In Praise of the Humble Email

Thanks to the efforts of the software salesforce, almost every request a faculty member used to make simply and in seconds is now unnecessarily complicated, argues Jacqueline Foertsch.

September 6, 2019
 
 
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Some of us have been in academe long enough to remember when submitting an article to a scholarly journal involved word-processing the article in question, printing it out in triplicate (one for the editor and each of two readers), hunting up the letterhead and mailers, then paying the post office to send it on its way. We dutifully included the self-addressed stamped envelope in which the readers' reports and/or acceptance/rejection letter were sent back to us -- or even the copies of the article itself to spare reprinting in the regrettable event of having to submit elsewhere.

How gorgeously our lives improved when, by the 1990s, journal submission involved writing a simple email -- "Dear Editor: Pls. consider the enclosed for publication" -- and attaching a simple (however path-breaking) article as a Word document. The hour or two and considerable expense that submission once required were reduced to cost-free nanoseconds. And technology on the receiving end -- the electronic folders and subfolders an editorial staff used to track an article's progress through its system -- revolutionized the pace and productivity of workers at all points in the contribution-to-knowledge relay.

But then came the advent (although "onslaught" is the better word) of the software salesforce, descending en masse on colleges and universities starting some six or eight years ago. Thanks to their efforts, almost every request a faculty member used to make simply and in seconds is now complicated and takes a good half hour, if not half the morning. One no longer simply hits "send" and goes back to one's actual job. One now enters an agency's "portal" or "file management system," with required fields of technical information sufficient to qualify for a home mortgage or join the military.

Software salesfolk don't seem to feel as if they're doing their jobs -- and campus officers don't seem to feel as if they're getting their money's worth -- if packages don't include legions of dropdown boxes and fill-in fields requiring oceans of pointless information. Rarely do software mongers seem to recognize the most efficient, minimum number of questions required to get that busy faculty member on her way. And rarely do campus officers give said mongers proper guidance on these vital matters. Whose idea was it, for instance -- and who failed to conduct the usability follow-up that would have caught the problem -- to require scrolling through three separate dropdowns to click on "October," "25," and "2018" instead of just asking "start date: MM/DD/YYYY"?

For my students, I used to send recommendation letters to departmental graduate advisers. I am now required to provide a graduate school's software interface with information already included in the letter itself. More than one has insisted upon my (six-line) campus address, when it is universally understood that I will never receive a piece of physical mail from this group in my life.

When planning an annual meeting at my home university, I deal with various campus offices for renting the room, catering the breakfast, supplying equipment and the like. In all my initial emails, the necessary information is provided, but instead of a staffer replying with "Got it, Busy Professor -- we'll see you then!," I am sent a link, the implicit message of which is, "Dear Busy Professor: Please take all that information you just gave me, and reinsert here, in our form, per our specification, for our record-keeping purposes."

All of this, I am convinced, is by way of shifting the burdens of file management and data gathering onto faculty members themselves. Instead of a grad school hiring an assessment specialist, for instance, to open my recommendation letter to see whether I've placed a student in the top 5 percent or top 10 percent, I am required to generate that institution's data instead. It is now part of the cost of having my student considered for admission, and the tyranny of the dropdown box lives another day.

Most discouraging is the file management system that I must now access almost every time I'd like a journal to consider my work. I truly used to enjoy reaching out, via brief email and Word attachment, to an able editorial assistant who would guide my submission through the vagaries of the editorial process. If a tardy reader needed nudging for his report, the editorial assistant handled it. If, heaven forbid -- although it happens all the time -- an article is lost from the get-go, never entered into the consideration pipeline, who's going to receive my query and correct the problem but an actual human being? Certainly not some mindless computer program. To even gain access to most journals anymore, I need to create an account. If I've already created an account with this consortium but forgotten the password, I need to take many steps to have that old password erased and a new one assigned. And so on and so on.

Worst of all is that automatic reply at the end of the now-lengthy upload process: "Your article has been received and will receive our every consideration." Has it? Will it? If I don't get word on that automatically processed piece for the next six months, whom do I contact then? Some journal "Staff" pages don't list editors' emails anymore, and one I searched out recently did not even provide the editor's name.

Having edited a journal in the pre-portal days, I can attest that chaos did not reign. Our crack editorial assistant used folders and subfolders to keep track of what was where, I answered every contributing author's inquiry my own overworked self, and those equally busy researchers who were kind enough to send their work our way did not have to waste time making software happy. This crack editorial assistant continues to organize the journal in the new regime of the file management system. I can only hope that his job and those of subsequent editors are immeasurably bettered therefore. If they are just as confused and overtaxed by it all as I am, then why did we ever set off in this direction?

I am sure that our students and their parents have shouldered similar burdens as they navigate the wilds of college admission and financial aid in an all-tech universe. Let us therefore acknowledge that participants in higher education at every stage enjoyed a zenith of efficiency and productivity when communicating our academic needs was a matter of a brief email and the necessary Word attachment(s). These riches have been grievously eroded in the era of software for its own sake. And technology's shift from simplified connection to needlessly complicated alienation continues on, largely unquestioned.

Bio

Jacqueline Foertsch is professor of English at the University of North Texas and chair of its Postwar Faculty Colloquium. She is the author of six books in American literature and culture, most recently American Drama: In Dialogue, 1714-Present.

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