Conflation, Confusion, and Digitalization

Tell me if this strikes you as ironic.

Imagine you're someone faced with a problem. The problem could be solved by writing a one line e-mail and moving on. Instead of - or, to be fair, maybe in addition to - doing this, you write an entire paragraph (or a page or whatever) complaining about the problem.

I came across this over at Prone to Laughter, and followed it through to Learning Curves, and it seems like there a few things worth talking about here.

Like many of the posters on both threads, I have some problem with the application of the idea of "digital natives." Like most theoretical concepts, it's often used haphazardly. We're prone to assuming that students in colleges are representative of this idea. And to a significant extent they are. But this is the first assumption - and it's a dangerous one for us to make - is that they all are. There are still students - a significant number of them - for whom college is their first real experience to regular internet access. Assuming that because your students are young and should be members of this "digital native" group that they are, and that because of that they know the ins and outs is a dubious.

But the second confusion about the concept is more insidious. And Dance does a nice job of raising the question: being a digital native does not imply fluency or literacy. Instead, it implies a different set of relationships, the same way that being a native of one country's culture doesn't mean complete fluency in every detail or a proper use of all the cultural tools and concepts. Instead, it means that the way one relates is likely to be different.

The reason for the question of irony at the beginning of the post is this. One of the things that we hope for "digital natives" is that they'll be - or become - fluent in the most efficient ways of navigating all the information available to them. A person who is truly digitally literate - or even academically literate - should be able to think of several ways short of e-mailing the professor about when a final is.

But - and this is huge - the most efficient way is to find out directly from the person who has the most control and knowledge of the situation. I could check the registrar's site, but if there was a change, would the registrar likely be aware of it? I could check the department's web site or with the department secretary, but again, is it possible they might be missing some crucial piece of information? I could ask a classmate. They might be wrong. The syllabus could have been changed. The one nexus of information most likely to have the best information is the professor.

That said, at the end of the day, even if questions like that are annoying, students asking us questions should be treated as a good thing. How many times have you wanted to remind them that it's better to ask than assume? Or better to be sure than to make a guess?

We've got a lot to gripe about, but this one just seems silly to me.

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10 Responses to “Conflation, Confusion, and Digitalization”
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A thought on your example: I'm not sure emailing (or contacting in another way) the instructor is really the most efficient way to find out when a final exam is, for several reasons:

First, if the professor is like me, the answer might not come back for a few days. I try to answer emails within 24 hours but my success rate right now is only about 40% (crazy semester). It would be faster to check the registrar's website--or to ask me in class. Moreover, I would probably have to look it up myself, in my calendar, it was almost finals week. I don't bother to memorize when my final will be; that's what my calendar is for. Asking me might provide the most accurate and up-to-date information, but that's not the same as efficiency.

Second, even if I did answer each email instantly, it becomes a big imposition on me to have to reply to every request for information that is published or otherwise available. When there's only one of me and 120 students in my course, answering routine questions can take a lot of time. What might be efficient for the students is a very inefficient use of my time, for which the university is paying quite a bit.

I like it when students ask questions that show that they have figured out what they can with the resources they have available, and they are not sure they have understood it or they want to go beyond it. I don't like it when they ask questions that they should have been able to answer themselves--unless they genuinely don't know how to find the answer, in which case that's what I teach them (in office hours).

More and more, I find my answers to students' email queries take certain forms, e.g.:

"That's covered in the syllabus: see the course website where you can download it [followed by URL of the website]. Let me know if anything needs to be clarified."

"That's addressed in the course readings [followed by reference to specific reading]. Please ask in class or see me in office hours if you don't understand how the readings address your question."

"We went over that point in class on [date]. If you weren't there, please get notes from a friend. If you were, please ask me to clarify the point in the next class, or see me in office hours, and remember that you should ask for clarification in class if you're not sure you get something."

And if a question doesn't fall into these three basic categories, then I'm happy to respond--by email if it seems the best way, or by requesting that the student see me if I think that an email is likely to generate more confusion than clarity.

May 3, 2008 at 10:26 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

There may be a better word than efficient, though I think it works pretty well in this case.

I do think the idea of students needing to worry about whether it's an imposition on faculty time is a bit of a stretch. This whole argument is built out of the desire for faculty to protect their time against students who are somehow wasting it. But the reason students are doing this is to protect THEIR time. I'm not arguing it's the most efficient for everyone; I'm arguing it is most efficient for the student who is supposed to be learning how to make efficient decisions (particularly when navigating an information rich world).

