The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn't have to experience it."...  ...Max Frisch.

Commentary of the Day - February 17, 2010:  My Letter to the World (of Technology).*  Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

The ease and speed of correspondence with editors is one reason to appreciate email.  Another is the ease and convenience of contacting my three grown children who live and work in other cities.  (I remember when a long distance phone call was an event.)  The more I try to think of a third reason, however, the more I realize that those first two may, in fact, be the only ones.  It's just come to my attention that the novelist Don DeLillo doesn't use email.  His position is that it "encourages communication that wouldn't otherwise take place."1  Anyone who has faced a barrage of campus email on a daily basis would have to agree that it's a brilliant position.  Equally problematic is that, even on small campuses like mine, email has become a poor substitution for what should otherwise take place: face-to-face communication.

The contents of my campus-mail inbox have inspired me to begin planning a new subsection for my already teeming syllabi: "Criteria for Email."  I already have a section on "Cell Phone Etiquette" (Rule # 3:  If your phone rings during class, please hand it to me to answer: I will explain that you are unavailable.)

So, to begin: Do not start out by saying "Hey," as in "Hey Miss Segal" or even "Hey Dr. Segal."  Do take the opportunity to show me that you can write in full sentences.  Do not begin the body of your message by saying, "So and so here," as if you are a busy character on the phone in Law and Order; I can see your name in the sender's line.  Do not send me an email at 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning asking me why I haven't answered the email that you sent at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday night.  And if I've cleverly intuited -- just by seeing your name in the sender's line for the fourteenth time this semester -- that you are writing to explain why your paper is late, my response to you may be late as well.  If you miss a class, please don't ask me to repeat my lecture.  Check your spelling, and check your tone.  And please don't (ever) end your message with a smiley-face icon.

When I ask students why they use that clichéd pictograph, they all have the same answer: "It tells you how to read my meaning."  "But wait," I say.  "Isn't that what your sentences should be doing?  Isn't that what words are for?  Did Faulkner run rows of emoticons down the margins of As I Lay Dying?  Did Emily Dickinson end a single one of her 1775 poems with a 'frowny' face?"  Perceptive students may earn extra credit by pointing out that Dickinson did use a conspicuously large number of dashes.  Moreover, I have to confess that my own style of punctuation has in fact evolved.  I have come to rely increasingly on my own version of graphic manipulation: the exclamation point.  I rarely use it in any other form of my writing; actually, I never use it in any other form of my writing, and I strike them out of students' short stories in the Honors Creative Writing class.  The only artful use I have ever found of this mark is, once again, in Dickinson's poems, where it seems to convey --brilliantly -- a subversive sort of dumb-founded amazement at the irony of the world's workings.  Perhaps that is why e-mail messages seem to require them.  A punctuation mark that conveys anger, excitement, or fear in any other prose medium, such as pulp fiction or Gothic horror, becomes, in my notes to my students, a device to moderate my tone and to convey an air of sympathetic concern, as in, "I missed you in class today -- I hope that all is well!"  (Observe, as well, the use of the Dickinsonian dash here, indicating a slight pause for dramatic effect, before propelling the sentence to rush on to the end with its burst of good cheer).  For good measure, I then add, "Don't forget that your paper was due today!  See you soon!"

Students aren't the worst offenders when it comes to email, however.  Faculty members are.  At least most student emails are mercifully brief.  Faculty missives, however, are long, and often come with even longer attachments, which are almost always referred to as "documents."  Emails on such subjects as the cancellation policy for bad weather and the determination of the date for the departmental writing prize may easily run on to three times the length of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address " (without any of the glorious parallelism or attempts to heal a nation.  Then there are committee meeting minutes, responses to minutes, and counter-responses.  Should you be the author of the minutes, there will be preliminary drafts, along with observations and emendations from your co-members to integrate into subsequent drafts.  If you find yourself in the position of being the minutes-taker, remember two words: clarity and concision.  Brevity should be the soul of any committee's minutes.  The same goes for departmental business.  Never say in two hundred words what you can say in twenty.  And don't get into a high-tech verbal sparring match with a colleague whose office is across the hall.  If you're tempted to fire off a reply to a student, a faculty colleague or an administrator, do the online equivalent of putting that draft in a drawer.  Instead of hitting send, file it away in "Works in Progress" and go for a walk around the outside of your building.  You might even run into someone that you'd been thinking of sending an email to.

