Tuesday, April 6, 2010

This ain't no customer service line


So here's the story: In my lower-division ethics courses, there's a weekly quiz administered through Blackboard. The quizzes go up each Friday around noon and come down each Monday at 9 p.m. So the students have about 80 hours to complete a short, six-question reading-based quiz that (based on the statistics from Blackboard) students take an average of 14 minutes to complete.

This morning, I have two e-mails from a student in this course. The first came at 8:41 Monday night. The student wrote to explain that he had closed the browser window with his quiz in it, and Blackboard was not letting him back into the quiz. (That's how I've set it up: Students have one opportunity to complete a quiz, and they can't just open up the quiz to peek at its content and return to take it later.) He wanted my help resetting the quiz so that he could do it again.

The next e-mail arrived at 7:22 this morning. The student (in that characteristically text message-y style) berated me for not helping him: '"didnt you get my email last nite? I was needing help w/the qiuz." The tone degenerates from there.

I'm carefully weighing how to respond to this student. Here's what I'd like to say:
I am not a customer service line. Yes, I'm willing to respond when students have problems like yours. In fact, when a student e-mailed me two days ago with a similar problem, I reset the quiz and the student completed it. But you don't have a right to 24/7/365 assistance. I give you more than ample time to complete this quiz — about 3 1/2 days in fact. You waited until the last minute to complete it. When you do that, you take on the risk that you will confront an unexpected problem of the sort you confronted. But that's why you should build in time for such contingencies. My responsibility is to be available, under reasonable terms, to help you. But I have the right to set some of these terms. And among the terms I set is that I'm not necessarily going to be available to help you 19 minutes before a quiz deadline. It's not my job to save you from the consequences of your procrastination, poor time management, or lack of seriousness about your studies.

Too harsh? Anyone else confront this sort of mentality among students?


  1. Not to harsh. Completely appropriate.

  2. Not too harsh, but I'd say it's both too defensive, and harsh in the wrong ways. It really seems like you're angry because of the disrespect shown to you by the student, rather than specifically because of the student's waiting until the last hour to complete the quiz. (After all, I bet a lot of your students regularly do that -- even the ones that take their studies seriously.) It seems at best pointless, and at worst petty, to criticize the student for this when what you're actually riled about is the insult to you implicit in the student's assumption that you should be at her beck and call at odd hours. Harsh words can have a pedagogically beneficial effect but I don't see your message accomplishing any such thing.

  3. I tend to agree with your frustration -- which seems to stem from the student's tone and unreasonable expectations.

    While the expectations of the student are different -- the student's actual problem, waiting until the last minute, is a common issue for my students. They then get stuck / have technology issues or whatever and lose points. I don't worry too much about it, and I don't give extensions.

    What I do is to ask how I should fix the situation while being fair to the other students in the class, some of whom may have missed the quiz and not complained..

  4. I agree with Anon 10:39. Your proposed response strikes me as a bit harsh.

    I would separate the tech problem from the attitude problem. Here's my suggestion: With respect to the assignment, do whatever you would do if a student couldn't turn in a paper on time because they had a printer problem. Separately, explain clearly and directly why you are offended by the tone of the email and the expectation that you are available to help students on short notice at any time. Suggest an alternative way that the student could have handled the problem.

  5. For courses with an online component, I recommend putting something like this right in the syllabus (24/7-attitude problems seem to be much more common in these courses...perhaps they think you're tech support?). Then in this situation, you can just remind them that they knew (or should have known) the terms of your student-teacher agreement and still decided to remain in the class.

    I would tone it down, but only a little bit.

  6. Michael
    He did contact you within the time frame for doing the quiz and I think you should have responded accordingly at the time you read the email the next morning.

    You can still send the response that you would like too regarding his presuppositions about your availability. They are absurd. But I would tone down the idea of doing the quiz 'late' because he did try to do it within the appropriate time frame. I would reopen the quiz for him because my guess is that you would have done so had you read his 1st email before 9:00.

  7. In the email, I would only point out 1) that the problem was the result of mistakes the student had made (closing the browser, waiting until the last minute) 2) (presumably) that students had been warned about these problems, and 3) that they can come to discuss the issue during office hours.

    The in depth discussion is more appropriate in person, I think. Tones change and become more civil, and there is less dodging of responsibility.


  8. "I'm right, you're wrong" is hardly the tone you want to be taking in a teacher-student relationship. If a student wrongly disagrees with you in class over a philosophical issue I doubt you take such a harsh tone, instead trying to turn it into a learning experience. That's what good teachers do-- they don't defensively battle to prove their students wrong and vindicate their own opinions when they're challenged. Simply explaining to the student how this is an example of managing one's time -- because these kinds of problems inevitably crop up -- might cause a couple neurons to crack. Or it might not. But either way, you wouldn't be bullying your students.

  9. You're clearly right, but it doesn't all need spelling out in quite that way. Saying "sorry" in our beautiful language of English doesn't necessarily constitute an admission that you're in the wrong. A simple, "Sorry, I didn't check my email at that time, so I wasn't able to help you..." would be fine. Only if the student pushes the matter and starts claiming that you *should* be online 24/7 do you have to start stating the bleeding obvious.


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