that I don't need to go borrowing any). And then I welcome to the class and say how much I'm looking forward to meeting each of them, so as to close on a friendly note. It has really helped.