Because of my surgery, I had to conduct my classes online for two weeks. Thanks to email, I was able to stay in constant contact with my students. Naturally, a few students have tried to use email related excuses in order to gain some advantage. Fortunately, I have already had experience with coping with the email gambits.
One common gambit is for a student to say that they have sent email after email requesting information, asking for a date to make up a test, or in attempts to turn in a paper. Naturally, it is claimed that the professor never replied. Because of the professors cruel and malicious behavior, the student claims they are entitled to some special treatment. For example, to be allowed to turn in a paper two weeks after the deadline or to be granted a special make up for a missed test.
While email problems can arise, one interesting fact I have learned is that email problems correlate closely with the student’s grade in the class. To be specific, the lower the student’s grade, the more likely it is that there will be such mysterious email problems. Interesting, the last time a student with a passing grade said that I did not reply to an email was in the days when spam filters were first being developed-my ISP had rather overzealous ones for a while. I’m compulsive about replying-partially because it is my job and partially because a reply now often prevents problems later.As such, I am generally skeptical when someone says that I have not replied.
In some cases, the email gambit is combined with another classic gambit-the claim that a paper was slid under my door (despite the fact that I never find the paper). For example, a student might claim that I never replied to her emails and that she also turned in her paper by sliding it under my office door. To avoid that gambit, I have a obvious and rather visible large drop envelope beside my office door. Also, papers that have actually been slid under the door (perhaps the envelope is not as visible as I think…) have always turned up. I counter this claim by having the policy that a paper is considered turned in when I actually receive it. Yes, I do look around my office and behind the door when papers are due.
In some cases students make the claim that I never replied to them without realizing that I can check my email outbox and actually show them the reply I sent. This is why it is always good to know the technology before trying to use it as an excuse. True, it is possible that the email shows as being sent and it did not make it, but that is very rare. Further, it is interesting (as noted above) that email only seems to fail in cases involving students who are themselves failing or doing very poorly. Perhaps there is some connection there.
So, how does one counter the gambit?
One way is to reply regularly to emails and thus establish the fact that you are a responsible in replying to student emails. If a student then claims that you are irresponsible about emails, then their claim will not have much credibility. I think that some students might assume that professors do not reply to emails and hence they can simply play the gambit without actually checking to see if you reply or not. Since I always reply, this gambit does not work on me.
Another way is to provide two emails-your college email and another backup email. The odds that both emails would fail over and over for the same student would be rather astronomical. If they actually did, the odds are that the problem would be on the student’s end and hence not your responsibility at all. When I had my surgery, I sent out information to my students using my university email and I also have a backup email that is listed on the syllabus as well. So, for me to never get the email, two completely different email servers would have had to have failed over and over again. That seems unlikely.
The email gambit is similar to the “you are never in your office” gambit. I’ve had students try that one, too. As with the email gambit, the claim is that they made many attempts to find me, but could not. Because of their efforts and my failure, they think they are entitled to special treatment. Fortunately, I’m compulsive about office hours and always post a sign if I have to cut them short due to a meeting or something. So, this excuse never works with me.
As this discussion indicates, being a responsible professor goes a long way in countering such problems. Students will still claim that you are not responsible, but these claims will have no traction. In contrast, professors who are known for being irresponsible will find that such claims will have more bite.
Fortunately, most of my students are quite good. This is why I love teaching despite the problems I have to face.