Posted tagged ‘email’

My friend Gavin

February 12, 2018

“Hi Ferdinand”. This was the friendly salutation in the first email I opened this morning. But then came one of those phrases I particularly hate in emails, and in letters for that matter: “I hope this email finds you well.” At that point I could safely say that the email didn’t “find” me well, mainly because it had actually found its way to me.

“Regarding your marketing needs in your company, can we arrange to have a chat on the phone later this week.” No question mark at the end of that sentence, by the way. If I were to reply to this, the text of my reply might be “Fat chance”, or words to that effect.

Two other irritants. The email is signed “Gavin”, with no surname, and a company name, but no indication of what role Gavin plays in the organisation. The subject line is “Your query”. Now if I had the time and energy to focus on Gavin, I would indeed have a query or two, but none related to his ability to service the marketing needs of “my company”.

Of course we all know about the spam problem. In 2016 it was estimated that 59 per cent of all email traffic was spam – which, mind you, was an improvement on the 71 per cent estimated for April 2014. But actually that’s not my issue here. Gavin wasn’t selling me Viagra from dubious sources, or offering me the chance to meet some desirable Russian ladies. Gavin, in fact, works for a quite reputable company which I have come across a few times and which, I believe, offers an appropriately professional service. So what on earth has persuaded Gavin that this is a good way to get my business?

So for all the Gavins out there, don’t do this. Not because it annoys me (though it does), but because you won’t get my business this way, even if your product looks interesting. Your email is destined for the bin. Don’t address me as if I were one of your oldest friends, if we have never met. Don’t address me at all if your product or service is obviously handled by someone else in my organisation. Don’t suggest I run a “company”, at least make the effort to find out what kind of institution this is. Don’t suggest a “chat”, or even a cup of coffee. Don’t, in fact, be such a complete pillock.

The never-ending epilogue to today’s message

January 28, 2018

Sometimes you just need to get something off your chest, so this is today’s lament – bear with me.

I received an email today. The substance of the message was contained in five words, three of which were ‘kind regards’ and a name. Nevertheless, despite this admirably concise communication, the email was, according to my computer, 190 KB in size, and if I had printed it (which I didn’t) it would have covered almost two entire pages.

Why was this? Because the organisation to which my correspondent belonged automatically inserts one hell of a ‘signature’ at the foot of every email sent. This contains a long and hugely convoluted formula telling us for what the organisation concerned does or does not (mostly not) accept legal liability, and what you or I should do if we were to stumble upon the email without being the intended recipient. It then adds a paragraph about the organisation itself, not sparing some considerable detail in praising its no doubt wonderful achievements. It then adds a whole lot of contact information, at which point you find that the organisation has offices in six countries around the world, all of which are set out in some detail. It then repeats some of all this is another language. And, finally, it inserts into the signature a number of images with logos, a photo of its head office, and some graphics the meaning and purpose of which rather eluded me.

This is perhaps a particularly bad case of this kind of genre, but it is by no means unique. Some of these add-ons have been pressed upon organisations by our friends the lawyers, who seem to think that we must all insert endless legal exemption and non-liability clauses into emails that no one ever thought were or are necessary in letters. Others have been prompted by the perceived need to let no electronic communication pass without lots of PR stuff chucked in.

My strong wish for 2018 and beyond that people stop doing this. Really, stop. Give it up.

Submerged in email?

January 6, 2015

In 2008 the journal Times Higher Education reported on some research commissioned by HEFCE (the English higher education funding council) which suggested that there was an ‘overbearing email culture’ in universities and that this was undermining internal communications. The researchers questioned a number of university heads, as well as directors of communications and directors of human resources, and found that the heads (Vice-Chancellors) were very upbeat about their communication strategies, while the various directors were not. The directors were also apparently of the view that academics were worse communicators than administrators.

The view that university staff of all categories are overwhelmed by the volume of email and are in consequence not able to digest the information they contain may have a grain of truth in it. On the other hand, I remember the pre-email era well enough, and I don’t believe for a moment that communication strategies were more effective back then; whereas it is quite possible that we have information overload now, in past years we often had no real communication at all.