As I see it, your example works well to support what I'm saying. Even if you take some time to get back to students, your answers are still the most authoritative even if you simply point them to the syllabus/class web page/etc. Even without telling them the actual time, you've told them all sorts of other things that no other information source - even your syllabus or class web site - does with as much certain and authority. Syllabi can be changed. Web pages might not get updated. But the professor's information should be correct.

It also works because it should be up to us to learn to protect our time and use it efficiently, not to students. You point to some easy things faculty can do to deal with. Develop form messages that you can cut and paste. I do something similar. I have a few very basic form e-mails that I use over and over again. I also set aside a part of my day to deal just with e-mails, and I let students know this (it's also a part of the form e-mail I send them).

But even if you don't do something like that, by my estimation, typing "Please see the syllabus for these questions. Let me know if you need any clarification." takes about 15 seconds (let's assume we can trust the internet stop watch I just used). If everyone of your 120 students e-mailed you that sort of pointless question in one day, that would be a half hour to answer. And it seems like that's actually more efficient than having a student stop in office hours for any single silly question. I'm also guessing I'm fairly typical in that on a high day for student e-mails (days immediately before exams, etc) at worst, maybe ten to twenty percent of my students might have a question, the amount of time being taken up by it is pretty minimal.

I think it's safe to say we all like it when people - not just students - ask us well thought-out questions that show they've figured things out. But we're part of the process of them figuring those things out.

May 3, 2008 at 11:47 AM
Dance said...

Ditto to Brian re speed and efficiency. And efficiency needs to be judged more holistically, not by a single person---e.g., double-parking is very "efficient" for one person but snarls traffic for three city blocks. Really, that's efficient? That's a perversion of the concept of efficiency.

Are you allowed to change the time and place of your final so that it doesn't match the official course schedule? Because I'm not. I do not control that.

Seriously, I understand that you don't want to discourage students from asking questions---but this is a bad example to use. How many professors are careless with final exam info? There is a 1 in 1000 chance that the written information is not authoritative in this case.

By the way, I have never told a student better to ask than to assume. I consistently say, re administrative policies and rules, "anything important will be written down in one of these logical places. Look there first. If I didn't write it down, use your own judgment, because I'm open." And if I didn't write it down, then I am obliged not to penalize them for their assumptions. (This only applies to admin details, not things like "I didn't understand this reading.")

May 3, 2008 at 1:02 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I have had to change final exam times, yes. And I've times and locations changed at the last minute due to university changes (for example, conferences that needed the room).

And I think you underestimate the chances. Having had to review departmental syllabi recently - as well as job applicant syllabi - I'd offer the rough guess that just under half of them don't contain the final exam information. I've also seen contradictory information given from one place to the next. One of the problems with this line of argument - that students rely too much on professors is that it assumes that they're not looking elsewhere.

We'll have to disagree about this as an appropriate example, particularly if we're going to measure efficiency from both sides because to send an e-mail as Brian suggests does take so little time while it may well still be useful for students.

What I like about Brian's example of an e-mail is that it is both efficient for the student and the professor while helping to instruct the student in a good practice for navigating information.

May 3, 2008 at 1:17 PM
Dance said...

Your university is very different from mine, where final exam times are locked down even before course registration opens the term before. Places are added later.

By endorsing Brian's form email, you are accepting the larger issue here, though---why have these students not already learned basic navigation? That's the issue, that's the problem. Why is their first instinct to shoot off an email rather than to check the known authorities (syllabus, blackboard), which they should have been referring to all semester?

May 3, 2008 at 2:03 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

That's true; I do accept larger issues by endorsing the form e-mail. But not that issue, because that's an assumption about what the student's first instinct is and about what they've done before-hand. It'd make for a great study, but it's far from proven that they haven't looked elsewhere or thought of other options.

I contend that what students have learned is basic navigation, just not the source that some professors prefer - they've learned to navigate to the thing they can most hold accountable and that they'd assume - rightly or wrongly - is most correct.

What I do accept is that some professors see these sorts of e-mails as a tremendous problem - in some cases because such e-mails are viewed as too time consuming or in some cases because such e-mails seem to indicate that students don't know how better to look. My entire goal with these posts has been to suggest that maybe we don't know as much about why students might be doing this as we like to think, and to instead, focus us on what we might do to make it less of an issue.

