Goodbye to all that email

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Remember the good old days, when we complained about students emailing us all the time? Like back in 2006, when The New York Times ran an article on students’ pestering of their professors with email:

At colleges and universities nationwide, email has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

Professors way back then complained that students sent email “with a familiarity that bordered on the imperative”; that junior faculty “struggle with how to respond [because] their tenure prospects may rest in part on student evaluations of their accessibility”; that email made them feel “as if I ought to be on call all the time.”

In that golden era, before we got used to being “another service that students, as consumers, are buying,” we had the impression that email was a sort of high-priority alert, a miraculous tool reserved for urgent messages, and students were abusing it. We were like Wordsworth and his buddies, eager to ascend the final, glorious peak of the Alps, only to lose their way a bit and learn from a peasant “that our future course, all plain to sight, /Was downwards … that we had crossed the Alps.”

And here, in the vale of the other side, we find Courtney Rubin’s report in The New York Times that students find email “a boring thing” and would prefer, please, that their professors text them or friend them on Facebook. An experiment performed by Reynol Junco at Purdue found that students spent an average of six minutes a day on email, less than a fifth of the time they were spending on social networking.

It’s easy enough to blame students for this latest demand that we conform to their expectations rather than the other way around. They all have smartphones, we observe; they can get email anywhere, at any time, as easily as they can receive a text message or check Facebook. But in many ways, we have only ourselves to blame. By “ourselves,” I mean those individuals, entities, and mechanisms for which I, personally, take no responsibility:

• The widespread belief that it is better to cover your bases by “replying all” in all circumstances, so that announcements of a colleague’s grant award are followed by a series of “Congrats!” like so many neighborhood dogs baying at the mail carrier.
• The twice-daily announcement of all campus events by email.
• The campuswide announcements of everything from a robbery a block off-campus to upbeat updates from (among others): Writing Centers; Community Learning Centers; Offices of Study Abroad, Lifelong Learning, Advancement, Academic Calendar, Community Relations, Financial Aid, Information Technology, Residential Life, Student Government, Special Events, and various Deans and Presidents; GLBT gatherings; sports departments, activities, and fund raisers; and religious services.
• The habit of many faculty members to make themselves available during office hours in the virtual form of receiving and sending email from a remote location.
• And finally—to this I plead guilty—the reliance on email to correct or append assignments, make last-minute changes in appointments, and otherwise allow ourselves to be less prepared, organized, and communicative ahead of time not only for the classes we teach but also for the projects with which we want students to engage.

In other words, we (the collective we) have become the pestering voices that we accused our students of being, a mere seven years ago. No wonder our students tune us out on that channel. According to the Times article, some professors have taken to including in their syllabi the requirement that students check email at least once a day. Now, can we refrain from writing them more than once a day? If not, be prepared to cross the next mountain range—they’re on the other side already.

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