Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Reliably unreliable"--a good way to look at it

Over at Profhacker, Nels Highberg has an interesting post about being what he calls "reliably unreliable" when answering email.
I know what it’s like to have a student email me at 12:17 AM with a question about an essay due that same day at 9:30 AM, and then they complain that I was unresponsive. I know what it’s like to have a colleague call my office and leave a voicemail on Friday after 5:00 PM asking me to take care of something before a workshop set to start the next day at 8:30 AM (a workshop I am only supposed to attend and not help coordinate), and then they express shock that I chose to walk from the parking lot to the workshop and bypass my office, missing their request entirely. In such cases, I no longer feel bad.
Count me in on the "reliably unreliable" club, Nels. First of all, the student is going to complain if you respond at any time later than 12:18, because a student writing at that hour wants an answer now, so it's pointless to indulge that kind of behavior, unless you're awake and feel like answering. And if a colleague leaves a message on an office voicemail over the weekend and expects an answer (voicemail? really?) before the weekend is over, an "Are you serious?" is the best response he or she can expect.

Why wouldn't you answer an email right away, if you've read it?
  1. Because it teaches everyone (not just students) unrealistic expectations about instantaneous responses. It's not always, or even mostly, students who demand this kind of attention.
  2. Because if, say, someone in your department has initiated some kind of discussion over the weekend, then you're hooked into the conversation: if you give them one response, they'll want you to continue to engage in the discussion. There is no departmental discussion so gripping that it can't wait until Monday, and if there is, you don't want to be part of it. No good will come of it.
  3. Because you ought at least to pretend that you have a life and are not hanging out waiting for people to shovel work into your lap on the weekend.
This goes double for long, involved emails. "E-Mail Auto Response" at the New Yorker has this one just about right:
Please note that if your e-mail is more than three (3) sentences in length I have read the first three (3) sentences, skimmed the opening paragraph, and sort of eyeballed the rest of it. Please do not expect a response to your e-mail anytime soon, if at all, for I am not a mind reader, and therefore cannot guess the nature of anything beyond the first three (3) sentences.
For me, it depends on a few things, though not all at once:
  1. Is it short enough to answer quickly? Is it going to require that I look something up or otherwise compose something more elaborate than a sentence or two?
  2. Is it going to nag at the back of my mind if I don't answer it? Is it faster to answer the email than to think about it? (Zeigarnik effect: if you take care of it, you can forget it faster.)
  3. Do I get to check something off my to-do list by answering it?
  4. Is it respectfully phrased, logical, etc.? If it shows that the writer has an attitude problem (rudeness), then it goes to the bottom of the pile for response when I get around to it, which will probably be never.
So do you take your time answering emails?


Anonymous said...

For me, it depends. If I happen to get an email and it's something I can address quickly, I will (if it's during regular business hours) answer it immediately if (and only if) it is from a colleague. BUT. When it comes to lengthy emails, or student emails of any kind, I've gotten into the habit of only responding to email for approximately one hour per day, usually in the morning. I take care of as much email as I can in that time, and sometimes emails get left to the next day. I don't answer email on weekends, typically.

Now, of course, there are exceptions. But those are my general strategies for dealing with email, and the only way I can keep it under control.

And anybody who leaves a message for me on my office phone and thinks that they'll get a timely response is a fool. I often go weeks without thinking to look to see whether the light is blinking to signal that I have messages.

Nicole said...

It says on my syllabus that I don't answer email on weekends and on each paper assignment I give a date after which it is useless to ask me questions (because there's no time for them to implement them anyway). For the most part they seem to accept that.

Otherwise I do what I can as quickly as I can. It helps that I frequently accidentally lock myself out of my work email at home by trying to enter the password incorrectly, then trying the wrong password, then failing a third time (because we have to change the stupid thing every 90 days).

Dr. Koshary said...

I make an unofficial habit of not answering fatuous student emails sent late at night. I tried that once or twice, and it always created more (useless) work for me, since, as you suggest, the student is already well on the way to screwing up altogether if zi thinks that zi can create something from nothing eight hours from deadline. (Those late-night emails are almost infallibly along the lines of "I totally have no idea what to do because I never read syllabi, don't write down what you say in class, and am used to people wiping my ass for me and calling it education. Would you please start wiping now?")

Although I have far less willpower, apparently, than Dr. Crazy, I still try not to look at my work email at all after, say, 11PM. It's much more relaxing to me to get last-minute emails hours after they are moot, rather than consciously refuse to respond to them and go to sleep muttering to myself about potential consequences thereof.

michele said...

I have two student emails sitting in my inbox right now that I'm not responding to. I will, later today, but I figured I'd wait a couple of hours and see if a few more arrive since it's a bit of a pain logging in remotely to our aging email program and I only like to do it once a day (I have messages forwarded to a personal account, which is why I know they're there).

Re: the late student email. I respond to these, but the next morning, often only a half hour or so before the paper is due. My hope is that this shows students that I do respond to email, but only once a day and not in the middle of the night. I don't acknowledge their poor timing, but just address their question in the same way that I would if they had sent it a week before the paper was due. But I really don't have a problem with students complaining I'm not accessible and I think that's because most of them realize after the fact that it was ridiculous to expect an answer at that time of day.

Anonymous said...

I have been largely backlogged with e-mail for a long time now. I'm trying to change this for at least one address, and I do try and answer student e-mails quickly because we demand that they check theirs daily. However, currently I only have online access at the office, so there is only so much I can do (like read blogs when I should be going home for dinner). This is not getting a lot of e-mail answered, but it makes me feel better about not really keeping up with it.

undine said...

Dr. Crazy, I like that idea of limiting your email to an hour a day unless it's short and from a colleague.

Nicole, that sounds like a fortunate email program glitch!

Dr. Koshary, I agree. Sometimes I don't look after I get home at night, though it's hard to keep away. Your description of what the student is REALLY saying in those late night emails is pretty much dead on.

Michele, I think the psychologists would say that you and Dr. Crazy are "extinguishing" their behavior by not answering--a good thing to do. I think they do realize that it's ridiculous to expect an immediate answer, because they are reasonable beings. (Now watch that comment come back to haunt me in the coming weeks.)

undine said...

tenthmedieval, do they really check their email daily? I'm never sure whether they do or not, but they should. I like the idea of multiple email accounts. I do the same thing, since there are some things that can be safely ignored until I get home.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if they actually do, but so far all important messages have got through to them in time. We haven't made it to fifth week here yet, though, which is when the wheels traditionally come off their prams.