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
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
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?
Steven Gilbert is President of the TLT Group and moderates the Internet listserv TLT-SWG.