Tara Brabazon: Dealing with digital incontinence

February 23, 2011

From: Brabazon, Tara

Sent: 23 February 2011 11:41

To: Pencil-skirted administrator in network (PAIN@sedateduniversity.co.uk)

Subject: Email behaviour

Status: (Very) Normal

Dear PAIN,

I have reviewed the 15 emails you have sent me in the past 90 minutes. Unfortunately I have been teaching, so I received them in a clump, or – indeed – a dump.

I am uncertain why I have garnered such attention from you. I do not know you, but you seem to know me. For some reason you want me to believe that you are so important that I must stop teaching, clear the office of students, postpone the scheduled postgraduate seminar and delay my research so that your emails can have my full attention.

You are confusing the banal and the important. Emails are not tweets and you are not Cheryl Cole. No one requires constant updates detailing your personal journey to prosperity, spirituality or promotion. To put the situation another way, #donotcare.

You arrange low-level administration involving simple forms and redundant meetings. If every form and meeting you organised were deleted or cancelled, it would have no impact on any scholar or student in higher education.

Permit me to offer some advice to you if you wish to receive replies from academics:

• I am not interested in renting your sister’s flat in Maidstone.

• I am not interested in adopting one of your mother’s kittens.

• Calm down. You are a junior administrator in a minor university in a small town in a former colonial power. You are not Queen Victoria managing pink bits on a map.

• The service is called “electronic mail”, not “crack mail”. It is not necessary or appropriate to check for new messages every five minutes. Some of us answer emails once a day at an allotted time. This is normal and efficient.

• Put down the Kool Aid. You are not competing with other administrators to send the most emails in a day. If you are sending more than 20 messages in a 24-hour period, then you are not managing your time or information effectively.

• Please stop using caps lock. People who use caps lock either suffer from ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER or SEXUAL DYSFUNCTION.

• I don’t know if you know this, but you have permanently left an exclamation mark (!) on the status of every email you send. Informing academics that you are going to lunch is not urgent.

• You are not only crying wolf, but also crying crisis. If something were life-threatening, your email recipients would be unable to ascertain the difference in tone between a printer cartridge running dry and the sudden arrival of the Rapture.

• You are frightening students. Every time you send an email to a student accompanied by an exclamation mark, they send academics a panicked message declaring that they are about to be expelled from campus. Students are paranoid. They believe that everyone is out to get them. You are fuelling that delusion.

• Just organise the bloody meeting. Select a time and place. If staff cannot attend, they will offer the necessary apologies. The world will not end if they do not arrive. Stop surveying 20 staff about the “best time” and clicking “reply all” to every response. I do not care about Sylvia’s mother’s medical appointment, the delivery of Phil’s lounge suite to his ex-wife in Margate or Tanya’s daughter’s first piano lesson. Pick a time. Book a room. Organise the agenda. It is a meeting. You are not chief whip for the government. Most of these meetings were invented to occupy the time of a crumpled bloke in a crumpled suit with not so much a haircut as a ferret holidaying on his head.

• For some reason, every email you send is CCd to half of Kent. You believe this wide audience welcomes your wit and professionalism. Wrong.

• You are hoping for six CCs of separation. You think that if you send enough CCs to random citizens in the UK, you will be invited to Kate and William’s wedding. That will not happen. I know it seems difficult to believe, but after reading the last 15 emails you sent, you might even bore Prince Charles.

• Remember that email is a form of asynchronous communication. That means it fits into the timetable and routine of staff. Not every person is electronically tagged to their keyboard. Silence does not signify technological malfunction: it signifies that academics are working.

• Emails sent after 3pm on Fridays appear to be the result of a rather long and lubricated lunch. I speak other languages. Lambrusco English is a challenge.

• I am a university academic. I am not responsible for computer systems, the printer, the photocopier, the car park, the environmental consequences of a university maintaining a car park, the woman who left the lights on her Ford Fiesta this morning, the stationery cupboard, your inability to find a pen in the stationery cupboard, or the central heating and its relationship to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

• I am Australian. We speak English. Just because I have an accent different from yours does not mean that I cannot understand words greater than two syllables. And no, I do not watch Neighbours.

PAIN, emails are special, convenient and valuable platforms carrying information to busy people. They continue the formality of letters and faxes but are delivered at speed. They are meant to fit into the available time of all workers.

Every email you send takes at least 20 seconds to process if it is treated as spam, or several hours (even days) if the matter is serious and requires research into university regulations or a legal assessment. Before you click “send”, please think. Is this message worth taking academics’ time away from students?

We are moving into desperate times for a deeply underfunded higher education system. Time is our most precious resource. Research for most academics will be unfunded, with time for reading and writing pinched from family responsibilities. Teaching will be crowd control. Keeping lectures and tutorials at a level of quality – and even humanity – remains a stark challenge.

What I ask is that you consider whether email is the best platform to either express or gather information. Marshall McLuhan was wrong. The medium is not the message: the medium is the first decision we make about how a message is received.

All information is not equivalent. Every time you send a message with excessive capitalisation, exclamation marks, hot pink textliner or a supposedly “funny” photograph of a quaint road sign from Canada involving a moose, you dent the potential and convenience of email for busy staff that need to think carefully about their correspondence in difficult times.

The best medication for digital diarrhoea is digital dieting. Less is more. Think about the diversity of media choices available to you.

Thank you

Tara

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