May 142015
Email is a Tyranny?

I caused some consternation earlier this year when I told my students that I did not want them to email me unless it was an emergency. At the start of the academic year I made an announcement in one of my lectures and labs that I would not answer any emails unless the senders arms or legs where falling off – yeah, a genuine emergency.

This caused something of a rumpus, because it seems students are expecting, or have grown used to the idea, that a lot of their contact with their tutors will be done by email. When they have a question or need to solve a problem, often the first thing that students expect is to be able to email their tutor.

This seems reasonable on the face of things, but as Cary Cooper points out in an excellent article in The Guardian, we are in danger of allowing email to become an “unending electronic overload” that damages our work-life balance, and therefore our mental health.

I explained to my students that I would not be sitting at home checking my emails while I watch Strictly Come Dancing (not that I do). Nor would I be issuing guidance and instructions for the completion of assignments as I sit in bed with my novel before I go to sleep.

Instead, I suggested that we do what every other generation of scholars have done, and that any questions anyone might have gets written into a notebook, and then the questions are asked in our workshop sessions, either as part of our group discussion or in an individual basis. Or, if that wasn’t felt to be appropriate, students could come and see me at one of my three office-hour sessions I had available each week.

I can’t blame my students for their reaction, because like most workplaces and universities, email has become the default form of communication. The problem is that it has reached the level of absurdity, with thousands of emails being sent, complex instructions being issued, and a general lack of face-to-face contact as a result. As Gary Cooper makes clear

“Email and social media have served a very important purpose in the workplace, and have been an enabler in communications and virtual work relationships. The downsides, however, now outweigh the benefits, and these include: unmanageable workloads (when faced with an excessive email inbox), the loss of face-to-face relationships with colleagues; and the misuse of emails to avoid having face-to-face discussions about difficult work-related issues. As Einstein once wrote: ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction, the world will then have a generation of idiots.’”

In ditching email as a primary form of contact with my learners, however, I’ve been able to focus on the direct, face-to-face interaction. This works so much better. Being able to speak directly with one another, being able to look in each other’s eyes, questioning and double-checking what’s being said, rather than assuming that we have understood each other in the flurry of electronic messages.

There is a very important lesson for us all in recognising that remote-control learning and email management doesn’t work, and so I will be pursuing this approach in the scholarship experiences that I design for next year’s learners. Lets get people talking directly to one another, then our learning will be less overloading and we can, most importantly, directly acknowledge our personal successes.