Radical Academic Advice: Think Before Hitting “Reply All”

January 24, 2013, 12:31 pm

My inbox at 10:17 a.m. today.

A common faculty complaint at my last job was what we might call “failure to consult.”  Whether it was a project occurring at the upper echelons of the administration, a department chair’s carrying out an initiative or, most commonly, the work of a faculty committee, rule of thumb was to imagine anyone who might be a stakeholder and then keep that person informed. In the days before email, this usually meant having frequent and informative meetings, dropping into offices as you meandered down the hall, or copying a memo multiple time and putting it in separate interoffice envelopes. My favorite form of consultation? – and I bet no one under the age of fifty has ever done this –  using one interoffice envelope and instructing recipients to check their name off the memo, put it back in the envelope and send it to the next person on the list. It was kind of like a chain letter, except without the promise that the tenth person who got it after you would send $10.00.

Now we just hit “Reply to all.” Sometimes, if that isn’t sufficient, we cover our bases by adding the email addresses of anyone else who we imagine might want to be informed. This ensures that the next person who hits reply to all will expand the circle, and the quantity of emails, further.

In other words, we would rather copy an email to someone who hasn’t asked for it, and may not want it, than risk offending a colleague. It has a certain logic. Virtually all academics complain about being overwhelmed by email, and yet most of us have a reflexive habit of spamming half a dozen colleagues at our own institution (or colleagues scattered across the country) every time a project we are involved in takes a baby step forward. Worse, many of us feel we have to read every email that shows up on our desktop, too often responding to a conversation that may or may not require our input.

Inspired by this interview (CHE, January 10 2013) with Brett Foster of Wheaton College’s English Department, I cleared my email inbox to zero a couple weeks ago. I now strive to keep it that way every day through a morning and an evening purge. Now, I’m warning you: changing email habits is like changing your diet. Waking up one morning and saying “I’m a wanna keep my inbox clear” is just as unrealistic as saying “I will never eat sugar again after this moment” or “I’m going to the gym every day in the New Year.”

In other words, you have to wean and retrain yourself.  Bad habits, like clicking on Facebook every three minutes to see who has responded to your most recent witticism, die hard. Last semester spring I started reforming my email practices, having been instructed by Minerva Cheevy (CHE February 1 2012) to never allow my inbox to exceed 50 emails. While this can sometimes be difficult to do at first, it is worth it.  If I never go over the page limit that the gmail program we use at The New School permits me to see at any given time, I know exactly who I have and have not answered.

This means I avoid the problem of emails that slip off the page and become dead to me while someone else may be awaiting a response. If you are using your inbox as a To Do list (which I used to do and  Cheevy says you should not) unseen tasks and unanswered questions don’t trip you up. What the 50 email system doesn’t address is the problem of  ”flounder emails:” the messages that float around at the bottom 20% of the inbox that you can see and really mean to get to but do not. They sit there, all semester, growing larger in your imagination, seeming to require ever more lengthy and creative responses — and eventually apologies —  which you have no time or inclination to write. Like the student papers you keep meaning to grade (or the ones you meant to write thirty years ago), they sit there becoming Magnets of Dread.

You have to have principles if you are going to zero out your email box.  Mine are as follows:

  • I use the filing system the IT gods gave us. Information or ideas that I think I might need later, but that require no action, go into a carefully labeled folder. This means I have backup in case these messages have valuable information, but they do not clutter up my daily cyber work space. Eventually I will erase them too.
  • I respond to things that actually require a response within a day, and generally within half a day. This means that I can confine my email activity to 15-30 minutes in the morning, around noon, and — if I am so inclined — at the end of the workday.
  • I make quick decisions about what I am participating in (cool workshops, optional meetings) and either trash the email or put the event on my calendar and then trash the email, erring on the side of participation. I can always free up time by taking an event off my calendar later, but I am not haunted by indecision about things I think I ought to be doing.
  • I don’t do a lot of email with students. I ask them to write me for an appointment, indicating several times that they are free. I then write back with an appointment. This is a single exchange, one that leads to a face to face meeting that is easier on my hands, more substantive for them, and often less time consuming. And I don’t debate grades, do advising or help with written work on email. I make time for it in class or make an appointment.

So where does “reply to all” fit in this formula? Every time you send an email, you potentially generate an email. Copy in three people? You just generated four replies that may require you to write four more emails. When any of us uses reply to all without thinking about who really needs to get that message, we are participating in creating a spamming cycle that generates endless work and distraction without necessarily moving a project forward.

And yet, reply to all does have its uses. Here are my caveats on employing this scourge of the internet:

  • Reply to all is efficient. But when I use it, I trim people out of the copy line if they don’t need to get the message. It takes seconds, and you are both helping to keep your colleagues’ inboxes tidy and preventing email metastases in your own.
  • It’s easy to see if someone has hit you with a “reply to all:” I assume that, unless I am the primary recipient or asked a specific question, that I can skim, delete and/or file in the appropriate project folder. Again, this takes seconds. Often a cc requires no response and is only intended to keep a member of the group current with ongoing development of a project. Because I file most emails about ongoing projects, I always have the correspondence available if it contains information that I realize, after the fact, that I need to consider more carefully.
  • Use free online software, or even the dreaded Meeting Maker, to arrange meetings and instruct your assistants to do likewise.  Requests to attend a meeting should always receive a prompt response, in my view, even — or especially — if it is to say that you have no time to meet. But they don’t, and even when they do, colleagues can be reluctant to offer more than one or two times. Hitting “reply to all” as everyone else negotiates their schedule over email creates massive traffic that spams everyone, and is particularly overwhelming to new faculty who have never had to manage so many demands on their time before.
  • I use bcc, or blind copy, to indicate to colleagues that I do not necessarily need a response but I do want them to be aware of an ongoing issue or project. As a slight tangent, I do not recommend using bcc as a way to secretly convey information. Whether you are tattling up, down or sideways, tattling is wrong and can get you in trouble. Bcc, pioneered in the days of paper when something could not be impulsively forwarded again, also contributes to intrigue, gossip and breaches of confidentiality. My advice? If you want to confide in someone, do it in person or on the telephone.

Speaking of which: rather than spamming people with reply to all, or trying to do everything by email, consider making time to leave your office once a day and do some business by talking to your colleagues in person. For untenured or contingent faculty, it helps people get to know you outside of a review process; for tenured faculty and administrators, it reinforces social ties that are easily sundered by too much email and too little talk.



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