You’ve Got Mail. And Better Things to Do.

How can we communicate more effectively?

By Jason B. Jones (Central Connecticut State)

Midway through his career, my father moved from the faculty of his community college into administration, where he has remained for some 20 years now. In those decades, his only real regret has been that he must use his college-issued cellphone. That phone means his attention is always potentially divided because he is, in principle, always available to his campus.

What for my father is a college-imposed shackle has become for many of us a self-chosen cage: Our smartphones and tablets are indeed magical and revolutionary, delighting us even as the forms of communication they facilitate (hint: not phone calls! Who makes voice calls from a smartphone?) frequently make us feel overwhelmed, stressed, or disconnected.

For many faculty members, there is a permanent, ironic crisis about communication and work. We thought that the platforms and devices that make communication and access to information preposterously easy meant that we would be able to get our work done more efficiently. And that might even be true. But just as we misjudged the theoretically paperless office that generates more paper waste than ever, we missed the fact that those devices would expand our work exponentially.

The last thing I want to suggest is that people should turn away from their devices or their social media. Instead, it’s time to have a conversation about social media, devices, and, most important, expectations.

Any discussion with a colleague that lasts more than 15 or 20 minutes will include a complaint about unreasonable student e-mails or other forms of engagement. “He e-mailed five minutes before class with a draft of his paper, and at the start of class was put out that I hadn’t done it!” Such an expectation is unreasonable. Usually unlamented in these conversations is the faculty member’s own expectation about what is reasonable in electronic communication, and how to communicate that to students. For example, why check e-mail five minutes before class?

Or take another example: “My colleague at Fancier-Than-Mine University asked me to follow him on Twitter, but he posts 50 links a day! Who has time to read all that?” That does sound like a lot of reading, but, again: Who, exactly, is expecting you to see all those tweets and to read every single link?

We get a version of this complaint at ProfHacker sometimes: “Love your site, but with two or three posts a day, there’s just too much. I can’t keep up.” We love our readers, we really, really do, but I don’t think any of us believe that everyone interested in teaching, technology, and productivity reads the site multiple times a day.

The problem a lot of us have with new communication platforms and devices, then, is partly one of managing expectations—our own as well as others’. Before I offer a few concrete suggestions, it’s important to admit that I’m terrible at doing this myself. Five years ago, one of my favorite students joked during a class presentation that I have three basic time frames for responding to e-mail: immediately; after a week or so, once I’ve thought of something funny to say; and never, at least not via e-mail.

Every minute you spend on e-mail is a minute you’re not devoting to doing something awesome. You’re not writing a new article or designing a new assignment or running a new experiment. You’re not jogging. You’re not playing with your kid. You’re not sleeping.

As far as I can tell, no one has ever not gotten promoted or tenured for not managing e-mail better. But failing to do so can make you miserable, and I genuinely do believe that people have the right to do the job they were hired to do and to have a personal life. Toward that end, then, I have a few suggestions that might help:

Have an e-mail strategy. Keeping your e-mail up all the time, checking every few minutes for new messages, is a recipe for witless inattention. Consider processing your e-mail in batches a few times a day, at times that make sense for you. And not during your high-energy times—save those periods for writing or improving an assignment for your students.

Explain your expectations and strategy to students and others. Students abhor a communication vacuum. If you don’t tell them how you manage e-mail or social media, they will have no way of guessing. Include in your syllabus a statement about how best to communicate with you, and when they can expect to hear back.

Turn off the “new message” notifications on all your e-mail programs. It doesn’t matter whether you have new mail, because you’ll be checking it in a few hours anyway. (And that notification usually doesn’t tell you if the new e-mail is important. Is it really worth it to turn away from your copy of Bleak House to learn that your copy of Game of Thrones is available for download?) On your smartphone, consider disabling the little numbers that appear on the icons of e-mail, calendar, and social-media apps. Your phone will probably already remind you about them anyway.

Use rules and filters to process your mail. It’s easy to set up a filter that will safely tuck away your Amazon-shipment notifications. Similarly, when I’m writing or heavily involved in grading, I will close down all my e-mail except for the account my wife writes to, and I leave the filter with her name up. That way, if she writes (probably something about scheduling and our son), I’ll see it—but I won’t be distracted by interesting calls for papers until I’ve finished the current project.

Also, the fact that someone posts a link somewhere doesn’t mean you need to read the link now. You can use apps such as Instapaper to save a link for later reading. You can even use a simple Web service such as If This, Then That to automatically save links that you find in Twitter or Facebook, given certain conditions.

Realize that few e-mails need a handcrafted response. Much of the writing that goes into an e-mail is boilerplate (“Please send a desk copy of Book X to Professor Y,” or “Dear Student X, Thanks for adding my class. You can find a copy of the syllabus and the first assignment here: … Best, JBJ”). Text-expansion software (on a Mac, try Text Expander) is now sophisticated enough that you can save yourself a remarkable amount of time and energy in processing simple messages.

More generally than any specific tip, it’s important to understand the norms of different forms of networked communication. If you process your e-mail in batches, you will probably want to try to process all e-mail since the last time you checked. But if you log into Twitter every evening, then you really don’t need to catch up on everything that has been posted throughout the day. It’s OK to miss stuff.

More broadly, “missing stuff” is probably going to happen, and it isn’t a hanging crime. I was interested to read recently that even social-media companies are starting to encourage their own employees to pull back from the always-on mentality, because it is fundamentally unsustainable. The always-on mentality is not a culture that promotes the best work, which really ought to be our focus. When we pull back from our devices in order to engage more fully in our work, we’re not choosing ivory-tower withdrawal or faux-Luddite refusal. We are helping to build a more tolerable, attention-friendly future. (That said, if I owe you a message, it’s coming soon!)

Jason B. Jones is a professor of English at Central Connecticut State University and a founding co-editor of ProfHacker.

This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2012. 

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Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

2 thoughts on “You’ve Got Mail. And Better Things to Do.”

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