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I'm a young (female) professor in a (U.S.) department with a small graduate program and a research expectation. I usually teach Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and try to save Tuesday and Thursday for research (where possible). On MWF, I'm quite good about meeting with students, even if they stop by outside of office hours (or on any day during exam weeks). My week or more homework assignments are generally due on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday (there's no good place for students to drop them off outside of class and I like discussing them as they turn them in) so I get requests by students who have put off their homework to meet on Tuesday or Thursday, even when I mention this preference in advance. I've yet to come up with a nice response that I'm satisfied both:

  1. Reminds students I'm busy with other work (despite the fact that their tuition pays part of my salary).

  2. that still encourages them to keep reaching out for help and encourages them to think of me as the approachable professor I try to be (at least on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday).

Suggestions for a nice email response?

  • 2
    (1) What level are these students? (2) How often is HW due? Do you really have three due dates a week? – Elizabeth Henning Sep 28 '17 at 18:26
  • Sorry, I meant to say that homework is due about once a week, always on a class day. I've had the question occur both for undergraduates (major and not major) and masters students so far... – Mathprof Sep 28 '17 at 18:36
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    Just an off-topic side-note: you may consider discussing the homework not on the day they hand it in but on the day they get it returned (assuming the homework gets corrected). This way, students see what they did right/wrong are can better focus on the necessary parts. Otherwise, listening again to the problems you have just fought with enough and are happy to hand in and "forget about" for the moment is not so pleasant/effective. – Mayou36 Sep 28 '17 at 19:32
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    "I am unavailable. Please schedule time during office hours." – Tony Ennis Sep 30 '17 at 3:26
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    Other options to help manage this: Always have homework due on a Monday (so the preceding days you're clearly unavailable). Use an online learning management system to have the homework uploaded at a convenient time (e.g., I have my deadlines on Sundays). – Daniel R. Collins Oct 2 '17 at 5:40
82

I've yet to come up with a nice response that I'm satisfied both:

  1. Reminds students I'm busy with other work (despite the fact that their tuition pays part of my salary).

There is no need to "remind" students of anything. They likely neither know nor spend any meaningful amount of their time wondering what you are up to when you're not teaching them. Nor is it any business of theirs where your salary comes from.

  1. that still encourages them to keep reaching out for help and encourages them to think of me as the approachable professor I try to be (at least on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday).

It is commendable that you want to be approachable, and to be seen as approachable, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. However, from the students' point of view it is likely to be seen as inconsistent that you are so approachable on those days and yet refuse to meet them on other days. In my opinion, any attempt to explain the logical reasons for this inconsistency is going to have very limited (if any) effectiveness -- the students simply don't have a good enough understanding of what the life of a professor (or any professional of a similar age and career status) looks like to be receptive to your explanation.

The upshot of this analysis is that you need to accept that setting the boundaries that you need to set to get your distraction-free time for research is going to make you look slightly less approachable and/or likeable in the eyes of the students. The problem is not one of finding the right words to put in an email, but instead of accepting that "nice" and "approachable" is sometimes inconsistent with "gets things done".

Suggestions for a nice email response?

Here is my suggestion:

Dear [name of student],

I am afraid I am not available to meet with you tomorrow. As I mentioned in class and in the syllabus, my office hours are [insert office hours], and I may have limited availability to meet at other times on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but I am not available on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you have an urgent need for help, feel free to try talking to [name of TA] or to a fellow student. I do very much appreciate that you are seeking help to improve your understanding of the material, which is a positive thing that sadly not enough students do, and look forward to seeing you at my office hours sometime soon.

