Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sifting Unto Truth

The vacation was great, but I returned to the predictably impressive backlogs of email. The post-vacation email sift is always dispiriting. Some of it is easy to discard without reading: the usual spam, out-of-the-office notices, traffic alerts, etc. The dreary part is the urgent-but-not-important stuff that needs to be done Right Now, dated the middle of last week.

Every day brings some of that, but the post-vacation mail sort concentrates the process, bringing a deadening weight to something that’s usually tolerated via small doses.

Getting a week’s worth in one sitting is unnervingly clarifying. I hadn’t quite faced how much of the day-to-day part of the job consists of nudging people to do stuff that they don’t want to do (and that I know they don’t want to do). It’s particularly bad over the summer, when many department chairs decide that they’re really faculty for summer purposes.

The close variation on that is the dreaded carbon copy (remember carbons?). Email makes cc’ing people much too easy, and as a dean, I’m treated to a steady flurry of cc’s of heated email exchanges between verbal combatants (student-faculty, adjunct-chair, faculty-chair, etc.). Usually, they wait until the conflict has reached a certain level before one of the combatants starts to cc me; at that point, I get a copy of everything. My job is to read backwards, try to reconstruct just what the bleep they’re actually talking about (with the first volley of messages sucked into the ether), and then try to remember to take whatever action seemed appropriate (which is often either nothing at all, or a request for clarification, which generates yet more emails). It’s sort of an electronic palimpsest, except that it gets longer even as I read. Even more tedious is the thoughtful combatant who cc’d me, the VP, and the President. At that point, guessing whether it’s even appropriate to respond (and thereby, implicitly, to preempt my superiors) adds another level of complexity. As a result, occasionally, nobody responds. It’s the easy fly ball dropping between frozen outfielders. If you want a response, address your message accordingly.

One day at a time, it isn’t so bad; a week in a sitting ain’t for the fainthearted.

I’m constantly amazed at how many faculty haven’t mastered the idiom of email. While it’s true that email is remarkably fast to arrive, like speech, it’s also permanent, like memos. Too many don’t grasp the second point, and just fire away in email, with cc’s to all and sundry. As a student of human behavior, some of it is quite revealing, but as a manager, it’s just a pain. Note to young faculty out there: if you’re engaged in an email battle with anybody, remember that what you write can (and will) be quoted later.

I used to wait until the first day back in the office before trying to sift, but found that just sorting through the paperwork and dealing with drop-bys makes the sift take too long, and I wind up feeling overwhelmed and forgetting half of what I read. So I get a jump on the email from home, even at the cost of killing the vacation buzz, just so I won’t be blindsided the first day back. It’s not ideal, but I haven’t found the ideal yet.

Denial mechanisms are important. I hadn’t even realized that I used time-spacing as a way to not notice just how much of my work is dreary. Now I’m down one denial mechanism. Bummer.

Maybe if I wear sunscreen to the office the first day back, the smell will let me believe that I’m still on the sand. Hmm...