The Art of the Autoreply

Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra offer advice for those who choose to set an automated email reply message when unavailable at work over the summer.

June 9, 2016

It’s summertime, when things can move a bit slower for many in higher education. So then why is everyone emailing at record speed? Aha! Those are not the instant responses of colleagues captivated by your most recent email missive, but rather the canned replies of an automated email system.

Love it or hate it, the season of the autoreply is upon us. In this month’s column, we examine this increasingly common practice and provide tips for those faculty members wondering whether autoresponders are the new normal in academe.

Are automated response messages for faculty really necessary? Customary in the corporate world, they are now becoming increasingly common in academe. We asked faculty members at American colleges and universities via email and social media for their thoughts on vacation replies.

Many faculty members agree that having a response set up during periods of absence is a common courtesy, especially for those with administrative responsibilities. Some faculty members even noted that they are now required by their administration to maintain automated responses when they cannot be reached. But others view autoresponse expectations with suspicion. As one faculty member said, “Let’s face it. Very few academic emails are really emergencies. They can wait.”

Those concerns relate to the ramp-up of email expectations. Notably, France has enacted a “right to disconnect law” that prohibits sending emails after work hours and over weekends in order to counteract this increasing work-related stressor. Some faculty members feel that autoresponses implicitly send the message that nonvacation circumstances merit instantaneous email replies. And as more and more faculty members adopt autoresponses for even short periods of absence, they create an underbrush of email that fills our inboxes unnecessarily.

Some more daring faculty members report that they use the automated response as an opportunity to educate recipients about the nature of academic work. Those on nine-month contracts sometimes specify directly that they are not paid to work during the summer months and therefore will not return emails until the academic year convenes. A faculty member recalled with admiration a senior faculty member’s autoreply, which read: “Gone fishing. Back in the fall. Try again then.” But most such faculty choose a softer approach, for example: “My summers are my time to conduct research and so I will be checking email intermittently.”

It stands to reason that tenured professors probably feel more comfortable projecting these sorts of messages than untenured or otherwise more vulnerable faculty members. Other faculty members from whom we heard disagreed with this practice, arguing, “It’s easy to find one of us railing against the perception that we ‘have summers off.’ Do we get to have it both ways? As a professional, one does not simply get to turn one’s back on the world.”

Regardless of your philosophical stance on the automated message, the phenomenon has an interesting wink-wink component. How often have you received a detailed reply only minutes after receiving that person’s automated response announcing their principled refusal to respond to summer email messages? This dissonance is common, and it led one faculty member to adopt this automated reply: “I will not be looking at email until X date -- honestly!”

A number of faculty members admit to not honoring their own automated reply claims, but explained that it brought them peace of mind to be able to choose whether or not to respond promptly. Given the ubiquity of our electronic availability, combined with our own electronic compulsions, many faculty members cannot resist the siren song of checking email while on vacation. The infamous blog Shit Academics Say may capture it best with the tweet “I am away from the office and checking email intermittently. If your email is not urgent, I’ll probably still reply. I have a problem.”

But beyond our addiction to email, self-preservation also drives such behavior. The dread of coming back to an overflowing inbox propels many of us to manage email even while off-line. (One solution is to have your autoreply tell senders to resend their message, if still unresolved, upon the return date. Some find this rude, however.) The beauty of the automated reply, at least, is the reprieve it provides from the expectation that one must respond within a given time frame. Setting one’s autoresponse often brings a welcome flood of relief and, for many faculty members, is the true harbinger of vacation’s beginning.

Whether or not you prefer to set an automated message, we encourage you to proactively email relevant students, collaborators or staff members a summary of when you will be off-line over the summer. That helps tie up loose ends and ensures that they do not email you during periods when you are unlikely to answer. It can also help set limits on when you are available for meetings, defenses or feedback on student work. One professor notes that this practice make correspondents “feel cared for, while making individual requests less likely.”

If you choose to set an automated message for when you are unavailable at work, we have some advice.

Keep it short and simple. People trying to get in touch with you are not interested in a long explanation. They simply want to know whether they can expect to get a response from you and, if so, by when. Avoid the temptation to brag about the details of your absence in a canned message, even if it involves accepting the Nobel Prize in Oslo or spending your sabbatical in the Seychelles. Those who know you personally will be aware of the details behind why you are gone. Others won’t care.

Identify an alternate contact if necessary. If you are in an administrative role that requires you to deal with urgent requests, you will want to provide the email of a colleague or staff member who can answer questions in your absence. But nothing is more annoying than getting a second vacation autoresponse from that person, too. Avoid the infinite loop autoresponse by coordinating schedules with your alternate. Giving staff members your vacation schedule may also be a good practice, so that they know what to expect regarding your availability.

Unless you are a comedian, avoid the temptation to amuse. Admittedly, there are some truly funny vacation messages out there, and professors may be more able to get away with a less professional reply than those in other occupations. That said, people are contacting you because they need something, and it is probably not your levity they are looking for. Although some recipients may find your reply uproarious, it is inevitable that others will fail to see the humor.

Use the full function of your email reply program. Many autoresponders have features that can help make your automatic responses less irritating to others. If you are setting an automated response for a whole sabbatical or summer, you can specify that recipients receive your reply just once or at specific intervals, rather than every time they send you an email. To avoid entire distribution lists receiving your autoresponse, set your program so that only recipients who address emails to you in the “to” field will receive them. Finally, you may not want some people to receive your autoreplies at all, for various reasons, and you can indicate addresses that should not receive an autoresponse.

Pad your off-line dates. It’s always hectic in the days prior to a conference or vacation when you are trying to tie up loose ends in preparation for an extended absence. We recommend putting your autoresponse on a day early so that you are off the hook for any last-minute email requests that come in while you are preparing to leave. The same logic applies to the tail end of your absence so that you have time to deal with correspondence that built up while you were off-line.

Semantics matter. Some American academics travel to locales where internet access is nonexistent or unreliable, but these days it is rare for many of us to be completely off the grid. Rather than claiming not to have access to the internet (and then giving yourself away in your Twitter or Facebook feed), be honest and simply say that you will be slow to respond to email or will not respond at all. The expression “out of the office” has become a vestige expression for many faculty members. The reality is, we often make ourselves available online, regardless of whether we are in the office or not. It’s more honest to say simply, “I am unavailable from X date to X date.”

Don’t forget to specify a date for the autoresponse to end. A number of faculty members noted that they also use automated email replies to provide immediate information to undergraduate students inquiring about their classes. For example, in the ramp-up to class registration, some people find it useful to set an automated reply about required books, a link to the syllabus and enrollment details. One faculty member reported that she keeps an automated reply on permanently, informing students that her response time is 24 hours during the week and 48 hours during the weekend. She said, “I found that I needed it this semester when students apparently thought I’d be checking my email at night, when I am sleeping.”

We would like to hear what you think about automated email responses. Please share your thoughts in the comments section, including recommended replies you have seen or used yourself. In particular, we are curious how faculty members approach automatic messaging around family and medical leave absences.

Happy summer!

Signing off with only intermittent email checkage,

Jen and Joya


Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Back to Top