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Sep 20, 2008

In Praise of Email

Yesterday, Friday 9/19/2008, I have sent 51 emails. The first one, at 9:30 AM, was to Vicky. She told me than Layne is out ill today, and in the afternoon, she might need my help covering the front office. I simply said, I am on my way, and will cover. The last one, at 11:37 PM, was an acknowledgement that I received the Russian visitor's flight itinerary, and wished them luck at the interview with the American Embassy.

Yesterday, I received exactly 70 emails, not counting those The Barracuda ate (No, not Sarah Pailin, the other one). First one was at 1: 12 AM from my editor. He is in the Netherlands, hence the odd timing. It was a short message, stating that if Svetlana agrees to do cover art for my book, she can just use a PDF format. The last one, at 10:42 PM, was from Lena, our Russian contact, with the aforementioned itinerary.

This is quite typical, and I am not complaining about the amount of emails. I am sure your inboxes are of similar sizes. Some of my colleagues, who coordinate large undergraduate programs, probably receive and send more. This is not a complaint, but a reflection on this wonderful tool of communication we have. Because it can be annoying and seem overwhelming, we forget how wonderful it really is.

It is very versatile. For example, yesterday, I issued two official requests to process payments for two people, and asked at least two staff members to perform specific tasks. I helped nominate two students for the Graduate Dean Excellence Citation Awards. I accepted a formal dinner invitation. I asked a Registrar person to investigate a technical solution with Ursa which potentially can really simplify our PTEP compliance procedures and perhaps improve testing data we receive. Two other school directors discussed two different issues with me: One has to do with staffing policy and a short-term solution, the other – with payments from school to school for cross-program teaching assignments. I made a goofy error while confirming a guest speaker for my class, and then corrected myself within three hours or so. A faculty senator and I had three exchanges about a possible motion I want the Senate to consider. Several people were involved in an on-going discussion about implications of another abrupt CDE policy change; I also sent an update to some people about it. Three messages were exchanged with a Loveland woman who adopted a couple of Russian orphans, so we set up a meeting to talk about them. I answered a few of student and potential inquiries. I've sent the Dean a list of faculty publications for 2008 he requested a week ago. There were two faculty inquiries about policies and program requirements. But this is not all – there were several equivalents of a water cooler chat: how are things, and did hear that, or seen this? Several e-mails were very brief and are either confirming something or asking to do something.

It is obvious to me that all of these things could not be done without this technology in the same amount of time. I am not sure if it is good or bad that we do so many things, but we certainly could not accomplished them all with a telephone, hard copy notes, and face-to-face meetings. Of course, I probably made a lot of errors, just because of the speed of communications. Perhaps some decisions would benefit from a more thoughtful deliberations. However, the overall efficiency of what we all do has to be much higher than what was going on 10 years ago. Just student inquiries alone probably save us hours and hours ever week. An e-mail is much faster than a phone call or a visit; it can also point to other information (I find myself inserting web links into almost every student or applicant inquiry).

Another great feature of email is that it keeps a written record of everything. It counteracts our forgetfulness and a tendency to edit our memories. In the world of mostly oral communication, people always forget, deny, or remember a conversation differently. This is one reason for many meetings – you want many witnesses to confirm what was said and agreed on. Email is not only versatile and fast, but it is also exact and retrievable (which also makes it subpoenable).

Of course it works only when there is a certain amount of trust. One should trust the technology is working, and the message is going to be delivered. The newest casualty of the anti-spam war, is, unfortunately, a chance that Barracuda will eat an important message, along with all the garbage it swallows. Email also needs an understanding that an e-mail should contain an explicit or explicit permission to forward to others, or add more people when you reply. You should also trust that the BCC field is for exceptions only, and not a rule. I am still not sure what the ethics of BCC are. I think it is only for those cases when it is understood other people have been or will be involved in the conversation, and your correspondent knows that, but you want the respondent to answer to you only. Anyway, I think most people have a very good intuitive grasp for these rules, and we all have learned a lot about it in the last 15 years or so. Long live email.

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