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My instructor for an undergraduate math course (a professor) has been interacting with me over WhatsApp lately, and I feel that that is very unprofessional (and uncomfortable), since I (and everyone) use instant-messaging apps for personal communication only. Moreover, from what I know, it is common practice in academia to communicate over email. Am I overthinking it, or is it really unacceptable?

I find this unprofessional because WhatsApp relies on one's private phone number. I think this professor got it when I called their office phone recently.

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    What sort of things does he message you about? Course announcements to the whole class, or off-topic chatting with you in particular? – cag51 Oct 30 at 6:10
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    I have students contacting me via messaging apps frequently as opposed to sending proper emails. I get the feeling that the current generation of youngsters have not heard of emails. – Prof. Santa Claus Oct 30 at 6:31
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    How did this communication start? How did the professor even have your contact details in the IM service? – Dan Romik Oct 30 at 7:29
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    "Would it be possible for you to send me your message to my email as I find it easier to organize my incoming messages that way than using <Yet-Another-Fancy-Instant-Messaging-Service>?" – Captain Emacs Oct 30 at 8:52
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    I feel like a few of the details in the comments should be included in the question because they are very pertinent to the issue. 1- the IM service is WhatsApp, which uses your personal phone number, 2- your professor got your phone number by going through the Caller ID log on his phone after you contacted his office (you didn't explicitly give it out for the purpose of being contacted through WhatsApp). – Alexandre Aubrey Oct 30 at 20:11

10 Answers 10

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I don't think there is anything especially unprofessional about communicating via instant messaging. Email is a naturally asynchronous communication platform, and sometimes you need a synchronous method to contact people.

In my research group, we use a specific professional instant messaging application - Slack. I did this because I feel it's important to keep work and private life separate, but still need a way of communication synchronously with my team. Students/postdocs may exit/silence the app when they feel they are not on "work time". Your institution may also have such a system - Microsoft Teams, Google for Education's Chat and Facebook Workplace all offer similar functionality depending on which your university runs its IT systems on.

I should also point out that the opposite problem is also true. My students definitely think it's a bit weird that I refuse to be on their WhatsApp group.

That said, if instant messaging makes you uncomfortable, you should tell your supervisor this. There is no reason to lie about the reason - you shouldn't even need to offer a reason. You can just say "I'd rather be contacted by email unless it's a real emergency, if that's okay.".


EDIT: This answer was written before it was clear that the OP was an undergraduate in a class, not a post-graduate communicating with their supervisor.

I do think it is a bit weird for a professor to be communicating, one on one with undergraduates in their classes via IM.

There are situations where some sort of chat system might still be a good way to communicate with students (I use slack in a large, long-term, practically based course I teach), but I do think personal IM is best avoided with undergradutes.

I don't think this changes the course of action, which would be to contact the prof and say you'd rather the contacted via a different means (see @henning's answer).

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    I agree with this in general, but OP is not part of a research group. They are just a regular student attending an undergrad course. Setting up slack for each and every lecture sounds like overkill. – henning -- reinstate Monica Oct 30 at 9:19
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    @henning--reinstateMonica My Uni is on MS Teams. Most courses have a room or group somewhere on there, set up by module coordinators – penelope Oct 30 at 10:52
  • @penelope same here with Moodle - however Moodle updates are sent via e-mail, and few people actually use the "Moodle chat" feature. – henning -- reinstate Monica Oct 30 at 11:20
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    @henning--reinstateMonica Okay. This information wasn't there when I wrote this answer. I think that it IS a bit weird for a professor to use something like WhatsApp or Facebook messenger to communicate with undergrads. I do have some undergraduate classes where I have set up slacks. These tend to be 1) Large 2) Long term (whole year modules) and 3) Practical (usually computer based), where people need continual advice on things. – Ian Sudbery Oct 30 at 13:44
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    What's unprofessional about it is the lack of consent, in my opinion. It's annoying enough if someone wants you to use Slack etc, but at least you can log out of that when you're not at work. If someone got a hold of my private instant messenger details and started sending me work messages without my permission, I'd be furious - I don't think it's appropriate at all. – Nathaniel Oct 31 at 11:47
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Are you overthinking this?