Best,

[your name]

  • 18
    I like the last sentence. It is true and sends an encouraging message, without apologizing for the result. – Tom Church Sep 28 '17 at 20:52
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    Marking this as the best answer, as I think it does a better job of answering the question asked than Elizabeth Henning's answer and I too appreciate the last sentence. That said, I do have some concerns with sending either this answer or Lighthouse Keeper 's answer because of exactly what Elizabeth Henning's first paragraph mentions. While the benefits (quieter research hours) outweigh student reaction (remembering this is only one email), a better question might be whether it's more worth avoiding the situation (as @ElizabethHenning suggests) or continuing current hw policy. – Mathprof Sep 28 '17 at 21:56
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    @Davidmh if only all students were as reasonable as you. Trust me, not all students are. – Dan Romik Sep 29 '17 at 16:23
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    @corsiKa you're of course free to disagree with my answer, but your reasoning isn't very convincing. The OP is already going out of her way to meet students outside of her office hours on certain days. You seem to be saying the email isn't good because it doesn't make her go out of her way even more by doing something else she's also under no obligation to do, namely suggest an alternative time. Well, she did suggest a time: her office hours; there's no need to say anything more. The lunch rule may be a useful heuristic among a group of friends, but it's illogical to suggest it applies here. – Dan Romik Sep 30 '17 at 0:56
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    @corsiKa I don't know where you got the notion that such a rule exists at all. But even if it did, it wouldn't apply here because the professor and student aren't two professional coworkers in a symmetric relationship trying to schedule a meeting. Rather, the professor is a service provider with certain very specific obligations towards the student, namely to make herself available at a regularly scheduled time - office hours. And she has met that obligation; she is not required to do anything more, and in particular she's not required to suggest any meeting times outside of her office hours. – Dan Romik Oct 1 '17 at 6:55
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Your attitude sounds overly apologetic to my ears – students cannot reasonably expect that you're available for a meeting on a specific day of their choice. I would answer as follows:

Thank you for your interest in a meeting to discuss the homework. Unfortunately, I am fully booked on Tuesdays. However, a meeting on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday would be suitable for me.

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    students cannot reasonably expect - I see you're applying logic to an illogical group, a common rookie mistake. – Kimball Sep 28 '17 at 20:08
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    Completely agree. I too am a prof who is very generous with meeting students (though as a man, I don't explicitly worry about appearing approachable). But any student who asks to meet outside of scheduled office hours is already asking a favor, so although I try to satisfy this when I can, I have no hesitation about saying no if I can't. (The only exception is if a student can't attend ANY of the scheduled office hours, in which case I do feel some responsibility to find some other time at least once every few weeks. But it sounds like you're already being very flexible, which mitigates this.) – Tom Church Sep 28 '17 at 20:50
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    @Kimball I don't get your point. I'm not suggesting to confront the student with logical arguments, but with clear boundaries. – lighthouse keeper Sep 29 '17 at 2:13
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    That was, what I think the kids nowadays refer to as, a joke. In this case meaning students do not expect things reasonably, they just expect things. – Kimball Sep 29 '17 at 4:28
  • I like this response the best! If the student comes back with "I can't on MWF, what about next Tuesday?", you can then decide whether helping this one student is worth disrupting your research time over. – Gaurav Oct 9 '17 at 20:52
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The grad students should understand that you have TR set aside for research, so just tell them that. Undergrad students, especially lower-div students, are not going to understand why you can't meet with them when you're already sitting in your office doing "nothing." (And they are more judgmental about "unhelpful" female instructors.) So any of the boundary-setting emails suggested in other posts are fine, but be prepared for the fact that it's not going to go over well with them.

A better long-term solution is to manage when and how often you get all HWs and to plan on a certain amount of day-before help. Electronic submissions or other alternative assessments might also help you keep your research days uninterrupted.

