May has been a month of email trauma.
I taught a particularly unresponsive and difficult class this spring semester (“Sooner or later, we all get the class from hell,” my supervisor comforted me wryly), and within a couple of hours after I submitted final grades, the complaints and accusations started pouring in. When confronted with the grades they quite richly deserved, a number of my eighteen-year-old ESL composition students fell all over themselves in shock and moral indignation. They simply could not believe that I could be so mean as to grade them in precisely the manner the syllabus indicated that I would. Some who never once contributed to class discussions were indignant that simply showing up for class every day wasn’t enough to get them full participation points. Others were frustrated that sloppily rewritten essays did not automatically garner grade increases. One particularly angry student, who spent much of the last half of the semester sleeping in class, sent me a six-paragraph tirade of his many grievances, ultimately accusing me of giving him poor grades because I disliked him. His struggles in my class had been monumental, epic, he explained; because he had to take a heavy load of pre-business courses, he had been forced to stay up all night writing papers for me without the aid of prescription drugs, and so had had no choice but to sleep through the class itself. And although he had worked to make his papers “perfect,” strangely I had not rewarded him with perfect grades, from which he could only conclude that I was taking out my personal animus on his GPA. [Editorial note: perfect except for the pervasive errors in subject-verb agreement, run-on sentences, unsupported claims, organizational problems, and in one case, a conclusion that flatly contradicted everything in the introduction and the body.] Several weeks later, this same student rounded up everyone from the class who was unhappy with his or her grade and tried to demand a group meeting with me, which–on the advice of my supervisor and my own best judgment–I refused.
Over the next twenty-four hours or so, I responded to the angry onslaught. I tried hard to be professional, striving for a calm, neutral tone, reviewing the specific calculations that had gone into the grades in question and reminding students that I’d graded them exactly as the syllabus had said I would.
Just when it seemed to have died down and I was sitting back on my heels in emotional exhaustion, I received yet another email of fury, this time from a professor to whom I’d just submitted a seminar paper. This professor is noted for her passionate devotion to Marxist psychoanalysis in the tradition of Althusser, Lacan, and Zizek, and for her dramatic, intense, quite personal teaching style. Although I wouldn’t dismiss all work Marxism or psychoanalysis out of hand, neither currently interests me as an approach to literature, and so I’d written my paper without any reference to the theories around which she’d structured the class. Since my annotated bibliography, which she approved, didn’t include any Marxists or psychoanalysts, she shouldn’t have been surprised by my paper, but she was incensed. Every sentence in her email contained at least one word in all caps. She had never, in all her teaching career, she informed me, received a paper that had so little to do with the class itself, or with the concerns that were so central to it. She could not believe I had handed a paper so remote from the concerns of these theorists. I gave her no choice but to demand to see a paper I’d written the previous semester on the same literature she had taught. She all but accused me of plagiarism.
I read her email on my way out the door to a lunch for which I suddenly had no appetite. I spent a miserable two or three hours before I was able to get back to my email and reply. In between horrifying visions of myself being unceremoniously tossed out of my program for plagiarism, I remembered what I’d done with my angry students, what my psychologist husband always recommends with angry people–de-escalate them, reduce the intensity of the interaction, respond briefly and calmly. And it came to me: of course! That’s what I need to do with my professor no less than with my students.
Although I was sick and shaking as I typed it out, I again strove for a neutral, professional tone. I sent my professor the paper from the previous semester as evidence that I hadn’t plagiarized. To my immense relief, she accepted my explanation and apologized. She did include a somewhat self-pitying account of how hard it had been for her to imply that I’d plagiarized, and she gave a long explanation of why she had to give me less than an A for failing to use her theorists, but fortunately for me, the unpleasant exchange has had no lasting consequences for my academic life.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to both the story of my students and the story of my professor. In the case of the students, there’s the problem of the university enticing wealthy international students to attend school here on the hopes that they can get accepted to the business school even though their English is often seriously deficient. As the reluctant gatekeeper of the required composition course in which all business-school applicants have to get an A or a B, I became the fulcrum on which the pressure of their understandable frustration is concentrated. I’m doing the university’s dirty work: telling these poor kids they don’t qualify after the university has gotten a semester or two of sky-high international tuition out of them. I’m crushing these kids’ dreams. Of course they’re angry. And in the case of the professor, in one sense the back story is of course the culture wars in all their glory. More specifically, it’s the minority of humanities professors who politicize the classroom, demand ideological allegiance from their students, and don’t maintain appropriate professional boundaries. Mocking media coverage of MLA to the contrary, in my experience such professors are a small minority–albeit a noisy one.
Here’s the connection between these two unpleasant incidents that currently interests me: email. Of course human beings have always been prone to anger and rage, for great and trivial reasons, and human beings have always been rude to each other at times. But in the same way that cars distance us from one another and facilitate a kind of rudeness on the road we’d be much less likely to find among people moving down a sidewalk, I’ve found email facilitates rudeness. My students in particular pop off brusque requests or long rambling complaints, and sometimes they re-send them repeatedly if they don’t get a response within a few hours. I doubt they’d be so abrupt and demanding if they had to face me in person. Similarly, email allowed my professor to essentially yell at me for not adopting and repeating her ideas back to her, and I doubt she’d have had the nerve to yell at me face-to-face.
I love email more than I hate it. I’m introverted, indecisive, easily overwhelmed by other people, and congenitally unable to think on my feet. Email allows me to word my messages precisely and to convey exactly what I mean. But the incidents of the last month have made me approach my inbox with loathing and dread.
What are your experiences with email? Do you use it, as I do, to avoid the exhaustion of face-to-face or phone encounters with authority figures and acquaintances? Have you found, as I have, that it facilitates rudeness? Or have your experiences been altogether different?