Communicating within the academy

Someone has just sent me a copy of a notice that has been pinned to a lecturer’s office door in an Irish university. The notice asks students not to communicate with the lecturer concerned by email ‘which I don’t use as a matter of principle’. As it happens, Times Higher Education has also just reported on a US survey (the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement) which found that 84 per cent of American academics had never ever read a blog, and more generally seemed to show a technophobe academy.

I can fully understand that for some, and in particular for some of a slightly older generation, the move into new technology is not easy. But not using email ‘as a matter of principle’? What ‘principle’ might that be?

In fact, as has been noted in this blog before, email is not a new technology and for students it has become somewhat passé; many of them no longer read it with any regularity, and they have moved on to other forms of technology-enabled communication. We may say, with whatever justification we feel we have, that students are here to learn in accordance with whatever framework we provide, and if we need them to use email, or pieces of A4 paper, or indeed tablets of stone, then that’s what they need to use. But that misses at least some of the point of learning, and as academics we must be open to new forms of communication and discussion.

When I hear about some professor who publicly refuses to use technology for such purposes, then no matter how eminent they are otherwise (as in the case of Terry Eagleton, mentioned in the Times Higher article), I wince. I no longer think it quaint. I have lots of sympathy for those who find it difficult to keep up with all the changes in technology and who need support, but that is another matter. Those who think that rejecting technology for communication purposes is a ‘matter of principle’ should maybe reflect a little on the ideal of a community of learning.

And as for those thousands who have never read a blog, what can I say…?

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14 Comments on “Communicating within the academy”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I wonder how far this lecturer’s principles extend? Most journals require on-line submission and subsequent communications with the editor are by email. Likewise for refereeing. Most internal communication by the university is by email. Are these foregone too? It all sounds a bit precious to me.
    And as for the 84% who say they never read blogs: don’t believe a word.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Why did the student not simply print the mail put it in an envelope and into the lecturers cubbyhole. You know, old-style.

    Further if they had a phone with a camera that could pick up all that text, they have functions on it that allow them to dock to the printer in the Secretary office, having accessed the drafts box in their mail a/c.

    And as to people fiddling about with all the new media like facebook or twitter. Who cares, its all so much chip-wrapper. Who uses My-Space these days. Sic transit and all that.

    Blogs are a bit different. But even there the sands of time have all but run. I find that people that were addicted to the media a few years ago have vanished. Burned out probably for its hard to keep writing in the same voice for a sustained period.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    Only yesterday I was discussing in my media theory class the concept that not only human being are ‘social’ (as Aristotle pointed out), but also that we are ‘techno-social being’, understanding the role that technology has played, the complex economic, social and cultural factors which influence and some would say ‘determine’ technological innovation are crucial to understanding the world we live in. The ‘not using email’ stance often justified as a last defence against the invasiveness of information requests etc. rings out of tune in an educational environment where every ‘tool’ we use has an educational purpose to serve.

    • Vincent Says:

      Yes, but you have the situation where a University doesn’t provide a map, beyond a useless schematic, with the idea exploration is good for the soul.

  4. anna notaro Says:

    On Blogs, the Brirish Journalist Andrew Marr caused quite a stir when he told Cheltenham Film Festival, that Bloogers are mostly “socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting.” Now, that’s what I call an accurate definition!

    • ‘socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting’: – and who indeed could argue with that… 🙂

  5. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    I wonder how many students this lecturer has? If it is 300+, then I would be inclined to think that the principle might be “If I can answer them all, I will answer none”.

  6. cormac Says:

    I agree with Kevin – it may be that the principle here is “don’t communicate with students by email” rather than “don’t use email”. Which is a completely different story, and may be reasonabledepending on circumstances

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    I use e-mail, obviously. But I can imagine a principled opposition to it. The principle is this: questions should always be reflected on before being asked. By that I mean that e-mail is far too easy a medium of communication and it’s tempting to dash off questions to the lecturer without even having tried to investigate the matter oneself (when that happens, I’m often tempted to direct students to Example: a student e-mails me to know what day he’ll be able to collect his results. It’s not really my department, but I investigate and write back with the answer. The day arrives and I get another e-mail asking what time the results will be available. The expectation is that I am apparently the all-purpose and always-available answer man. But given that the results will be available that day and, if he’s just a bit more patient, he will have them, I can’t help feeling that writing answers to such questions is a waste of my time.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Another way to put that: the principle is the efficient use of my time. If a student wants to ask me something, a conversation is generally a good (and more interactive) way of doing it. It’s also more efficient. I have 2 office hours a week for this very purpose.

  8. colummccaffery Says:

    Anyone expressing this type of silliness should be dismissed as an elitist twit unable to take up a position sufficiently interesting to deserve the term eccentric. It’s today’s equivalent of, “I wouldn’t have a TV in my house” or “I don’t allow my children to read comics.”

    It is my recollection that academics were early and eager adopters of ICTs.

    Moreover, use is not a function of age. Elderly people find the net, social media etc. very attractive as their mobility declines or family move away. You see, the old have no more than the normal proportion of whiners who refuse to recognise a good thing when they see it.

    Ok, I’m on a roll here! There is absolutely no need for training in computer use. Fortunes have been made from this nonsense. For goodness sake, anyone with normal intelligence can figure out their use in minutes.

  9. Jo McCafferty Says:

    I think technology does sometimes move too fast for academia to keep up with, and sometimes those developments are too fleeting – so I guess the usual stance is to not bother learning how to use it.

    Sometimes it takes a bit of time to see what will last – is twitter actually useful for example, I have a twitter account, I do make commentary but mostly I use it to see what my favourite musicians are up to. So it’s more a mild method of stalking than a useful tool for me :0)

    Email, however, has been round for long enough, and this lecturer’s students have more than likely been brought up on it. I do wonder if it is more an unfortunate turn of phrase though and perhaps the lecturer was simply stating he’d rather talk to the student than communicate by email.

    There’s no way I could do my job by having a face-to-face with every student who contacted me, email is more expedient in most cases.

    As for Ernie’s post about “thinking before asking” – I have to say I quite agree :0) I get many repetitive emails per day asking simple questions that students should have thought about first.
    I direct these students politely to our support area in the VLE we use – saying, if the answer is not there, post the question in the forum so everyone can benefit from responses.
    They possibly think I am being standoffish, but I have over 400 of them to look after personally and I explain that my time is better spent helping with real problems rather than telling them what the deadline for their coursework is, when it is plain as day on their coursework document and on their class page.
    It’s beginning to work (eventually) but with the next intake of students I will have to start all over again!
    We’re working on getting students to become more autonomous by various induction activities, but it is a case of leading the horse to water right now.

    However, deciding not to use something widely used when students are very much adapted to “today’s world” reminds me of a phrase I hear far too regularly for my liking: “But we’ve always done it that way”.
    I had that phrase emblazened on a picture of a man with his head in the sand, and put it on my office wall.

  10. Ian Allison Says:

    I presume “the principle” was that e-mail would be so out dated for his/her students it would be inappropriate as they will all be using other forms of social media by now no doubt? 🙂 The challenge for us as academics is knowing what is the most appropriate communication channel – sometimes this will be the latest technology and at other times it requires traditional approaches.

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