E-mail Overload 101

Information Overload isn’t just a scourge for the business sector.

But what would Ben Franklin do?

Its effects can also be felt in academia, where both students and professors struggle to manage a rising tide of information.  While this problem has many facets, in this article I will focus on Information Overload as it manifests itself in the relationship between students and teachers.

E-mail has become ubiquitous on college campuses, and some of the effects of its widespread use are surprising.  It is now, for better or worse, many students’ preferred form of communication with professors.  On the one hand, this gives some students an opportunity to communicate with professors when they otherwise wouldn’t have done so, either because the student can’t meet with the teacher during office hours or, perhaps, because he or she is too intimidated to ask the professor in person.

On the other hand, just as in the business world, students are much more likely to send e-mail without thinking about its clarity, the appropriateness of its content, or its importance.  The result, for many professors, is a veritable e-mail avalanche.  The barrage reaches a crescendo around finals week, when many students drop drafts of papers into a teacher’s inbox all at the same time and expect a quick turnaround, not taking into consideration that they and their peers have likely overloaded the professor to the point of incapacitation.

The problem got so bad by 2006, the year I entered college, that the New York Times took notice of it in “To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It’s All About Me.”  Jonathan Glater wrote in that piece about professors who receive e-mail that is inappropriate, irrelevant, or rude.  Many professors reported being asked for information that was already in the syllabus, or receiving emotional tirades about test scores.  A later Inside Higher Ed article quoted a professor who receives over 100 e-mail messages a day, many from students.  Some professors have formulated rules of “netiquette” to discourage students from sending so much e-mail.

Even when their e-mail is perfectly appropriate, students expect that professors will answer promptly, but this rarely happens.  I confess that as a student, the promptness of a professor’s e-mail response did influence my opinion of him or her to a small degree.  As Glater reported, student e-mail (and the expectations that underlie it) can put tremendous pressure on junior faculty who know that their tenure prospects rest in part on student evaluations, which are much more widespread today than they were even a few years ago.

But for many students, the opinion of Athan Papailiou, a student quoted in the Inside Higher Ed article, is representative.  He said that he “understands the frustration of reading endless e-mails, but answering questions is an integral part of teaching.”  This was certainly my thought until I spoke to my father, who happens to be a professor.  He wondered why I felt professors had an obligation to even answer all of my e-mail, much less do so promptly.  I was (momentarily) speechless; the expectation was so deeply ingrained that it had never been called before the tribunal of my conscience.  It was an eye-opener.

After I complete my graduate studies, I will be on the other side of the divide between student and professor.  Just as my former instructors, I will likely face an overloaded inbox and expectant e-mail correspondents.  I can only hope that those waiting for e-mail replies from me will take a moment, as we all should, and consider how we all suffer from Information Overload.

Benjamin Rossi is an analyst at Basex.

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