  • This comment certainly seems truest to my experience, if not a direct answer to the question as asked. In (noncoordinated) classes where I have the option, you're right that I may need to reexamine how/when my students turn in homework, depending on my various priorities. – Mathprof Sep 28 '17 at 19:51
  • Elizabeth and @Mathprof, I agree 100% with the first paragraph of this answer, but don't understand the advice in the second paragraph, or OP's concurrence. I don't see in what sense is it "a better long-term solution" to adjust your HW schedule (or any other aspect of how you run your course or organize your schedule) in order to cater to some (not all) students' irrational tendencies and biases. It's the students who need to do the adjusting, not you. You both seem to be assuming the premise that professors need to be "nice" at all costs. I believe that's not a productive mindset to have. .. – Dan Romik Sep 28 '17 at 20:07
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    @DanRomik Being "nice" has nothing to do with it. It's about doing your job, being pragmatic, and not setting yourself up to have to buck the tide down the line. Furthermore, not every instructor has the option of completely disregarding their students' expectations, and it's presumptuous for you to assume that wanting help the day before an assignment is due is the result of "bad habits." Many students have family obligations, jobs, disabilities, etc. – Elizabeth Henning Sep 28 '17 at 21:04
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    I'd add that it's practical to care about student evaluations (as long as it's considered for tenure reviews) and that there's a good body of evidence that women professors who are not considered "warm" and "approachable" get considerably worse evaluations (more so than men in the same situation). Although a single email doesn't make up an evaluation, it's possible your letter is more "rational" for a male professor than a female one. The are many rational priorities I hold higher than "good reviews", but I'm not sure ease of homework collection is one of them. – Mathprof Sep 28 '17 at 21:27
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    I don't understand why a undergrad student should not (opposed Roma grad student) understand that a prof has to do research, office and sponsor recruiting. Especially if you tell them once. It perfectly fine to post that on the office door under the office hours. – eckes Sep 28 '17 at 23:52
2

In addition to other answers, how about something like

"I'm afraid that I have a [research paper|grant proposal|referee report|...] that I have to finish soon, and I have to reserve my Tuesdays and Thursdays to make sure I can do so."

I wouldn't explain yourself at all to students who are disrespectful, but polite students might appreciate learning that you (like all faculty members) are under a lot of pressure yourself.

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    The problem is that you are falling into the trap of framing a narrative in which OP is accountable to the students for what she does with all her time. She isn't. The students aren't entitled to this information, nor are they in a position to even fully understand what it means. And while she may have a grant proposal due this week, what if next week she doesn't? What if she wants to just meditate on life, or read a textbook - will the students accept that as an explanation? Or should she lie and make up a deadline? See the problem? The only consistent approach is not explaining yourself. – Dan Romik Sep 29 '17 at 1:34
  • @DanRomik I wouldn't recommend this in all circumstances, but perhaps when students are being polite and seem receptive to such an answer (and not likely to argue). – Anonymous Sep 29 '17 at 10:42
  • Let me further add -- Personally, I'm sorry to say that I was the kind of undergraduate who always demanded explanations, and in retrospect I'm very grateful to, and I learned a lot from, those people who were patient enough to offer them. So my advice is based on what I choose to do myself. Whether it makes sense for others, I can't say. – Anonymous Sep 29 '17 at 10:55
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    Yes, but it's precisely because you and other students demand explanations from professors that I'd be wary of giving one. I've had students like that and found that the more explanations you offer, the more they keep coming back and asking for more explanations. As I was saying earlier, that's setting yourself up for trouble: maybe this week I am truly urgently busy with a deadline, in which case it seems reasonable to explain, but next week I may not be, but the student will still expect an explanation. What will I say to them then to avoid causing disappointment and resentment? – Dan Romik Sep 29 '17 at 16:11
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    @DanRomik: In response to your question "What will I say to them then to avoid causing disappointment and resentment?" Nothing. My suggestion is based on the idea that a brief explanation may, in some circumstances, lead the student to some understanding. If a student bugged me a second time, I'd just say something like "Sorry, but as I mentioned earlier I'm only available on MWF." If that causes disappointment and resentment, then so be it. – Anonymous Sep 30 '17 at 13:29
1

The practical answer is just say no and tell them to try on the other days. Don't bother to explain a reason.

Some suggestions:

  1. Consider to write your policy handout or whatever to make clear that you are available some days and not the others. Maybe X times for drop-in (the office hours), Y days for appointment, Z days off limits.

  2. Consider to change your method of instruction to more examination and less homework projects. In particular homework that requires help from the instructor (since you are not available to give it). Nothing wrong per se with either method of teaching/assessment. But given the practicalities.