Perhaps. As the range of answers suggests, customs with regard to instant messaging are currently changing. E-Mail is still the main channel for professional communication, unless you are working closely together. But IM is catching up in this setting as well. As customs don't offer clear guidance, what really matters is your preference and hence your other question:

How should you request a professor to restrict communication to email?

"Polite, direct and succinct". It could go something like this:

Thank you for your message. By the way, I prefer e-mail to IM when it comes to university matters, and I would appreciate it if we could use e-mail going forward. Thanks!

This could surely be phrased more elegantly, but the point is to just state your preference and ask clearly for what you would like the instructor to do - neither getting defensive ("Sorry, but I often mute my messenger app") nor assigning blame ("I don't want to be stalked over a private channel").

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    This is best. No judgement or second-guessing, just a polite (and reasonable) request. – Ben Bolker Oct 30 at 19:25
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    I think this is the better answer. Reaching out to a student on a third-party app is akin to calling them out of the blue. As I grad student, I don't even want my PI to contact me on WhatsApp. (Mostly because there's some messages I really don't want to accidentally go to them). Any reasonable professor that gets this note should realize how inappropriate they are being; and if it's not followed by an apology and contact ceases, it would be reasonable to talk to a higher-up. – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 31 at 1:02
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I'm going to go a bit against the stream here, and say yes, this is unprofessional behaviour, given the circumstances a) that this is a professor teaching an undergraduate course, where there are surely more official channels available, and b) it was the professor and not you who initiated this communication.

There are two main reasons for me to say that this is unprofessional.

The first one is, that the power balance in this relationship is very uneven. In the situation as presented, the student can very easily feel pressured to keep a conversation going in order not to disappoint the other end, and most IM systems allows people to see when a message have been read. For IM systems as such, this is a nice feature, but it also lends the system to more informal conversations than normal email, and in this case it seems that the student has no way of expressing that they are not interested in informal conversation without the possibility of a negative back-reaction. (with email you can much easier stop answering)

The second reason is, that since this is likely an external service, the university can not keep records of the correspondence. The requirement of record-keeping is becoming more of a rule, in fact at my university we are required to keep correspondence to work email only. This rule is for sure something which is often broken in contact with colleagues or PhD students, but if I was caught messaging an undergraduate student over facebook/sms/skype/whatsapp/..., I would for sure be reprimanded and told to use either email or the university supplied system for course messages.

I have to add: This may not be of ill intent. This could simply be the case of a good teacher, who is not following all the latest fads, but in a misguided way is trying his/her best to meet young people where they are. This might not be taken out of thin air, I have in several cases had students contact me on IM services, or even on my personal phone number, where they should have used email. In such cases I have had luck with simply asking them to please use email. In cases of IM services I have often added that I simply don't check this service often enough for contact to make sense.

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    Restricting remote communication to emails only sounds a bit harsh in a context where, in many places, remote teaching is the only kind of teaching allowed. – Stef Oct 30 at 17:08
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    to call it unprofessional seems like a giant stretch to me. – eps Oct 30 at 20:16
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    @eps On the contrary, I don’t understand how it cannot be considered completely unprofessional to communicate with an undergraduate student via instant messaging or text. This answer makes more sense to me than the others. – shalop Oct 31 at 3:44
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    I don't even use my gmail address for writing undergraduates in my class (which I do use with my grad students), let alone texting. The only professional ways to talk to students in a class are through official university email or the official learning management system. – Noah Snyder Oct 31 at 4:13
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    @Kvothe: There is a world of a difference between workplace communication between peers, and communication between prof./student, as I indicate in the answer. Even more, there is a large difference between Slack, which may even be university curated, and a completely off-the-books IM service. – nabla Oct 31 at 20:42
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There are two major considerations that I'm kind of surprised aren't being mentioned by most of the other answers:

  1. You didn't give your consent to be contacted that way.

  2. You are uncomfortable with it.

Personally, I do think it's inappropriate to use someone's private IM/social media accounts for work/university purposes without consent. Since the messages themselves are on topic for the course, I'd guess it's an innocent mistake on the part of the instructor - they probably just don't realise it's making you feel pressured. But you should tell them, otherwise it will continue.

Since it's an instant messaging service, the next time it happens I'd suggest being straightforward and concise - something along the lines of

Hi, sorry, this is my private WhatsApp account - could we discuss this by email?

Hopefully that should end the issue there and then. If it doesn't, just reply to future messages with something along the lines of

I'd really appreciate it if we could discuss this by email instead.

