Getting the correspondence right

I have just been reading the biography of William Gladstone (UK politician in the Victorian era) by Philip Magnus, and was astounded to learn that, when Prime Minister, he wrote some 25,000 letters each year. I had always considered myself to be a very prolific correspondent, but Gladstone’s efforts make my own annual average of some 7,000 emails and maybe 250 letter look distinctly pathetic. Furthermore, I cannot really claim that each of my emails will match any of the Liberal Prime Minister’s letters. Some of my communications are, shall we say, rather short: I am perfectly capable of sending a three-word email, of which two will consist of first names. Still, for me and many others email has become the dominant form of correspondence and exchange of views.

Email is probably used more widely in the academic world than anywhere else. It is how most communication is done, most argument conducted, most arrangements confirmed. Emails have not only taken over from letters, they have also often replaced telephone calls and face to face discussions. Furthermore, place a person in front of a computer keyboard with the email client on the screen, and that person can become a monster, handing out insults and abuse that he or she would never deliver orally: it is the digital equivalent of road rage.

Anyway, email as a form of communication with students has become increasingly useless, as younger people have migrated from emails to social networking and other integrated messaging systems. A recent effort by a lecturer in an American university to find out how many of his 145 students had read his most recent email bulletin revealed that a week after he had sent it fewer than a third had read it.

I am not suggesting that email is dead. Certainly I cannot promise that I will be sending fewer. But we must be aware of its limitations. It does not adequately replace all other forms of personal contact, and it is becoming increasingly ineffective as a form of written broadcast to groups of people. It needs to be one of a much larger menu of communications, designed to meet the needs of those being addressed and encouraging them to engage and respond. There is no reason not to include the hard copy letter amongst the media used.

And while you are thinking about this, go out of your office and talk to someone.

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3 Comments on “Getting the correspondence right”

  1. V.H Says:

    Delighted to hear you’re doing your bit. Codebreakers and analysts have kids to feed too. And all that output won’t read itself you know.

    All offices should invest in a espresso machine and/or a juicer. You might lose in a time&motion way but you’d gain in informal efficiency that only comes with human contact. What we called synthesis.

    For way it’s worth I think the way it’s going to go is with wide-scale Skype-like single or broadcast, live or held in message folders.

    P.S. It’s a darn sight easier to generate a vast correspondence if you have five or six secretaries and scribes.

  2. Dan Says:

    “…email is dead”…be still my beating heart!

  3. Bob Says:

    Ferdinand’s article seems to assume that we each have our own personal office. However, the academic working environment is increasingly a shared open plan space, often densely occupied.

    Perhaps he has some thoughts on the impact this will have on methods of communication?

    In these conditions, people step outside the office to talk to someone, not because they rarely see their colleagues, but because they need to avoid disturbing dozens of them.


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