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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.