Today I’m working in my home office instead of lugging my materials to the neighborhood coffee shop (let’s just say that I my body does not respond well to more than one latte). Ignoring my own resolutions, I went online immediately to check my work email (even though I’m not teaching summer classes and am officially “off contract” until August), then I make a quick perusal of facebook, then glanced at the offerings of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Luckily, this didn’t take me long, but it exposed me to the danger of being distracted by engaging personal emails from friends, requests from students, alerts about the funding problems in our state, and/or gossip on facebook. Going online is like walking into a crowded building; if you do it before you start working, you need to keep your head down, ignore distractions, and get where you’re going and then get the hell out. If you allow yourself to wander around, you risk becoming endlessly lost or distracted.
Ironically, while ‘wasting time’ online this morning, I came across Mary Ann Mason’s column, “E-mail: the Third Shift”  in which she argues that email from students has created a “third shift” of work for faculty members, possibly adding on an additional 10 hours of work each week. The article seems to blame students’ expectations of instant communication and colleges’ refusal to set institutional guidelines which leave faculty feeling pressured to please the student-consumer.
While I agree with Mason that electronic communication, left unchecked, can become an insidious time-waste and that non-tenured faculty may be under particular pressure to conform to students’ expectations of instant responses, this is not the fault of electronic communication, but may point to a larger issue: the ways that institutions may allow student satisfaction to substitute for good teaching.
Yet I think her article misses a key point: unlike the “second shift” of parental/domestic responsibility, email does not really demand our attention in the same way that a sick baby does. In fact, we are in control of how much time we spend online. In her first paragraph Mason states, “e-mail is devouring a great deal of our time.” Not to be a picky former composition instructor, but this is agentless prose. Email does not devour time, we, as the agents of action, either read email or we do not.
Winifred Gallagher’s recent book on attention, Rapt,  uses recent research in neuroscience to argue that what we choose to pay attention to radically defines the quality of our lives. Unless we make conscious decisions to take control over our lives, we will tend to pay passive, “bottom-up” attention to novel stimuli, such as loud noises, buzzing flies, or email messages.
According to studies Gallagher cites in her book, college students are used to spending an average of 6 ½ hours a day focused on electronic screen of some sort, with up to a third reporting that they’re focusing on more than one electronic medium simultaneously. This kind of multi-tasking has been proven inefficient, even dangerous, and certainly does not promote the higher level thinking we expect from students.
It is our responsibility as educators (and parents!) to set sane standards for how much we allow electronic communication to disrupt our lives. What’s wrong with spelling out one’s standards for electronic communication in one’s syllabus? After all, students need to be educated on appropriate conduct in college, both in and out of the classroom. I tell my students that I will not be online during weekends, but that I will usually answer emails within 24 hours during the week. After all, if we cannot discipline ourselves to control how much time we spend online, how can we expect students to?