May 3, 2008 at 5:22 PM
Belle said...

Like Dance, our exam times are established by others. And they are always printed in the term schedule, and never change. I always put it in my syllabus and my readings schedule.

Others change stuff (even though they're prohibited from doing so). Students are then so confused that they come and bother the AA for the info, because the prof (erroneously) assumes she keeps track of the various prof's schedules. And since our AA sits right outside my office, I hear all this stuff.

Then there are the students who simply do not pay attention, and take the easiest route: they make a point of asking me, usually as I'm running to another class/committee/errand. Those I would cheerfully refer back to the class web site, the schedule or wherever. I will NOT answer them directly. I'm tired of handholding laggards.

May 3, 2008 at 5:54 PM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Belle, that happens here, too. I'm in a fairly small department - currently 3 full time faculty - and because we give so little to our adjuncts (no space, no phone, no real guidance), often they work outside of the established systems - registrar calendars, rules about finals, etc.

And honestly, I think that's probably fine: we're giving them so little, let them at least set a final when it's convenient for them since they're probably having to juggle courses at some other school (or schools) just to make ends meet.

I think that does add to the possibility that some students - certainly not all - could have good reason to work through information of whatever sort relating to the university in a way that differs from what professors want.

May 3, 2008 at 10:11 PM
The_Myth said...

I hope I'm not intruding...

How about another example! A TRUE [TM] story:

The week before Spring Break 2007 [the timing becomes important here], I had to have "the talk" with my class about absenteeism and the attendant e-mail to me with "What did I miss?" pleas. I reminded the classes [total 51 students] that, as stated in the syllabus, it was the student's responsibility to get notes from a classmate, check Blackboard, etc. I assumed, like many other professors, that some students just didn't know what I meant when I told them this at the start of the semester. I presumed an information deficiency and tried to close that gap.

And guess what happened the Thursday before break? Yes, I got flooded with e-mails [about 12 before I got irritated] informing me of upcoming absences and pleas to know what would be missed, ignoring the classroom announcement of the day before. So, being a good digital native myself, I crafted a stern but funny e-mail reminding them of everything I had just told them the day before.

They were not amused. It was if they never heard it in the first place. As if I was making up a policy right just to annoy them. And that was just completely unfair of me! [Except for the students who weren't skipping out early for break...most of them perfectly understood what was up and why everyone got the e-nouncement/reminder.]

And I think this is why so many faculty become reluctant to answer every single e-mail from students. Many times [I'd even say most, in my experience] the request for information really is just a symptom of chronic cluelessness. It's a waste of faculty time because it's a reiteration of information that was already addressed ...and promptly ignored. It's a little irresponsible to go through life completely unaccountable. And it's irritating to feel like you're hand-holding when you've already done way more than you feel you should [or would be required to in many other jobs].

May 4, 2008 at 1:38 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

No, it's not an intrusion. It seemed like I was perhaps hijacking the thread at Prone to Laughter, so it seemed polite to bring my noise elsewhere.

That's quite a story, and I'm sure we all have one like it. I know I've got more than a few. There's plenty of reason for faculty to be disillusioned, frustrated, etc. and that story certainly qualifies. But I don't think students as "digital natives" has anything to do with that. Bad behavior can happen anywhere, digitally or not. But it isn't caused by digital technology.

My point about faculty (drawing from the thread over at Prone to Laughter, for those just joining in) isn't about competency or incompetency - or at least isn't about them as a binary position. So when I've referenced faculty allowing the inconvenience of answering student e-mails about something as simple as "when's the final?", my point is only that there are reasons why a "digital native" who is thinking critically about information might send the question. Instead of framing it as a simple "this generation doesn't think" sort of moment - which seemed to be the tone at Learning Curves - I think we need to recognize that there's a lot of thinking that might well go into such decisions if we truly want to help students make better ones.

You said it well when you said faculty find such e-mails unnecessary. But students might - sometimes for reasons that are actually valid. I'm trying avoid staying with the polarized debate because those reasons - good and bad - might be nuanced. And it seems to me we can find ways to save ourselves some frustration - or at least make sure that we're frustrated by the right things - if we try to figure out what those nuances might be.

May 4, 2008 at 5:58 PM