My viral Tweet revealed the extent of academics’ email angst

This article does not require your immediate attention, says Emily Kane

September 14, 2021
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We need to talk about emails. As a form of written documentation that can be any length, contain any number of attachments, and be sent to any number of people, it’s easy to see why they are professionally useful. But the ease with which they can be sent and received, especially now that the internet is readily available just about everywhere, means that they can also become overwhelming for recipients.

A barrage of email management strategies – folders, flags, filters, scheduling – helps us endure the burden. But efficiency can create a positive feedback loop that generates ever greater expectations of responsiveness. Add to that the stress of an academic environment and the ease of access to academic email addresses, and those expectations can become extreme. A routine request becomes an URGENT MATTER THAT REQUIRES YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION – regardless of the time of day or night.

I recently tweeted about an example that happened to me, and it quickly became my most popular tweet. It read: “Look, if you email me at 6:30pm, I probably won’t answer until the next day. My lack of response does not require an email to my department chair AND DEAN at 9:30pm. I get that we’re all stressed but please don’t do this.”

It was a Tuesday, my busiest day, during the first week of classes. I left the office by 5:30pm to pick up my dog from daycare and got home by 6:15pm. It had been a good day, but I was so exhausted that I couldn’t bring myself to make dinner, even though I had shopped and prepared a recipe the previous Sunday. In between feeding pets, sorting the mail, bringing in the garbage can (left from the day before), and calling my out-of-state partner, I ate what I could – some crab dip with crackers and a slice of cheese.

I saw an email come through on my phone around 6:40pm. Sometimes I answer emails after my formal work hours if it will be easy, but this one was going to take focused effort, so I decided it was best to wait until the next day. Besides, I had more urgent tasks to attend to.

I try not to work in the evenings, but that night I had to. During my first lecture earlier that day, I had had difficulty connecting the tech and I needed to find solutions. My next lecture was Thursday morning, which meant that I needed to figure it out before Wednesday so I could allow time to contact someone to help me if necessary (reader, it was necessary). I finally sat down at 7:30pm and worked at it for four hours before I gave up, called my partner to say goodnight, and went to bed at midnight.

My alarm went off at 6am, and I did the thing you’re not supposed to do – I checked my notifications. I saw an email to my department chair and dean, into which I was copied, so I read it. The email sender had sent it at 9:40pm, asking the same question they had asked me three hours earlier and adding that they had no confidence in me.

By 7am, I had decided to tweet my frustrations into the void. More than 9,000 likes, 400 retweets and 250 replies later (and still going), it is clear that problems with email boundaries, especially after hours, are wide-reaching.

In my case, the sender was stressed because of both short- and long-term deadlines. I suspect this contributed to the mismatch between their perceived level of urgency and my own. Although this might explain their actions, however, it doesn’t make them acceptable. I expect that other people’s work hours may be different from my own – perhaps the sender didn’t have time earlier in the day? That’s fine – I respect that. In return, though, I ask that others recognise and respect the limits that I put on my own time. Please do not escalate a situation before allowing me enough time (during work hours) to devote energy to the response.

It is easy to think about our own needs from our own perspectives and assign them a high priority. It is also easy to assume that an email request will be simple to respond to or to underestimate the responsibilities that the receiver bears. But I would like to encourage us all – academics, administrators and students – to be more cognisant of the person on the other end of our emails. They have their own needs, perspectives and constraints, and they should be allowed to make their own assessments of priority.

How do we temper unreasonable expectations? Some replies to my tweet recommended ways to make the boundaries clearer – adding disclaimers about work hours and response times to syllabi or email signatures. However, neither would have been relevant to my circumstance (the sender was not a student on my course, and I had not emailed them previously).

Besides, surely it would be far better to foster a culture that respects and encourages boundaries, such that disclaimers are not necessary. As faculty members, we are in a position to model the respect we wish to receive and to help others learn to navigate this landscape.

We all want things to be done as quickly as possible. But while emails are electronic, we need to always remember that their recipients are every bit as human as we are.

Emily Kane is an assistant professor in the department of biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: We need a more humane approach to email

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