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When Corresponding with Students via E-mail, It Pays to Save

We all have students in every course that send us e-mails. Some provide us with information. Some provide us with excuses. Some question our instructions. Some question our syllabus and/or course requirements. Some have complaints. Some want “special” treatment. Some feel others have received “special” treatment. In most cases, they want “satisfaction.” And, if you don’t provide this satisfaction, they will go higher to achieve this satisfaction. They will go to your program coordinator, or department chair, or dean, or vice president, or even the president.

While the student is a customer, the customer is not “always” right. Instructors have a very difficult job and must always try to strive to be fair and use discretion; however, we must adhere to policies and regulations. Unfortunately, some students will not be able to maintain their “4.0” average or a graduate student may earn a “C”, or a “D”, or even an “F.” Sometimes, they have legitimate reasons and they have provided valid and validated excuses. Sometimes, they are simply not satisfied with their grade and will do anything to earn the grade they wanted or “perceive” they earned. They may make accusations; they may bypass the instructor in their complaints and, in some cases, may make the call or send the e-mail directly to the top decision-maker on campus. You will then be asked to “defend” yourself.

My advice is simple: At the beginning of the term, set aside a separate thumb drive for e-mails for a specific course, or create a separate subdirectory on your hard-drive for that course. When you receive e-mails, save them by last name and number (Smith – 1; Smith – 2, etc.) When you send e-mails, save them in the same manner. When you send e-mails to the class, save them by class number, for example CJ400-1, CJ400-2. When necessary, in responding to students, inform them that you are cc:ing your supervisor (and do so).

This may seem like extra work and, for some, much ado about nothing. However, if you are not able to provide documentation of your correspondence to students, it is difficult to defend what you have said. You also may find that the same student often complains in more than one class or seems to have “excuses” for not completing assignments in more than one class (your program coordinator or chair might validate this). I once had a student whose mother died three weeks before the final in two separate terms with two separate instructors. When we keep and share this information it will begin to prevent much of the problem in the future and provide you with very valuable documentation. It also will prevent unnecessary correspondence with your program coordinator, department chair, dean, and president.

Michael T. Eskey, PhD is an associate professor of criminal justice at Park University.