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February 20, 2012


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I. Glenn Cohen

I am probably on the "hard ass" side of this debate, but not only would I refuse to answer IM's, I actually have a "no substantive business by email" policy in my syllabus.
My reasons are several fold:
(1) In Civ Pro especially, I think answers over email will often be misunderstood by students when I am rushing to write them out. I find I can do a much quicker and better job of explaining to the students (including when the premise of their question contains a flaw) in person than I can by email.
(2) My current work email load is about 80-130 incoming emails a day. It is far too easy for student emails to get lost.
(3) I am paranoid that something I email them will be copied and pasted into the exam, worse yet if it was misunderstood by them based on context.
(4) Talking to students face-to-face is a much better way of getting to know them, that assists in things like writing recommendations.
To make up for not doing email substantive business, I stay around for about 10-15 minutes after class answering questions (which also has the benefit that there can be multiple listeners to our Q & A).
I have yet to see complaints on this policy in my evaluations, but it is possible that there are people who are offended by it who just don't mention it.
It seems to me all of these drawbacks of email discussions are still worse for IMing.

James Grimmelmann

Wait, what? How did your students get your IM address?

Another Law Prof

I don't enable IM on my law school account, so I don't have this problem.

Jake Linford

I do a softer version of Glenn's no email policy: I don't answer questions by email, but instead ask the students to post things to our class discussion board (using Blackboard technology).

I do this for several reasons. First, I'm hopeful that the students will begin to engage with each other and start to answer one another's questions. Sometimes this occurs, but I think I'm going to need to make it part of the grade if I want it to happen regularly.

Second, there's a time-saving mechanism. I can answer the same question for every student in the class, and I have time to think through context. There's definitely a danger that I'll see this regurgitated on exams, but I give them slides, so the danger is already ever-present.

For students who don't want to share with others, they can come by during office hours and we can discuss, and I'm fairly liberal accepting walk-ins in addition to my regularly scheduled office hours. I also debrief for as long after class as the students will stand around and ask questions.

I don't IM with anyone, much less student. I don't give students my cellphone number, and I don't friend my students on Facebook until they graduate, so there really is no means for instantaneous communication. I also dislike phone conversations with students, although they have my office number and could call. I prefer to engage with them face to face.

Jacqui Lipton

James - we switched our law school email to gmail and it's part of the package. I suppose I could just switch off IM, but it doesn't really bother me. I can always ignore the students or just tell them to make an appointment with me if it gets out of hand. Just wondering if others have thought about it and if others are getting a lot of student IMs. Of course, if your email doesn't have this capability or you disabled it, it's not an issue.


I can't believe anyone would take IMs from students, especially the ones that start with "are you there prof? I have a question". Kind of speechless, actually. No, I don't distribute my IM address. This is too weird. I told students they can email me their questions, but if a question is of general interest (which they usually are), I would respond in class. I hold four office hours every week, and students rarely show up. Obviously, they are not in a dire need to talk to me.


This has become a lot more common for me in the last year or so. I agree in theory that IMing isn't the best way to communicate with students, but I'm usually so happy that they're studying and thinking about good questions that I answer the questions as they come. Plus, I'm enough of a geek that I can't really resist a conversation about the intricacies of civil procedure doctrine, even if that conversation is happening over gchat (Google's IM) at 10:00 pm. And (for better or worse), one of our student evaluation question asks whether the professor was easily available. Last semester some of my students specifically referenced a willingness to gchat in giving me a good evaluation on that metric.

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