Academic Ramblings: 150 emails a day? I bring it on myself

Scholars' inboxes are a minefield of spam, newsletters, and the odd invitation to meet a very important person

May 16, 2017

Many of us admit to being a slave to our emails. On an average day, I reckon I receive about 150 emails. Now I realise that there will be those reading this thinking “150? Pah! That’s nothing. You were lucky to have 150! There were a 160 of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of t’road” (with apologies to “At Last, the 1948 Show” and / or Monty Python). 

But believe me, 150 is enough (well, too many actually) for me.

By and large I can often recognise the emails that need to be opened and read, and the ones that can be deleted without much consideration. But nevertheless, even just evaluating whether an email warrants attention or not takes up an unwelcome part of my day. Somehow or other, we have found ourselves unwittingly enmeshed within thousands of mailing lists that organisations use to access our thoughts, if only for a few seconds, for either genuine, or occasionally nefarious, reasons. 

Of course, those mailing lists are simply a form of database, and those of us who work in quantitative fields will recognise the power of databases. However, used blindly, they can generate some interesting, possibly unfortunate results.

Recently, I received an email from the head of department at the university from which I received my first degree, letting me know that he is organising a special reunion day in June to celebrate the 25th anniversary of my graduation. The email helpfully tells me that a programme of activities has been arranged for the day to give me an opportunity to reminisce with friends and to find out how the university has changed since my time as a student.

What's more, in the morning there is an opportunity for me to visit the department and meet the head. There will be plentiful opportunities to reminisce, tour the teaching building and laboratories, and learn about the past, current activities and future plans. I’m also being encouraged to take along my own photographs of my time at the university.

That’s all very nice, except…the university from which I received my first degree is the university where I currently work and, until recently, was head of department. And so rather surreally, the email was signed by me. My reply, which I was instructed by myself to send to myself, read as follows:



Many, many thanks for your kind invitation to the forthcoming special reunion day. I simply cannot find the words to express my emotions at the thought of being invited to visit the department on a Saturday. Under normal circumstances, I would look forward enormously to the event to see how the department and university have changed since my last visit. My memories of the university remain very clear, almost as if it was only yesterday that I was last there.  

I can recall vividly the cold wind hurtling through the ill-fitting windows of one particular academic’s office, the unforgettable experience of students clamouring for the same academic’s attention an hour before an examination asking “Hey Prof!  Do we need to know the equations?” and of course, the ever-present, slightly odd lingering smell in the gents' toilet. My only concern about this thrilling event is regarding the opportunity to meet the head of department; rumour has it he is a dreadful bore, rarely sober and something of an academic charlatan. 

However, I say "under normal circumstances" as I am afraid that with regret I must decline your kind invitation, for a quick glance at my diary tells me that I am working that day, hosting a reunion for alumni at the university where I currently work.

I wish you and your hardworking colleagues every success with your event (which I note with great interest, coincides with mine).

Best wishes,



Databases, eh? 

The author of Academic Ramblings works at a UK university and will be writing regularly for Times Higher Education. For more blogs like this, visit the Academic Ramblings site.

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