Dealing with academic email

Dealing with academic email

I was going to post today with some more details on how I use GTD in reading research, but I decided after this tweet that I wanted to write about something different related to productivity:

Namely, let's talk about email --- and communication in general.

The screenshot in the tweet is from a reddit post by a student. It's possible that the professor might simply be unable to reply --- maybe they have the flu or are at a conference with terrible/non-existent wifi. However, if I'm being honest, it's more likely that the professor is simply ignoring this student. Or, specifically, the faculty has so many emails in their inbox that the students' messages are simply invisible because they are just two among 100, 500, even 1000+ emails sitting there in an inbox that is already overfull and continously aggregating more and more every minute, with nothing being done about it.

I say this is more likely than the other scenarios because I've seen it myself more often. I've sat next to a colleague in a meeting and noticed the red badge on their Outlook icon says "527" on it. I've been approached by faculty members one-on-one where they confess that they have hundreds of emails in their inboxes and have no idea what to do about it. And I've talked with faculty members who just don't care, who are even proud of their overflowing hoarder-like inbox as a badge of honor that somehow indicates their importance or the difficulty of their jobs.

Whatever the situation, I stand behind my original message: If your email is so out of control that you cannot respond to students in a reasonably prompt manner (and I think a 2-day window is reasonable) then something needs to be done about it. It's severely hampering your ability to do your job --- anything in your job, including the stuff not pertaining to your emails, because each of those emails is occupying a small but nonzero amount of head space with you, and when you add it up, it draws attention away from everything.

So let me offer some unsolicited and incomplete advice about what to do about this, and address some of the what-abouts pertaining to academic email.

How to process email: In this older post I wrote about a more general GTD framework for dealing with "stuff", email and otherwise. But to apply it specifically to email, it works like this. When you look at an email that is in your inbox, ask yourself: What is it? There are three possible answers to this:

  • It's junk. You know the type --- stuff from mailing lists you didn't ask for, advertisements for shady conferences in Singapore, etc. This stuff you just delete on sight and don't look back. In my experience, in a given day between 1/3 and 1/2 of what comes to my inbox is junk.
  • It's not junk but doesn't need a response. This category can include meeting agendas, files, information from a student, and so on. With this stuff, you do not reply but rather file it away (paper file, Evernote, OneNote, etc. but NOT IN YOUR INBOX) and then pull it up later when it's needed.
  • It needs a response. Now you're down to the fraction of your emails that you really need to pay attention to. For me, this is only about 1/3 of the total volume of email I get, at most. With truly actionable emails, respond ASAP. Note the "P" there; if it's not possible to respond right away, it's good practice to shoot the sender a quick email right away and say "I got your email and I'm going to give you a full reply later today" or whatever your time frame demands.

"But I can't do this because my situation is different": Yes you can and no it isn't. I get it that some faculty have vastly higher workloads, and proportionately larger email volumes, than others. Contingent faculty can be particularly hard-hit with email not only in terms of volume but also because they may have to manage several email accounts. Still, though, we are all in the same situation: Communication is the underlying predicate of our work, and it's on us as professionals to stay on top of it. This doesn't change based on the size of our workload or the terms of our employment. You still have to communicate well and have your act together or risk being professionally non-viable and failing in your primary task, which is to help students.

"But what about all those emails from students?" This tweet in response to my original one was just a joke (it's a parody account):

But let me summarize my reply. If you are really getting slammed with emails from students, perhaps email is not the problem but rather the entire setup of communication for your course is broken. Ask: Why are students emailing me so often? Also ask: Are there better ways to handle these messages besides, or in addition to email? Some suggestions:

  • Consider an online system to supplement or replace email, and direct students to it. For example you can set up a Slack team or a Piazza discussion board for your class and then direct student to ask any course- or assignment-related questions there, rather than email. You'll still get notified, but the rest of the class will see the question too and are likely to give a faster (maybe even better) answer. (Private or sensitive questions are for email.)
  • Corollary: If students ask you the same question over and over in email, don't respond in email --- respond in a group environment. Many-to-one emails with the same question demand a one-to-many response. That's the point of directing students to Slack or Piazza --- or you can just announce (in a group email or in your LMS) that you got this question multiple times and will discuss it in class. Bonus: Students get the message that they need to come to class to get their answers.
  • Limit your email availability but speed up your response times. I have a policy in my classes --- ensconced in the syllabus --- in which I only check email exactly twice a day (once in the morning, once in the afternoon) and otherwise leave my email client completely turned off. But, I also promise a response time of less than 6 hours to any student email. This may sound like I am "less available" to students but in fact students get responses from me much faster than they used to. I started this two years ago and have received exactly zero complaints about it. Students don't want 24/7 availability so much as the assurance that they'll get a prompt reply. Also, again they have Slack or Piazza to use --- a multi-pronged communication system in the course reduces the load on any one channel.
  • Develop polite but minimal responses to common email requests. For example, if a student emails to ask any question that can be answered by the syllabus, respond with: Thanks for your message. That question is answered in the syllabus; a copy of the syllabus is on the course website if you need it. If you need help understanding the syllabus, please see me in class or ask your classmates on Slack. I actually have this response saved as a text snippet in TextExpander so I can reply just by typing a four-character macro. Make it clear that you've already answered this question in a document and let adults become adults.
  • Solicit regular, informal feedback from students prior to the end-of-semester evaluation. If you're worried that some of these policies will rub students the wrong way, then don't wait until the end of the semester --- survey students regularly (I recommend in weeks 2 and 7 of a 15-week semester) and ask them to push back if they need to. Give students a voice and some ownership; they'll tell you if there are things that need to be addressed.

Again, these are quick and partial thoughts. But let's be clear that we need to be in control of email not the other way around.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.