When it comes to his office in the Computer Science and Technology Center, Rich Schultz, an assistant professor of geography, employs an open-door policy. Each term, he makes sure his students know he’s readily available for consultations and questions, and he’s scrupulous about keeping his regular office hours.
But if Schultz’s students take him up on his offer to communicate outside the classroom, it might not involve walking through that open office door at all. For more and more of Schultz’s students, like many others at Elmhurst, e-mail, instant messaging, and other information media are the preferred means of discourse with professors.
“I have office hours three days a week and it’s pretty rare that anyone comes in,” says Schultz. “But I get e-mail constantly—and when I say constantly, I mean I will get e-mails at three o’clock on Sunday mornings. It’s just much easier for students to ask their questions on their schedule.”
“Most students seem to prefer e-mail,” agrees Jennifer Boyle, assistant professor and chair of political science. “It’s the rare student who will just drop by to chat during office hours.”
But even students who tend to use e-mail to communicate with their professors recognize that it has both advantages and disadvantages. “It’s just the easiest, most convenient way to communicate,” says Melissa Garcia, an education major. “But you don’t get to talk face to face and have that back-and-forth conversation. That’s the drawback.”
In many courses, students and faculty employ a software program called Blackboard, a Web-based course management system that allows students to communicate with one another and with their professors outside the classroom, to view documents and data related to the course, and even to submit assignments electronically. In Schultz’s geography classes, for example, students use the online discussion board to talk about class readings. Schultz himself maintains a section of the board—which he calls the Professor’s Office—as a clearinghouse for student questions about assignments and other matters.
For Schultz, Blackboard is an efficient way to get information to all his students, even when the class is not meeting. “If someone asks me a question on the board, they’re probably asking a question another student has, too,” he says. “I’m reaching more than one person at a time.”
For all its utility, Blackboard is not universally accepted on campus. Bill Hirstein, associate professor and chair of the philosophy department, takes a pass on the Web-based program because, he says, “I want the discussion to happen in class, not online.” But Hirstein, too, says that more and more students seem to want to engage him by e-mail. “It’s an unobtrusive way to communicate,” he says. He is vexed, however, by messages from students who tell him they will be missing class and ask him for an individualized briefing on what he’s planning to cover that day.
E-mail also makes it all too easy for students to pepper faculty with questions they might be able to figure out for themselves. “I do receive questions about due dates or other course mechanics, the answers to which students have already been told and are available on the syllabus,” says Boyle. “When I get these questions, I think of this as an opportunity to remind the students how important the syllabus is. I also show them where the answer is on the syllabus.”
Most Elmhurst faculty are aware that something valuable is lost if they rely too heavily on keyboard-based communications instead of the classic face-to-face student-professor conference. After all, colleges like Elmhurst pride themselves on a high level of interaction between faculty and students and on a personalized approach to education. “Without meetings in office hours, you lose the ability to be frank with students, to tell them they’re not working up to their potential,” says Paul Arriola, professor of biology. “It allows us to discuss things like test anxiety that they might be embarrassed to discuss in front of classmates.”
To encourage his students to drop by, Arriola will tell his students that their graded papers are waiting to be picked up in his office. “I tell students they pay tuition money for this kind of access to professors, and they might as well take advantage of it,” he says.
Of course, as Arriola can tell you, some students need little encouragement to ask questions of their professors. “I used to live across the street from campus, and when word got out where I lived, they would come knocking on my front door to ask questions.”
By Andrew Santella
Photography By Tom Lindfors