If it continues after that then there might be a bigger problem, but I would expect something like this to quickly resolve it.

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My instructor for an undergraduate math course (a professor) has been interacting with me over an instant-messaging service

The word I notice here is "me". If the prof contacts everyone this way then there is less to be worried about. If they contact just you then it's a concern.


EDIT

If this is directed at you alone, and you have all the necessary information from emails, then simply delay answering and keep answers short, e.g. "Okay", "Thanks", etc. If it continues you can simply answer their insta-messages by email.

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The title of the question asks one thing, then the body asks a completely different thing.

How should I request a professor to restrict communication to email?

Send an email, and say, "Thanks for texting me about my answer to #7 on last week's problem set. It was helpful to get more explanation about why I can't infer whichness of foo based on whatness of bar. In the future, though, I would prefer to communicate by email or by my initiating a voice phone call to your office, rather than texting."

Am I overthinking it, or is it really unacceptable?

You're overthinking it. Not everybody interprets and implements professional/personal boundaries in exactly the same way.

I'm in my 50's, and I hear many of my colleagues who are of my generation say that you can't interact with students just through email anymore, because that's no longer the way their students expect to interact. I disagree with them, but I think they're sincere, and there's nothing blameworthy about the sentiment.

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I cannot see your specific concern here since you mentioned there is nothing inappropriate from their side in your chats. I guess You are thinking that the mere fact of using messenger apps violates your boundaries as it is naturally unprofessional. Based on my experience, not all professors think the same way although the ones who tend to message you on the messenger apps are far and few. Also, some messaging apps are better than others. Messaging someone on their Gmail messenger tends to be more common compared to messaging them on their Facebook for example. Anyhow, if you are uncomfortable with it for any reason, you are entitled to your opinion. I think you can politely ask them to use email for messaging you "since you do not check your messenger often" or "since you are afraid the information gets lost in the chats" or something like that. My only advice is to not make them feel like they are some sort of creeps for messaging a student on a messenger app. People come from different cultures and backgrounds and they have different views on things.

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    -1 for lies.... – Anonymous Physicist Oct 30 at 7:18
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    Sounds like you had a rough day, take a break fella. – CoderInNetwork Oct 30 at 7:50
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    Advising someone to lie is always wrong. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 30 at 7:59
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    @AnonymousPhysicist do you want to reconsider that absolutist statement? – Dan Romik Oct 30 at 18:45
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Just give your downvote and move on, morality is a complex subject and many people have different views on it. Some people do not believe in objective morality at all. It is not physics and there is no universal rule or "code of conduct" for humanity. Even if there is one, no one is obliged to follow your construction of it. – CoderInNetwork Oct 30 at 20:05
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If you use IMing only personally, you can discourage this behavior by being more responsive to email and less responsive to IM. You can say something like, "for something urgent, send me an email! Sometimes I snooze my IM alerts during the day to focus on work, but I check my email regularly." Then don't answer IMs during the day as frequently.

OTOH I know many professors who are completely unresponsive on every platform, so if one works for them, I just accommodate as much as possible to get things done. Having too many messages from a professor naively sounds like a good thing on balance in my experience.

If the IMs are crossing lines or distracting because they are off-topic or unprofessional (or something worse) then by all means, discourage the behavior. Being less responsive should help if you really commit to it.

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    If the professor has regularly experienced higher responsive-ness via IM, this response will come across as disingenuous. If the professor prefers IM regardless of responsiveness, the professor may ignore this reply. – Brian Oct 30 at 13:38
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Instant messaging is not inherently more unprofessional than other common forms of communication. It could be used in exactly the same way as email. Instant messaging has been getting more popular in workplaces. Specific messages could be unprofessional, but they would also be unprofessional if sent by email.

If you prefer to receive email, you can ask to get email instead.

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"Am I overthinking it, or is it really unacceptable?"

I believe you need an actual assessment here than a theoretical one. Theoretically yes i believe it is not alright without your prior consent to this communication method.

The actual assessment is a different approach. It is based on the result of this communication method. Does it actually serves the purpose better? You and the professor have one common goal, complete an educational session; does this communication method help to this goal better than the standard one? If so then you probably would consent anyway, else if it does not help better or blurs communication purposes, then obviously you do not consent anyway.

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