icsoutlookThe University of Guelph will be moving to a new email provider in the next month or two and along with that movement will come (over time) a unified student calendaring system. I want to discuss the role of email, unified calendaring, and how they impact TAs.

Email

Email is the best-known electronic tool amongst TAs. It has been used for years to communicate with students, set up meeting dates, and answer rudimentary questions. The benefit of email is that it allows for relatively confidential communications between TAs and students – others cannot read the message unless either the TA or student break confidentiality. Email is not terribly well-suited for drawn out conversations, however, nor is it very good at developing content amongst a series of participants. It does, however, allow students and TAs to be accountable for what they say, which can be helpful in times of grade challenges that were supposedly made through email. For this reason TAs should ensure that no student information is deleted for at least one year after the course.

It is not uncommon to receive a barrage of questions exceeding the scope of email responses, unless the TA wants to write up miniature treatises. This problem is best addressed by taking the time to develop and distribute an email policy. Since few TAs get a chance to influence course syllabi, they can use something like a seminar blog to post their personal email rules. (These rules should be ‘cleared’ by their supervisor before announcing them to students.) Chad Hershock and Jeffrey Chun lay out some good baseline questions to ask yourself when establishing rules for students use of email in their article “How Does Your “Online Identity” Impact Classroom Climate?: Strategies for Managing E-mail Communications and Social Networking Sites.” They recommend that you publicly address the following questions with your students:

(1) When and how often will you read and respond to e-mail? Are there times when you will not check and respond to e-mail?

(2) What types of questions or comments are appropriate or inappropriate for e-mail? What types of questions or discussions are more appropriate for office hours?

(3) Do you have the same e-mail policies and expectations as faculty supervising the course?

(4) What boundaries, if any, do you wish to establish between yourself and your students?

(5) What are your expectations regarding e-mail etiquette? What level of formality do you expect?

(6) When should you not send an e-mail? Is this a sensitive communication that would be best done in person rather than by e-mail? Does the communication regard conflicts about grades, personal information, concerns about classmates, complaints, cheating, or disciplinary action?

Hershock and Chun have a particularly good template that can accept the answers to the above questions and be inserted by the TA in the seminar’s blog:

Email template

For questions regarding <insert topics>, please consult the course syllabus before e-mailing. Please include the keywords “<insert keywords/course title>” in the subject line of all e-mails. I will read and respond to e-mails regarding course content and/or logistics <insert days and times>. I will not check for or respond to e-mails <insert days and/or times>. I will answer the following types of course related questions and concerns via e-mail: <insert question topics/types>. Questions or concerns regarding <insert question topics/types> are more appropriate for discussion during office hours. I will not respond to the following types of questions or concerns via email <insert question topics/types>. <Insert any other guidelines or e-mail policies or any differences between faculty and GSI e-mail policies>.

E-mail and online discussions are governed by the same rules of academic conduct as your behavior in class. Please use common courtesy, be polite, and, of course, avoid sending or forwarding aggressive, sexist, racially discriminatory, obscene, offensive, libelous, or defamatory comments of any kind. <Insert any additional guidelines, policies or expectations>.

The integrated email and calendaring system that shortly be accessible to University of Guelph students will also let students add entries to TAs’ calendars (should the TAs choose to share their calendar). This means that email will be an increasingly important aspect of their TA roles – based on student uptake of other online resources, they will jump at the chance to book appointments without having to confirm the appointment face-to-face. It can be important to create guidelines for the duration of appointments, especially if the TA is working with a large class/seminar – it may be necessary to limit appointments to 10 minutes each, depending on how many students express desire to attend the TA’s office hours.

Calendaring

The calendaring system that will be coming to campus is particularly powerful, is web-accessible, and allows students to share their calendars with one another. Once shared, calendars let students book appointments with other students, including graduate students. This is particularly useful for TAs – once this system is rolled out across campus they will be able to publicly display their office hours, allowing students to book time with the TA. With a clear record, students and TAs can have records for their appointments, and either party can hold the other to account for missed appointments. Additionally, the calendaring system will let students booking appointments make notes about what the appointment will be about. This gives TAs the time to spend a little bit of time preparing meeting notes to maximally suit the needs of particular students.

TAs can make use of the calendaring system by developing records of how many students they are meeting with, and also use the resource to record the time that they are using for TA related work. This lets them develop clear accounts of how much time they are using per week and allow supervisors to be aware of this information as well. As such, supervisors can allot more or less work to ensure that they can best use their assistant.

Using the new system TAs can create organized timetables of where their time is being spent – they can record scholastic, extra-curricular, or personal events – and have a clear, colour-coded display of their time usage. This calendar will be web-accessible, weekly snapshots can be printed if hardcopy is needed, and will let TAs ‘layer’ their calendars. Layering is useful because it lets them create discrete calendars and have them overlap the same grid. Conflicts are easy to spot and, if a particular long-term event is abandoned (such dropping a semester-long class), that discrete calendar can be deleted without affecting the others. Even in the same calendar, deleting one repetitive event can be used to delete all subsequent events if the TA chooses. This is a far faster way of making large-scale calendar changes than was possible using pen-and-paper methods, and frees up more time from administrative tasks.

Email and calendaring aren’t terribly interesting topics, just because everyone is familiar with them and their possible uses. That said, it’s important that we not abandon ‘traditional’ electronic resources in our race to adopt newer technologies. Instead, we should focus on integrating prior technologies with emerging technologies, while remembering that we cannot abandon the analogue, no matter how tempting the digital may be. Education is a hybrid experience, not a clearly delimited homogeneous one!