What this tells us, on the whole, is that a university (like most other institutions) needs a proper communications strategy. And it would be foolish to deny that, very often, we don’t get it right. I have myself, during my years as a university head, used email fairly regularly to communicate news or other issues, but I know that this is not always the best way; but it is tempting to use it because it is so easy. But more generally, email exchanges in universities often disregard some basic rules of email use; one department in North Carolina State University has issued some very sensible guidelines on email etiquette.

RGU has been working on its communications strategy, and I hope that we will find a way to allow information to be both accessible and easy to find, and to make it easy for colleagues to ask questions, find answers and make comments, in a safe setting. I must look more at how others have done this, particularly those institutions where staff are satisfied with the strategy. Pointers are welcome!

Getting the correspondence right

June 25, 2013

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.

The medium is the message?

August 11, 2011

A couple of days ago I received a letter from an old friend, whom I have known since we were students together (though not studying for the same degree programme). He is the same age as me, but his attitude to technology and gadgetry is not, as you will see in a moment, the same as mine. But he is a highly respected scholar, now occupying a chair in a well respected university.

Here is his problem. His university is currently reviewing its strategy, and he has been asked to participate in the process and has joined the strategy steering group. All members of the group have been asked to circulate their thoughts on some of the main topics, by email. But now, my friend does not own or use a computer, he does not use email, he says he doesn’t actually understand what a ‘wordprocessor’ is (or rather, he writes that this term is meaningless unless it is a reference to the brain). So he used his old Olivetti typewriter to write out his ideas, admittedly also adding handwritten comments in the margin. He then gave the 10 pages so filled to the secretary of the group. Who gave them right back to him and said he must arrange to have his thoughts produced in an MS Word-compatible file submitted electronically; otherwise, no circulation.

My friend proposes to overcome this obstacle by photocopying his sheets of paper – actually no, I don’t believe he can operate a photocopier, there must be some clerical assistant involved in this part of the story. Anyway, he will have paper copies and will send these by internal mail to the other members of the group.

His letter to me is full of humorous asides about all this – but he wants my advice on whether, in truth, it is time for him, as he writes, ‘finally to switch on the great machine and step through the looking glass.’ So what should I write in response?

The durability of communication

June 2, 2011

On the hard drive of my computer I have, at an estimate, some 250,000 emails that I have sent or received over a period of just under 20 years. Some of them are either very short, or really boring, but even if you discount these I have thousands of emails that document what I have thought or said or what others have said to me. They are a diary, and a notebook, and a miscellany of ideas. Are they also useless?

The early emails were written or received on a PC using an email client called Pegasus. For much of that time I had both a Windows computer and a Macintosh (don’t ask me why). When in 2003 I migrated to a Macintosh-only system, I moved all of my emails to a rather complex but amazingly versatile client called Mulberry, which I still use. Because Pegasus mail isn’t easy to export to another program, I had to do it by copying, bit by bit, all my emails to an IMAP server and then re-copying it back to Mulberry. Since then I have more than doubled the size of my email archive, so I would hate to have to do it again.

But actually, what would happen to all this stuff if I were to fall under a bus this afternoon? I ask this in part because, over the past year or so, I have been taking some time to read through some of my late father’s correspondence, much of it either hand-written or typed. It is a bit of a nuisance working my way through a couple of dozen dusty boxes, but on the whole this correspondence is very accessible. But what if the next generation should want to do the same with my correspondence, say in 30 years time? Always assuming that it hasn’t by then long been deleted, would they have any chance of being able to read it at all? What program would they use? What equipment would be able to load it? In fact, will it all just be lost?

What is the answer to this? Leave aside for a moment the self-important assumption that anyone would want to read my stuff. Just accept that there will be some people whose emails will be of interest to future historians. How will they access them? Indeed how will they be preserved at all?

I have contemplated printing out some emails, as paper copies are still the most reliable archives. But hardly 250,000. And if not that number, how many, and which? As technology changes at such extraordinary speeds, is everything we have written doomed to be lost?

Old dears

January 22, 2011

So how do you start your emails? Do you address your correspondent with ‘Dear Mary’, or do you say ‘Hi Mary’, or do you just launch right into the subject-matter? And when you’ve said what you want to say, do you finish with the traditional ‘yours sincerely,’ or maybe ‘regards’? Or do you just sign your name, or maybe not even that?