All of the above constitutes only a portion of what arrives daily in my in-box (where it sits in virtual piles to match all those stacks of hard copies I've never gotten around to sorting out).  Under the banner of "Going green," many "documents" are now available only on-line.  It used to take one minute to open the envelope with my pay statement; now, however, "online convenience" involves about thirty minutes.  That particular environmentalist mantra, which always conjures up for me an image of Kermit swinging his little frog legs while singing "It's not easy being green," makes me grind my teeth.  This may not be a good thing for the college’s teacher of nature writing to admit, but I can't be the only one to see some irony in using a $1,000 piece of equipment that runs on electricity to look up a phone extension in the "online-only" college directory.

The real issue, of course, is time: I often feel as though my life is measured out in email messages.  That's another reason why I prefer short pleasant notes: if I'm devoting this much time to checking email, I don't want to be insulted, I don't want to wade through a morass of ungrammatical and misspelled phrases, I don't want to decode academic politics (although the last affords a great deal of interesting material.  Setting a schedule with select hours and allotting only so many minutes to the push-pull of emailing can be helpful.  I like early morning (to check for any bombs that may have been planted while I was sleeping) and late afternoon -- that little lull between day and evening classes.  Dickinson even has a phrase for that time of day: "This is the hour of lead."

It should be obvious that I will never be writing an essay about my experiments with in-class Tweeting.  In my defense, I'm hardly a neo-Luddite; I was, in fact, one of the first persons on my campus to run technology-enhanced classes in the nineties.  The main lesson that I took away from this experiment was that size does matter: emboldened by the success of an on-line discussion group that had supplemented my 18-member capstone seminar, I decided to require chat-room participation in a film course (whose roster of students totaled 75).  While my students engaged in lively and lengthy discussions on such subjects as Betty Boop's cleavage in her 1934 "Poor Cinderella," I felt like another animated character: Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," confronted by an endless stream of mops and sloshing buckets.

That is why I won't be practicing what strikes me as one of the more recent dismaying electronic developments: encouraging students to send me questions and comments from their iPhones while class is in session.  There will plenty of time for that after I send in my avatar to cover Ben Franklin's Autobiography.  And that is why I find an article by Jeffrey R. Young, about a dean at Southern Methodist University "proudly removing computers from lecture halls," heartening. ("When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom," The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 20, 2009).

A more successful academic electronic venture in my courses has been the use of what I call "Scavenger Hunt" exams in literature and fine arts classes, which require students to practice their online search skills.  Students are remarkably savvy in some areas of online navigation and sorely lacking in others.  They may be intrepid warriors when it comes to video games, but they are fairly helpless when it comes to extended searches or differentiating between appropriate and inappropriate sites for college-level work.  My nonfiction course now includes a session on writing -- and being a discerning reader of -- blogs.  Here, too, Dickinson was remarkably prescient, as her reflections in "I'm Nobody!  Who are you?" illustrate:

How dreary—to be—Somebody!

How public—like a Frog—

To tell your name—the livelong June—

To an admiring B[l]og!

*The title of this essay is taken from the first line of an 1862 poem by Emily Dickinson.  William Carlos Williams called Dickinson our "Patron Saint of Poetry"; I like to think of her as my patron saint of technology.

[1] (Alexandra Alter, "Author Q&A: Don DeLillo Deconstructed," The Wall Street Journal,, 29 January 2010)

© 2010, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: When the IP replaced his old computers there were more than 3,000 unread email messages on them!  He's not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.  But, he wonders why he felt those messages were important enough to save in the first place.


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