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.