Personalizing Pedagogy with E-Mail

"Why haven’t you replied to my message?" A few years ago, the big worry was that there was no way to communicate frequently or meaningfully with students who spent little time with their teachers face-to-face. Now, e-mail appears to offer one way for doing so effectively. Those who have less experience with e-mail may not realize that it offers great potential for direct, one-to-one, individualized, personalized communication between teachers and learners. However, the effectiveness of e-mail for this purpose has been substantially undermined by the increasing volume of messages that has begun to overwhelm so many of us.

Many faculty members who are permitting or encouraging students to communicate with them via e-mail find that many students are more willing to make statements about their own ideas and their personal lives. Some students are able to ask more personally meaningful questions—even explore "risky" hypotheses—via e-mail.

This "personalization" can often spill over to add depth and energy to e-mail exchanges about the academic work. However, some faculty find they need to set boundaries on course-related e-mail so that the more personalized environment d'es not become too confessional, too intimate. The trick is to enable faculty members and students to engage more fully with each other and with the course content through e-mail—while maintaining boundaries on this communication that are appropriate for academic exchanges. Further, most faculty members are encountering a novel challenge when they find themselves responsible for establishing guidelines in a medium where they may be less comfortable and experienced than many of their students.

Most people are just beginning to learn how they can personalize e-mail communication, in part by including statements about their own personal lives and being supportive of others who choose to reveal themselves more deeply and in more ways. As students become more comfortable using e-mail with faculty, some students expect individualized, rapid replies to their every comment or question—no matter how frequent or what time of day. Faculty members who are using e-mail in conjunction with teaching a course need help managing the students’ expectations—as well as their own—about how and when e-mail messages will be treated.

But just as many are beginning to understand how they can use e-mail to "personalize pedagogy," other forces are reducing the value of this medium for these purposes. Though many faculty members have begun to invent ways of using e-mail to communicate more effectively and personally with their students, the volume of messages has reduced the likelihood of any one message getting through and having a significant impact.

In 1994, I began a listserv that is still active, but the patterns of participation have changed. Back then I worked hard to hold people’s interest and elicit their active participation by distributing at least a few messages each day. Now, I try to limit the number of messages to a few each week to avoid making even worse the e-mail glut many of my friends and colleagues are experiencing.

How can we take better advantage of the benefits of e-mail when we are being crushed in an avalanche of messages?

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