This morning I spent just over an hour working through the fifty-odd emails that had turned over the previous day; reading, responding, sending out other emails as a result, filing and deleting. Lots of deleting. Of those fifty-odd, over half were from subject-related email lists, most of which could be deleted just on the basis of the subject line; the rest were equally divided between departmental admin, school and faculty admin, student and student-related queries, research-related exchanges with colleagues, exchanges with external collaborators, other external research-related stuff, purely personal messages and proper junk. Responding to those messages that required or merited response involved, at least half the time, checking information on the university webpage or on external sites. At a rough estimate, given that emails continue to arrive at a similar rate, I’ll have spent at least a fifth and possibly a quarter of my time by the end of today working through them.
This is *not* a traditional academic rant about the pernicious encroachment of email on every corner of our working lives. On the contrary, given that we’re still in the neighbourhood of the 25th anniversary of the invention of the internet, I thought that a quick celebration was in order. I still have vivid memories of my first tentative steps onto the World Wide Web, during my year in Lampeter in 1994-5; the slow discovery of random bits of fascinating information (I recall a site that compiled links to interesting things about chocolate), my gradual mastery of html to create the first departmental websites, first for Lampeter Classics and then, early in the next academic year, for Bristol (I also recall the sense of possessiveness when a colleague objected a few years later to the rather nice marble effect background I’d produced for Bristol, let alone when the university started to take an interest in corporate branding and so brought an end to the exciting variety that resulted from dozens of different approaches, as well as making it harder to exercise hard-won skills in hand-crafted html coding). It’s now taken entirely for granted that most information will be found somewhere on the web without much difficulty; then, it was a matter of surprise and delight to find anything, let alone anything that was actually useful.
I don’t actually have much recollection of the development of email; it must have been much more gradual, and less wonderful, and a more passive process, getting to know the system that the university provided rather than forging one’s own tools. But what a difference it’s made; how else could I manage to remain in regular contact with so many foreign colleagues and develop collaborative research projects, or keep up with what’s going on across the globe? Lots of activities would still take place – chasing up miscreant students, developing departmental research strategies, being informed of school and faculty things – but in most cases it would take so much longer. Of course there’s a loss of personal contact with colleagues, and even with students – more and more queries about essays and the like come in by email rather than in my consultation hours – but email helps manage the serious co-ordination problems now that we’re all so busy; I can respond to queries when I have time, colleagues or students can respond when they have time, and it can all be sorted out far more quickly than if we have to wait until a physical meeting can be scheduled. It can’t replace face-to-face contact for everything – departmental discussions occasionally have the same risk of misunderstanding and talking at cross purposes as the flame wars that break out on mailing lists every so often – but for lots of purposes, this is a means of managing an ever-expanding workload, making best use of the time available.
Of course, it may be just that I hate telephones so much…