Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Attachments and Speed Reading
On any given day, at least half of the emails I receive have that little paper clip. Invariably, I’m supposed to read whatever is attached, immediately grasp every contentious point, and remember it all when quizzed randomly a week later by someone saying “but you knew about that! I copied you on the email!”
Honestly, I’m starting to think that speed reading is a job requirement.
Geeky Mom has written insightfully about the intellectual demands of administrative positions. While they aren’t always the same as those of faculty, they’re certainly related. Among the intellectual demands of this role is keeping track of umpteen different projects at the same time, remembering who objects to what and why, and speed-sifting through far too much information. It isn’t usually the same kind of reading that one might apply to a classic text, although that certainly happens with the union contracts; usually, it’s more like glancing at poorly-written directions while driving in the rain at night. You just want to get the one or two key facts as quickly as possible without doing any damage.
Annoyingly, I’ve never really developed the ability or patience to read long documents on a screen, so the attachments usually get printed out. (I have never believed in the ‘paperless office,’ and probably never will.) By the end of the day, the pile on the desk is even more impressive than it was in the morning, and that’s saying something.
I can always tell when I’ve been speed-sifting too much, because The Wife will catch me dropping details at dinner. A typical exchange:
TW: So what did Tom say?
TW: You know, Tom? Who I just mentioned two minutes ago?
DD: You did?
It’s a variation on the old Far Side cartoon in which the kid asks to be excused from class because his brain is full. That can actually happen. It usually takes a good night’s sleep to hit the ‘reset’ button.
I don’t know what these jobs were like back in the days before email. My guess is that they involved a lot less reading, if only because the effort involved in writing and duplicating documents (maybe with ditto machines?) would have been so much greater. I’m beginning to think that those costs came with some underacknowledged benefits.
Wise and worldly readers – have you found a reasonable way to deal with flurries of attachments, all of them written in academic-ese? I can’t think of one, since my brain is full.
He developed the strategy of an auto-filter responding to anything he was only cc'd into.
"I receive a lot of e-mails every day. Many of these are those I am cc'd into for my information only. I read e-mails I am cc'd into only once a week.
If you require an immediate response please re-send to me directly and explain directly why you have sent it for my attention."
Or something like that. It dealt with a lot of the CYA copying.
BTW - We called the ditto machine the Bander. I know not why.
Me: The vote of the committee was unanimous in favor of candidate X.
Admin.: That's great. Can you tell me the exact numbers that voted for and against?
The disconnect faculty have occurs when you don't remember their particular nuanced issue. Suddenly you've committed some huge offense that "you knew about because I told you."
I know you've talked around this before ("Dr. Thus-and-such, I can't tell you about why X was decided because of FERPA/privacy/policy/contract/etc. and I can't even tell you why I can't tell you because of ibid") but this post is further enlightening about the job functions of administrators.
As much as some faculty think administrators are "out to get them" the reality is they have so much more going on they don't have the time or inclination to target any one particular person or department.
1. If a report is submitted to the administrator who requests work on project X in the mid-fall, and an administrator requests a meeting to discuss the report in late May (after a couple of reminders by the faculty involved in writing the report and a resubmission of said report two weeks before the meeting), the faculty will assume that the administrator has read the report in enough detail to note adverbs, negations, and the like. Maybe the faculty assumes too much, though?
2. It's a waste of faculty time to go to a meeting with no idea what the subject of the meeting is. We can't prepare for it, it catches us off guard and reliant on our memories of arcane details, and about 30 minutes of an hour-long meeting is wasted in figuring out just what the point of the meeting is. Could brief administrator emails include a meeting topic, at least a general one?
Of course email messages and attachments that say the same thing are a waste of time.
Personally, I hate getting information as attachments. It means I can't simply search my inbox for the information, as my email only searches messages not attachments. Once I find the email, I have to download the attachment, virus-scan it, and then open it with another program. It's defensible when the document has tables or something where the formatting is important, but otherwise a waste of my time and effort—time I might have spent thinking about the information instead of simply trying to read it!