I think I do all of these things, depending on the topic and how well I know my correspondent. I have been known to send 2 or 3-word emails with neither salutation nor valediction; but I have also sent emails that were essentially formal letters dispatched electronically. But now, some commentators are suggesting that the use of ‘Dear’ in a salutation is out of date, and perhaps suggests a degree of inappropriate intimacy. Using ‘Hi’, or nothing at all, would be better, apparently.

For myself, I don’t see that emails need to be seen for these purposes to be totally different from letters and memos and notes. I guess most people still begin letters with ‘Dear Mr Smith’, but we have long stopped signing off with rhetorical flourishes such as

‘I remain, dear Sir, your most humble and obedient servant.’

Custom and conventions change, but there is also usually room for those who want to maintain a somewhat more traditional approach. I don’t imagine they are misinterpreted or that they offend anyone. Though, to be straight with you, if you ever receive an email from me that ends with the valediction quoted above, you can be sure I am being sarcastic.

Communicating within the academy

October 16, 2010

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…?

Dear Professor: What kind of a person are you anyway?

October 1, 2010

The American magazine US News and World Report, which compiles the best known university league table in the United States, publishes something called the Professors’ Guide. Most recently this has a piece entitled ’18 Etiquette Tips for E-mailing Your Professor’. What interests me about this is not the advice the authors dispense, but rather what kind of person they think an American university professor is, based on the nature of that advice.

So for example, our professor appears to be a very formal kind of man or woman. They should be addressed with their title and surname, and the email should end with a ‘relatively formal but friendly closing’. The email should only ever come from a respectable domain name.

Our professor has had a humour bypass, and will not appreciate any kind of informality, jokey tone or even a nickname for the sender. Emoticons and smileys are absolutely out, the prof hates them.

The professor isn’t particularly over-worked and won’t appreciate something complex in the email that might require a bit of thinking. Remember, ‘your prof might get 25 or 30 E-mails a day’. God be with the days when I got as few as that…

The professor really doesn’t want to know anything about anyone else. He or she hits the roof if a student tells them their life story or beliefes and views in an email.

Some of the advice dispensed in the piece is sensible enough: make the email look reasonably good, proof read it, keep it to the point. But I hope that the professors in receipt of these notes or questions from students are less pompous, intolerant, unhelpful and work-shy than the authors of this piece seem to suggest. And I hope that students reading such advice are not driven to the conclusion that really they shouldn’t think of their professor as someone who can empathise with them and show kindness and tolerance.

Over the past few years I have, as a university president, received hundreds or more emails from students. Many of these did not abide by the rules suggested here. But often these emails gave me some insight into what students felt or what kind of reassurance or help they needed; or what was good and bad about their experience of the university. So in the end I would much rather suggest that a students should be themselves, perhaps remembering that the partnership between students and teachers should be one of mutual consideration and respect. But they needn’t worry too much about exactly how they have expressed themselves.

Higher education as a social media space

May 20, 2010

One of the things I have discovered over the past couple of years is that if I want to have an online exchange of views with students, I really must not choose email. As far as I can tell, students rarely read their email these days, and if they do it is perhaps once a week. It is not an effective, and certainly not an instant, medium. On the other hand, if I try to reach them on social media sites such as Facebook, the results are instant, and while the social networking slang is informal and irreverent, the quality of any exchange there is far better than you could get by any other means.

What should we conclude from this? First, we should be aware (as I am sure most of us are) that social networking is the main forum of choice for electronic interaction by most young people; if you want to find them, that’s where you have to go. I occasionally look at Facebook sites that have been set up for ‘official’ purposes by universities, and usually I am shocked at how bad they are, looking like a formal suit grouped awkwardly with the jeans. Secondly, we need to look again at how we build our online teaching presence and what kind of ‘look and feel’ we create there. We need to capture the social networking idiom for this.

As young people weave their way through online fashions, they have opened up a greater cultural gap between themselves and their higher education teachers than has, arguably, ever existed before. Academics need to bridge this gap if they are to be properly credible to their student audience – and it’s not necessarily an easy task. But it’s a task we must address.