  3. (for your psyche) I would disaggregate the issue of research universities and undergrad subsidy of research versus the issue of what you need to do. You are in a situation where the school expects both research and teaching. There just is not the same commitment to undergrads at a research uni as there is at a non research uni (liberal arts college or military academy). It's just a fact of life. The schools have made their choice what to do. You have made your choice where to be. And the students have made their choice to go for a brand name versus dedicated instruction. You can still keep people reasonably happy by drawing boundaries and accomplishing the twin missions. Just don't confuse the overall debate versus you getting things done now in the situation you are in. The meta-issues of Harvard versus USNA are different topics than the issue of how Mathprof does a reasonable job at Harvard. And make no mistake about it. You need to get the research done. Especially if you are not tenured. This is the priority.

1

Your system has an inherent contradiction.

Here are some ideas to get you started in thinking about a solution for future semesters:

  1. Since you need two days to yourself, and students need a day to visit you with homework questions, plan your lectures for TWO days a week, for example Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday. Pick an appropriate day for the extra office hours.

    Or teach, for example, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with homework due on Friday. In this case you could make yourself available to help those who are stuck, on Thursday, and then you'd have Monday and Wednesday to yourself.

  2. Get a TA who will hold office hours the day before homework is due.

  3. Have the students hand in two submissions for each homework assignment, where the first is the scaffolding for the second.

  4. Give full credit for homework turned in on the official due date, and some smaller amount of credit (e.g. 80% or 90%) for homework turned in a couple of days late.

  5. Set aside two blocks of time on Tuesdays and Thursdays to provide homework help remotely (via email), and let the students know what those blocks are, for example you will check your email at 12:30 and at 4:30.

In the meantime, take some class time to explain very, very clearly that you are unfortunately not available on Tuesdays and Thursdays to help with homework questions, and tell them that what separates the women from the girls and the men from the boys is that the women and men will plan ahead based on their instructor's availability to help with homework questions.

Your unavailability on Tuesdays and Thursdays could be due to:

  • a long commute

  • childcare constraints

  • receiving chemotherapy or some other treatment, or supporting someone who is in treatment

  • a second job (for this we would imagine that you are not full-time)

  • needing to finish up your PhD

  • etc.

My point is that the students do not need to be told why you're not available on the two pumpkin days (i.e. the days you turn into a pumpkin).

My theme is based on the Faber-Mazlish idea Take Time to Teach expectations.

-5

I hate to burst your angelic bubble, but you are the boss, not the students. Some women professionals may tend toward being played by colleagues or underlings because they don't wish to seem aggressive, mean, un-approachable, etc., etc. Traits males in the same position have and display with regularity.

You have a TA, right? That person should be doing the work, not you. Your office hours should be set and adhered to. It's not your job to offer a short order, cafeteria-style set of office hours. Stick to your office hours and keep your door closed the rest of the time. Make sure your office hours are posted on your door, and that's it.

The people who have responded, excepting Elizabeth, are trying to be just as nice as you. You will get more respect if you stop being so worried about being liked and concentrate on getting your PhD, or Nobel, or whatever. The suggested e-mail is laughable, absolutely silly. Why all the fol de rol?

If you must respond by email (thus taking away your very important personal time) simply send them your office hours and tell them you look forward to seeing them during those times.

As an undergrad I never saw my full professor, I went through my TA. As a graduate student I was able to confer with professors, but was on my own, excepting for my thesis material.

Grow a spine and take care of yourself, your not their mother so stop trying to be one.

  • 1
    Forthrightness and "growing a spine" is sometimes a luxury. – Yemon Choi Sep 28 '17 at 22:36
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    I, too, would not be so strongly in favor of thinking in terms of "getting respect", as opposed to "being nice". I myself think in terms of setting a good role model for "being an adult", as opposed to being a vindictive child or adolescent. Sure, lotta big-shots do behave childishly and so on, but I, for one, would like to set a different model for students. That is, I do not think in terms of "getting respect", but in terms of "being civil", and showing how to do it for young people that might not know that some grown-ups are not predatory @$$-holes. All that. – paul garrett Sep 28 '17 at 23:31

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