I work online because seeing people often feels like being chained to the floor in a humid Walmart checkout lane: unpleasant, but there’s probably a reason for me to be there. I work with my students remotely because they have crazy schedules and I live far from campus, and if I go into the sunlight my skin starts to dissolve. I love working with them online. I enjoy commenting on drafts then writing back and forth as we come to mutual conclusions about the best way to word things. I love that I can work from anywhere I want because I like to stay home with my cat, and sometimes commenting on drafts from a bar makes me feel like one of the “hip” teachers. Most of all, when working online there is rarely a reason to trap myself in the unjust confinement of pants.
But there are downsides too. The emails. Why has nobody taught a class on writing emails? Why isn’t there a mandatory seminar every person must attend before getting their first novelty Hotmail account? Why isn’t there a certificate of completion that I can check before ever allowing a student to contact me on this extremely simple line of communication? Why do I continuously have to ask myself “what the hell do they mean?”
At exactly 2:07 AM last night I received an email from a student who could not meet with me during the week. I told them to get their homework done and email me with any questions. That’s my standard response. A student could come to me with a knife in their back, and I’d tell them to get their work done and email me later. Depending on the size of the knife, I might even give an extension. This student’s homework was due at 11:59 PM on Friday night and the email I received from her came 2 hours and 8 minutes after that deadline. There was no subject–first mistake. There was nothing written in the body–second. The only thing included was an attachment of her draft which was supposed to have been posted online 2 hours and 8 minutes before.
It may seem like an innocuous thing, an annoyingly vague email. Let me put it into different terms. Imagine you are the manager of a small company–maybe your company builds things, maybe it sells paper; it doesn’t matter. Now, imagine you’ve given your little team a task: “Employees,” you say “we need more money.” It’s a task they’re used to because it’s their job. Now imagine one of your employees calls you and tells you they’re terribly ill. The plague has made a resurgence or they’ve been bitten by a zombified roommate or they’ve grown a tail–again, it doesn’t really matter what their excuse was. You, the benevolent capitalist overlord that you are, tell them to take care of themselves and work from home. You do not hear from this employee again until several days have gone by. It is the wee hours of the night after a long workday in which every other employee dutifully turned in their sacks of money to the company vault because that’s how all business work, right? It’s late into the night, and your phone buzzes to life. You think it might be an email responding to the ad you put out for a mercenary to “take care” of the wasps in your yard. Maybe it’s a text from someone you love. It’s not. It’s an email from the sick employee. There’s nothing in the subject, which is how you usually tell if it’s worth reading this thing immediately. There’s nothing written in the body, which is usually where people actually say what’s going on. There is almost no writing of any kind, but there is an attachment: a single out-of-focus picture of a dollar bill. Below that, the employee has signed off “sincerely Jeff.” You spend the next three hours crying.
I do not know what this student wants. My cat can attest to just how infuriating this kind of thing is because I chase her around the house with my arms out yelling “Love me, Mo!” every time one of these students digitally forces my hairline to recede. I don’t know what this kid wants. I’m going to keep a tally of every time I say that, and once it reaches 5,000, I’ll throw my phone into the garbage disposal, ditch my computer in the woods, and fly to Bermuda to live on the beach bathe in the blue light of the internet again.