Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I'm Imposing a Negative Externality on You Right Now.

OK, fess up. You've sent an e-mail you later came to regret. Maybe not much later. Maybe even a split second after you hit "send." And maybe to a professor or T.A.

The cost of communication has never been lower, and as a result, lots of things get sent--e-mails, instant messages, text messages, you name it--that wouldn't be sent otherwise. An article in the New York Times discusses the frustration many professors feel when their students e-mail them about matters related only tangentially to class. One student at UC Davis, for example, asked a professor whether they should buy a binder or a subject notebook.

Students are aware that e-mail allows them to pester professors with requests that would not otherwise be worth making. The article quotes Cory Merrill, a student at Amherst, as saying "If the only way I could communicate with my professors was by going to their office or calling them, there would be some sort of ranking or prioritization taking place…Is this question worth going over to the office?"

The article says students are often unaware of the negative impact that trivial e-mails can have. Sending an e-mail imposes a cost on the receiver. We all know the cost of receiving spam. But even an e-mail from a friend, student, or professor places a demand on our time. An e-mail that requires a response or some kind of action imposes an even higher cost.

We can analyze the effect of easier communication, and the negative externalities that accompany it, using a simple demand model. Consider student demand for professor insights. The longer it takes to request something from a professor, the lower the student demand for insights. Time acts like a price in this model. We can plot student demand for a professor's time as a function of the amount of their own time it takes to place a request. For example, suppose getting an answer from a professor involves going to office hours, which takes 15 minutes of a student's time, but sending an e-mail only takes five minutes of a student's time. Then the ability to send e-mails effectively lowers the cost of getting a response from a professor from 15 minutes to 5 minutes. This increases the number of requests a professor gets--say, from 40 to 60 per week.

Now suppose that any student request, whether by e-mail or in person, takes up 10 minutes of a professor's time. The total cost per request is the amount of time it takes the student to make the request, plus 10 minutes of the professor's time. When students had to walk to a professor's office, only 40 requests per week were made--a total of 400 minutes (the area of the orange rectangle). With e-mail, requests are less expensive for students to initiate and the professor spends an additional 200 minutes per week responding to requests (the area of the green rectangle is 600 minutes). Making matters worse for professors, the new requests are those which weren't worth the students' time before, and are therefore lower-priority requests that often reflect the poor judgment or rudeness mentioned in the article.

1. The article mentions several things that professors were doing in the wake of the increased communication, from not answering e-mails to requiring students to reply to professors' e-mails. What market-based solutions to this problem might help reduce the number of requests professors get, and ensure that professors see and have the chance to respond to the most important requests?

2. Who owns the rights to professors' time--students, the professor, or the university? Is there any way to establish a market for professors' time? What if each student were given an allotment of professors' time at the beginning of the semester, and could sell their access rights to other students? Would such a system improve efficiency?

3. Can you think of another example in which something becoming cheaper led to undesirable results? (One that comes to my mind is a drop in gasoline prices leading to traffic congestion, but there are many others.) What solutions to that problem were proposed? Would a similar solution work in this case? Why or why not?



  • At 1:26 PM, January 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In response to question number 3 an example of something that became cheaper leading to an undesirable response was the creation of the biggie sized value meals by many fast food industries. You received a greater amount of food for a small additional price which many people saw as a great deal. Now people were eating more of the greasy fast foods drinking a 44oz. coke instead of the normal size 20oz. This increase the percent of obese individuals in our society. The solutions to this problem that were proposed was to do away with the biggie sized values meals and go back to offering only the regualr sized value meals. This should help reduce the number of obese individuals.

  • At 1:32 PM, January 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In response to question number two I believe that the only person who owners the professors time is the professor. It should up to the professor to decide whether or not he will accept e-mail questions from the students and it should also be up to the professor whether or not the questions are worth responding to. Maybe the professor could set up a system with the students at the beginning of the term allowing each student to e-mail qquestions 5 times during the course of the class, or a system similar to this. Also maybe the professor should encourage coming to office hours to ask questions because the professor can ensure a response and doesn't ensure one with the use of e-mail.

  • At 1:35 PM, January 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In response to question number 1 I believe that maybe the professors should recieve additional pay for their time spent returning students e-mails. Also I don't think professors should be obligated to repsoned to e-mails from the students that do not pertain to class material.

  • At 6:46 PM, January 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    To help cut down on the amount of frivolous emails professors get from students, the best measure is prevention. By explaining things clearly and thoroughly and making sure the student has it in writing, some professors find this eliminates many questions or repeating the same answer for the same question through emails. Also, for professors who do not answer emails, I believe it is still the student’s responsibility to find answers. The professor is a mentor or guide, not a babysitter or someone to hold your hand through classes. Many students at Sinclair are spoiled in this way, because the professors bend over backwards for the students while at many universities and colleges, most professors have too many students to waste time answering silly emails (resulting in no reply at all).
    This leads me to the second point of the article, the professors’ time. While the first priority should be to the students, it’s not the professor’s job to ensure all students pass. Some professors will remind students of this at the beginning of the term. Professors still have a job and the university employs them, or in other words the university “owns” them and their time. It would not be fair to “sell” time to students for some students need more assistance in subjects than others. It would make it much more of a hassle on everyone if students were trying to buy the professor’s time and it most likely would not be a fair market with the students who needed the time the most being able to afford all the time necessary.
    As for a price decrease leading to detrimental results, the best example I can think of relates to chapter 6. When companies lower prices to compete with international markets, often jobs are cut to make up for the loss in profits. The biggest solution included creating tariffs on imported goods, but we know now that is not the best answer for the problem. In the situation with the professor’s time, I do not believe it would help to “tax” the students to interact with the professor. While it seems to solve the problem at first, this would lead the student to pay again (payment through the university and again to the professor) for the same education. Also, with some professors’ superior instructing over others, this would eventually lead to professors with no students because the students would have to pay more to take that class than the same class from a better quality professor.


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