"I don't believe in email.  I'm an old-fashioned girl.  I prefer calling and hanging up."  ....Sarah Jessica Parker.

Commentary of the Day - November 09, 2011: We Get Emails.   Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

I launched my teaching career in an age that didn't know a whit about electronic mail (yes, I can hear some readers snorting, that long ago), and all things considered, that was probably a better time -- at least for teachers. Students were always anxious, including those who showed up at office hours to tell me sadder stories than once paraded across the stage in moth-eaten tragedies: not only my dog devoured my homework but also my folks have planned a skiing trip to Aspen and we leave at a time when classes are still scheduled.  Hard to tell who's worse, Fido or trip-planning mom.

Then, somewhere in the l980s (maybe a touch earlier, or later), I began to receive more email missives than face-to-face office visits.  Students would send me their field hockey schedules and tell me which classes they'd have to miss for away games; I got questions about assignments and questions about when such assignments were due.  I got testimonies about my prowess as a teacher (this a week or so before the semester was over) and bitter complaints about certain grades -- a day or two after they had been posted -- being unacceptable.

The good thing, of course, is that emails replaced late night calls about the dog, the ski trip, or the assignment.  Still, emails could be (and often were) annoying, so I concocted yet another sentence to add to my syllabi: "Professor Pinsker considers email from students to be an invasion of my computer privacy."  That, I thought, would do the trick, but it didn't.  Students didn’t care about "computer privacy" (a term I made up), nor much about any brand of privacy.  The point, for them, was that the computers date- and time stamped every communication.  So, if they wrote me about why they would be missing class the next day, they could always claim -- correctly as it turns out -- that I had been "informed."

Let me hasten to add that I was not the only faculty member who had troubles with e-mail.  In the early days of our college server, one poor fellow fired off an angry email to a friend, outlining in great detail just why he thought so-and-so was a jerk (his words was much stronger).  Unfortunately, he hit the wrong "send" key and his angry missive was fired off to everyone.  He apologized for his unintentional error but I didn't really believe him.  Some "mistakes," as Freud pointed out long ago, are not really  "mistakes."

For two or three years after I retired, certain students would email me about needing a recommendation for graduate school.  Nothing by way of specifics other than that my recommendation was due in a week's time.  After dashing off a couple of letters, putting them in my envelope and affixing my stamp, I said enough -- in a form email that told students requesting recommendations that I needed a proper letter, outlining what they had been doing since graduation and why they wanted to go to graduate school, along  with a self-addressed.  stamped envelope.

But if student email slowed to a trickle after my retirement, the same thing was not true as the campus-wide server.  At the beginning I would get emails about early dismissals for snow emergencies or whole days cancelled in the face of  an upcoming blizzard -- this while I was living in south Florida.  To say that I really didn't want to know anything about this would be an understatement.  To say that I couldn't block such stuff from my "in box" spoke both to my ineptitude and to the sheer power of the internet.

At a time when far too many  politicians enjoy bashing teachers, some emails from students have been gratifying.  Not all students are thoughtless and annoying; some of them write to me about how much they enjoyed studying with me, and even better, some tell me that they are now  reading novels by an author they met in one of my contemporary literature classes.

You're probably thinking that nothing, absolutely nothing, could be better than this.  Actually, there is something -- a proper letter from a student that I could read, and then save.  By contrast, email floats into my "old mail" box and then, after a time, magically disappears.  I've never been a fan of email.  True, it is fast and, yes, it is convenient, but, for me, nothing beats carefully crafted words in a proper letter that I can hold in my hands.

2011, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.

The Irascible Professor comments: Coming from pretty much the same generation as Sandy Pinsker, the IP understands his frustration with email.  However, these days members of the student generation regard email as about as old-fashioned as the hand-written letter.  They only use email to communicate with their parents, their professors, potential employers, and the like.  They all have cell phones that are smarter than they are, and they use them not to speak to each other, but rather to send each other text messages or tweets written in coded shorthand where *$ means "Starbucks," 10Q means "thank you, and ROFL means "rolling on the floor laughing."  For today's student generation, writing an actual email message is an exercise in formal composition.  The use of text messaging is so pervasive that it's not unusual to observe two students texting each other in an elevator, and student health centers across the country often treat students who have been injured by walking into trees or lamp posts while texting, not to mention those who have walked into oncoming traffic while being preoccupied with sending or reading a text message.

The IP cannot remember receiving an actual personal letter from anyone under the age of 40 in the last several years.  With the rising cost of stamps and the questionable future of the Post Office, it looks like the use of snail mail for personal and even professional communication is on its way out.  Almost all of the letters of recommendation that the IP has written in the last few years actually have been delivered electronically as pdf attachments to email messages.  So, Sandy make sure that you have a printer attached to your computer.  You then will be able to save those glowing email messages just by hitting the print button.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2011 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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