Some professors thrive on using email to engage students. Take John Whittier-Ferguson, a University of Michigan English professor, whose students email him for help mastering the finer points of essay writing. In any given class, about a third of his students take advantage of his offer to provide e-feedback, each exchanging around 40 meaty emails with him over the course of a term.
Many professors, however, see having email as a go-to communication as a huge headache.
Consider these examples of real emails professors have received:
“Can you send me your lecture notes from the class I skipped yesterday?”
“I was late to class on Monday because I drank too much at a party.”
“Should I buy a binder or a subject notebook?”
Whether intellectual or imbecilic, all those emails add up to a lot of extra work for already overstretched college faculty. In fact, a recent study at the University of South Australia suggests university employees perceive higher levels of email overload than their peers in other industries.
In a comparison between the university’s academic and professional staff, the academics were hit the hardest—they received, sent and read more emails than their professional counterparts.
No time for teaching?
Many universities expect professors to spend at least 60 percent of their work time teaching and the rest on research and service. But an ongoing study by Boise State University on how professors manage their time has found that university faculty spend 13 percent of their workday on email alone.
Add to that the time they spend in meetings, and a full 30 percent of faculty time is “spent on activities that are not traditionally thought of as part of the life of an academic,” said John Ziker, chair of Boise State University’s anthropology department.
Traditional part of academic life or not, many professors feel pressured to stay on top of their email. In the academic world, where it’s publish or die, they can’t afford to miss an important email related to their research. And with tenure prospects often resting heavily on student evaluations, they can’t afford to alienate students by not responding.
So to achieve the required teaching ratio—or the appearance of it, at least—many professors end up clocking 60-hour work weeks.
Who’s teaching the teachers?
Despite their heavier email load, academics are less likely than professionals to manage their inboxes effectively, the Australian study found. Yet they also place higher value on email.
“We would suggest that email overload typifies the working environment … in modern universities, pointing to the importance of training staff in email management strategies for improving productivity and well-being,” said research author Dr. Silvia Pignata.
Given email’s importance in research and teaching, what professors need most is help managing the email flood. Although academics are more likely than professionals to restrict when they check their email, they drop the ball when it comes to filing messages.
Training on effective email use, combined with robust inbox management tools, can help university faculty streamline their inboxes and spend less time sifting out the dross.
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