Wednesday, August 27, 2008

 

Attachments and Speed Reading

I’m really growing to hate that little paper clip that comes with so many emails.
 
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?
 
DD: Tom?
 
TW: You know, Tom?  Who I just mentioned two minutes ago?
 
DD: You did?
 
TW: (sigh)
 
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.

Comments:
I had a friend and colleague who was a senior manager in a large organisation.

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.
 
My biggest pet peeve is when attachments contain information that could just as easily have been placed in the body of the email itself. We are often sent group announcements (from the president, dean, whoever) where the email just says "please read the attachment," with no clue as to what the content of that attachment might be. When I open the file, it turns out to be a Word file with a 3-sentence message. If the message had just been in the email in the first place, we could all (a) read it more quickly while (b) placing less of a toll on the college's computers and email servers.
 
I feel for administrators, I really do. But on the faculty end, the time crunch they face can sometimes be comical. My favorite example from an email:

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?
 
I've been getting a lot of attachments that say the exact same thing as the e-mail. And am I supposed to save these attachments? how do I file them? I just have no idea what to do with them, and tend not to read it. If it's not from the chair or a student, it usually can wait.
 
Beyond the issue of email attachments (and printing said- wow, you really are old school) I think you hit on what faculty don't know about administrators. Administrators are expected to know almost everything about everything while faculty know everything about their one thing.

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.

C1
 
Just a short defense of faculty and their blissful ignorance:

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?
 
I've been told--but I don't know for sure--to attach long documents to email messages because an attachment uses 'way less space on the server (or somewhere).

Of course email messages and attachments that say the same thing are a waste of time.
 
Attachments, especially Word documents, use more space than simply typing the text in an email.

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!
 
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