Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why Freshmen Fail, Part Two: "E-mail Is for Grown-Ups"

At the end of my last post, I promised to write about higher-order thinking skills this time. But I'm a little short on time this week, so I've decided to postpone that discussion until next time. Instead, this week, I'll address the "freshman failure factor" that has had the most impact on me lately: the attitude of the millennial generation to e-mail.

The millennial generation (of which this freshman class is a part) is the most "plugged-in" generation in history. They have grown up using computers for both recreational and educational purposes. They use their phones and their social networking web pages to keep in (nearly) constant contact with family and friends, and most millennials can text faster than they can write or type. In fact, millennials have never known a time when e-mail was not a widely-used form of communication.

So I was surprised to learn last year that even though most of my advisees/students have multiple e-mail accounts, they rarely check them. E-mail, it seems, is already an outmoded form of communication. It's too slow for the "now" generation that is so used to the instant responses that text messaging produces. Instant communication via e-mail requires the user to stay connected to the internet on his or her computer, and that's neither practical nor possible for this generation of highly mobile students. The exception, of course, is "smartphone e-mail," and with few exceptions, the advisees on my roster who actually respond to e-mails do so from their iPhones or Blackberries.

In addition to being "too slow," e-mail is apparently "only for grown-ups," and most college students--or at least, those students taught by colleagues of mine who have had conversations with their classes on this subject--don't view themselves as adults yet. After all, they don't have full-time jobs, families, or bills (or at least, they don't pay the bills). The only people who use e-mail to communicate with them are older adults in positions of authority; their peers use text messaging or social networking instead.

So much for the social commentary. Let's look at the impact of "e-mail resistance" on freshman success. As an academic advisor, my job is to keep tabs on my advisees' academic progress and connect those students who need extra help with the resources they need. Since I am not in the classroom this semester, my resources for communicating with my at-risk advisees are limited. When I need to meet with a student, I can a) send an appointment request by e-mail, b) call the student on his/her cell phone, c) check the student's schedule and ambush him/her outside a classroom, or d) ask one of the student's other instructors to pass the message along and/or escort the student to my office after class. C and D can be and have been effective in emergency situations, but are also potentially embarrassing for the student, and we like to avoid these methods if possible. B is only effective when the student discloses his/her cell phone number to the school, when that number is actually connected to the student's own cell phone (often, the cell phone number listed is connected to his/her parents' phone instead), and when the student actually picks up an incoming call from a number that s/he doesn't recognize. To complicate matters further, I struggle with a fair amount of social anxiety, and the single biggest trigger for me is making telephone calls, especially to people I don't talk to on a regular basis. So I am more than hesitant to resort to cold-calling my advisees, and that leaves me with option A, the e-mail accounts that students rarely check.

I learned last year that I can only help those students who help themselves, and those students usually aren't the ones who need help. The students who are failing multiple courses at mid-terms are also the students who never respond to e-mails begging them to come in and talk to me about getting a tutor or withdrawing from a course before it negatively impacts their GPA. This year, I thought that if I told my advisees at our first group meeting during orientation to get in the habit of checking their e-mail every day, I might have a better experience. No such luck. My plea--your employers will use e-mail, too, so get in the habit now--fell on apparently deaf ears. If anything, my experience this year has been worse than last year: fewer advisees are replying to my e-mails, and even when they do, it's often obvious that they haven't read the contents all that carefully. For example, at the beginning of the semester, I sent out a 2-sentence e-mail (another lesson learned from last year) that said, "My office hours this semester are...If you need assistance on a day that I am off campus, any of the other advisors in the office can help you." I received no fewer than 5 replies to this e-mail that said something along the lines of "so I didn't know when your office hours were and I stopped by CAS [on an off-campus day] and you weren't there."

I've had numerous discussions with my fellow exploratory advisors, with other staff members in my office, and even (indirectly) with the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Students, and we are all frustrated by this situation. I have even suggested to some of my colleagues that perhaps we should try a new option "e" and incorporate social networking into advising. The business world has been using social media to reach out to the millennial generation with some success, so why couldn't CAS try something along these lines and reach out to students where they are? I know this approach works at other institutions that have tried it; I read an article on the subject in "The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal," published by Penn State University in 2007, and I've talked to a friend in my djembe class who teaches graduate students at another local university. He says he does all of his academic advising on Facebook, and it works well.

I'm all for giving this method a try, but at a recent academic advisors' meeting, one of the university administrators actually made a statement to the effect that CUA would not support the use of Facebook to reach out to students. She didn't explain why, and I find the school's resistance surprising. The administration is obviously as frustrated with the e-mail situation as the rest of us are but seems to think that if we persevere, things will eventually change. Isn't the classic workplace definition of "insanity" trying the same approach over and over again and expecting the results to be different? Why would a university that is obviously open to new programs and pedagogical methods dig in its heels in the area of new media? Has the Vatican or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a cautionary statement about social media that I am unaware of?

If anyone is actually reading these posts, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. What would you do if you were in my situation? Would you be more willing to use options B, C, and D, or are there other possible options that come to mind?

next time (I promise!): (re)teaching students to think

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me you are left with few options. If I were in your position, I would e-mail and then ambush. If they don't read the e-mail they get ambushed and potentially embarrassed. If they have a problem with that you say simply, I e-mailed you and you didn't respond. I'll continue to communicate by e-mail, if you continue to not check it, you can expect further embarrassment.