In the modern-day university, face-to-face communication between students and teachers has become a rare bird - a dodo, if you will.
Of course, the dodo isn't so much a "rare bird" as it is a "long-extinct bird," but, not being an ornithologist, I couldn't think of any rare birds off the top of my head. So if you're reading today's column in the hopes of seeing an exhaustive list of the world's endangered birds, you're out of luck.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that students and teachers in modern-day colleges rarely talk to each other. As an instructor of freshman composition at a large Midwestern university, I know this firsthand. Sure, I see my students during class meetings, but we never engage in conversation - we don't even make eye contact. I talk at them for an hour, they ignore me, and I dismiss them.
Frankly, I don't even bother learning my students' names. Instead, I learn their email addresses. That young man fiddling with his iPod in the back row? Why, that's firstname.lastname@example.org! That young lady browsing the Internet on her laptop in the front row? Why, that's email@example.com! See, email - short for "egalitarian mail," because it's open to everyone, even Scientologists - is the "top of the pops" in today's academy.
Whereas the college kids of yesteryear had to physically visit their teacher's office to request an extension on the big paper, today's college kids make their case via grammatically deformed electronic note. Despite the fact that I didn't live through the good old days, I long for them. I want to see my students put some pizzazz into their pleas for clemency.
I want to see little Janie's tears as she explains that her drunken roommate vomited on her computer, destroying the hard drive and all the files stored there, including her completed final draft of the big paper, which - conscientious student that she is - she'd finished a week early, and I want to hear her sobs when I say, "That's tough, little Janie, but you should've backed your files up."
I want to watch little Johnny's face fall when I tell him that missing class for the past four weeks in order to play Madden NFL 09 with his roommates doesn't count as an "excused absence," and that he's definitely getting an incomplete, and too bad if it costs him his scholarship.
Alas, email has robbed me of these kinds of invigorating moments - moments in which I might feast upon my students' misery like a lumberjack feasts upon pancakes. But every now and then, email provides a consolation prize of sorts.
Take this message I received from one of my students at the tail end of last quarter, in which he makes a request on behalf of himself and a couple of his friends:
"Dan - I don't really know how to say this, but X, Y, and I were wondering, now that we've almost finished our final papers, will we lose participation points if we don't come to class for the rest of the quarter? We're just wondering. It's not that we don't like you or anything."
Apparently, these three scholars had grown so accustomed to communicating with me via email that they'd lost all inhibitions. Because of the space that email creates between student and teacher, they felt comfortable making whatever outrageous requests popped into their heads, as long at they did so with mock hesitance ("I don't really know how to say this, but...") and included an insincere disclaimer ("It's not that we don't like you or anything").
My first plan was to simply ignore the message - to act like it didn't exist - but my second plan (which quickly overrode the first) was to unleash my pent-up feelings of rage on these students. I would send them the most harshly worded reply they'd ever received.
But as I began to type, I realized I couldn't convey rage in an email - the medium simply didn't allow for it. I could write the message in all caps and litter it with exclamation points, of course, but I'd end up looking more like a four-year-old throwing a tantrum than a furious demigod.
So rather than berate my students for daring to honestly express themselves in writing, I figured I might as well play the role of the hip young educator and reward their audacity by granting them their request. After all, that was the easiest solution - and if taking the easy way out was good enough for my students, it was good enough for me.
Dan Leonidas makes shallow observations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or myspace.com/lastminuteconcerns.