Eaten by E-mail

By Anna Curtis, Jennifer Lundquist, Abby Templer, and Joya Misra

How many times a day do faculty members check e-mail? How often do they send work e-mails in the evenings or over the weekend? Do students or colleagues expect faculty to reply to e-mails within twenty-four hours or in far less time? How can we change the university culture to keep up with technology?

E-mail plays a large role in the work lives of most Americans, and American academics are no exception. In just two decades, the use of e-mail in academia has changed drastically. In 1999, a study by Ananda Mitra in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication on the use of e-mail among faculty found that more than half had never used e-mail to communicate with on-campus colleagues (60.5 percent) or students (56.2 percent). Indeed, in the late 1990s, the institutional infrastructure to support widespread use of electronic mail was still taking shape. A decade later, e-mail was so integral to academic life that, on conducting a survey of faculty, we didn’t consider asking faculty whether they use e-mail to communicate with colleagues and students, and 97 percent of our respondents (who received both a paper survey and a link to an online survey) filled out our survey online.

While the use of e-mail has become widespread over the last decade, the development of policies, rules, and etiquette around its use in colleges and universities has been haphazard at best. Unfettered e-mail expectations create misunderstandings between colleagues, as well as between students and faculty; they lead to increased “bleed” between work and home and create inefficiencies as well as stress. It is time for universities to implement e-mail policies aimed at improving workplace conditions for faculty and maintaining the quality of communication with students. The dissemination of a consistent set of guidelines to colleges and universities could help change expectations regarding electronic mail.

In our study, based on surveys and focus group interviews with faculty at a large public university, faculty described the use of e-mail as “one of the banes of my life,” “truly overwhelming,” “massive,” “excessive,” and “an overload.” Many faculty noted that the high volume of e-mail from colleagues and students generates an all-encompassing e-mail culture, seeping into time outside of work. Faculty members commented that e-mail turns “home into [the] workplace” and heightens expectations that there should be “24/7 access” to faculty. Multiple faculty members reported that because they receive e-mail from students and colleagues at all times, they feel obligated to answer e-mail “on weekends and evenings,” as well as during the “summer when we are not supposed to be working here.” Another participant noted that while e-mail has sped up communication, it “very often spills into home life.” Making the point that e-mail exacerbates an already “workaholic” culture, another faculty member said: “E-mail makes it worse. You can take it [work] home with you, and be reached about it.” Another wrote: “E-mails come in such a volume that I really don’t have a reflective sense of how I parse my time on them.”

E-mail has created a new set of expectations about response time and availability for university faculty and instructors; namely, that faculty are expected to respond immediately and to be available at all hours of the day, as Jerry Jacobs discovered. While e-mail may increase the amount of communication between students and faculty, it can also create communication that is condensed, low-quality, and superficial; a two-sentence e-mail exchange simply cannot replace a ten-minute visit during office hours. University e-mail policies rarely address expectations between faculty and undergraduates or among faculty (for example, intradepartmental or collegial e-mails). And yet, it is this kind of interactive e-mail correspondence, where response is expected within a window of time, that may cause the most stress. In their 2006 article in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, Ramsay Renaud and Mario Hair reported computer-monitoring data showing that academics checked their e-mail between thirty to forty times per hour, disrupting workflow and reducing productivity.

Research documenting the constant nature of electronic communication finds that it blurs the boundaries between work and home for other workers as well. The Pew Research Center, which tracks Internet usage in the United States, found that as of May 2013, 85 percent of Americans go online (up from 14 percent in 1995). In 2005, the US Census issued a report on computer and Internet use in the United States. Researchers Jennifer Day, Alex Janus, and Jessica Davis found that between 1984 and 2003 the number of households with a computer increased from 8 percent to 62 percent. Furthermore, 42 percent of adults reported using the Internet at work. Similarly, according to Michael Bugeja, writing in Education Digest in 2006, e-mail and the expectation of a fast response can “stalk” someone through a vacation, encourage thoughtless or tactless responses, and undermine effective communication among colleagues. E-mail also creates unattainable expectations regarding response time, availability, and communication.

We found that faculty concerns over e-mail primarily relate to students’ and colleagues’ expectations. Faculty argued that students expected immediate responses and responses at all hours. Faculty also noted that students ask for information that is readily available (online or in the syllabus) and e-mail rather than come to office hours. Faculty reported that some students “freak out” when their e-mail expectations are not met. This combination can cause interpersonal problems between faculty and students, diminish undergraduate classroom experiences, and cause high levels of faculty stress.

While individual faculty members in our focus group noted that they set limitations on e-mail access (such as a twenty-four-hour response time), either through their syllabus or announcements in class, they found that this was more likely to lead to negative student evaluations regarding the faculty member’s availability and accessibility to students. For new and untenured faculty, poor scores on teaching evaluations can have serious consequences. Faculty recommended a standard university policy outlining reasonable expectations for communication between faculty and undergraduates so that individual faculty members are not penalized for being unable to respond to e-mails “sent at 1 a.m. by 8:30 a.m. the next morning.”

Faculty also complained about norms regarding e-mail communication within their department or between colleagues. Some felt that fellow faculty members and administrators expect instant responses at all hours of the day, including when faculty are at home in the evening or on weekends. Additionally, faculty and administrators often send attachments late in the day for meetings that are happening the next morning, expecting colleagues to prepare for meetings in the evening. As one faculty member stated, “[They think that] because they can send you an attachment instantly, you can read it instantly.” Another untenured faculty member described just how extensive the consequences can be for unmet e-mail expectations: “I am in the process of writing a large grant. I went out of town to Boston on Friday and one of my collaborators e-mailed me at 9 a.m., and then sent three other e-mails. By 3 p.m., she e-mailed back to say she would no longer collaborate because I had not responded to her e-mail. I was out of town!” When focus group members were asked if they set limitations with peers (as some do with undergraduates), none of the participants admitted to setting such guidelines, and many expressed discomfort at the idea.

While faculty members express anxiety about managing e-mail, they also clearly believe in the positive possibilities of electronic communication. For example, some faculty respondents credited e-mail with allowing them to work from home during periods of intensive caregiving. Given e-mail’s potential to help keep faculty connected to colleagues and students, it is important to minimize the negative aspects of electronic mail within the university community while allowing for its more positive, efficient uses. The challenge lies less in putting such solutions into place than in changing institutional and department culture to adopt a new e-mail regime.

Biting Back

Electronic communication is here to stay, and an organized, collective response is the most effective way to develop a healthy e-mail culture. The recommendations below should be taken as a starting point for what we think is an important conversation about the role of e-mail in work-life balance among faculty. While a rigidly enforced e-mail protocol is undesirable, university-level guidelines could help reduce faculty stress and miscommunication that could affect personnel decisions, as well as help faculty determine when it’s okay just to say “no” to replying immediately to e-mails.

For students: An official e-mail protocol should encourage undergraduates to meet with faculty during office hours. Office hours are highly underutilized on campus, most likely because they have been increasingly replaced by e-mail correspondence. Some faculty reported that they use a canned reply message to student e-mails, requesting that students come in for an office visit rather than discuss course issues by e-mail. We recommend that universities adopt a guide for class e-mail etiquette and require mention of this etiquette in all faculty syllabi. This policy should also be posted on the university website and included as part of student orientation; students will benefit if they learn in college not to expect immediate responses to e-mails. Such e-mail protocols can emphasize legitimate turnaround time for e-mails (for example, forty-eight hours and no e-mails on weekends) and guidelines on how to communicate effectively in e-mail (creating specific e-mail titles, how to use a smiley-face emoticon properly, and NO SHOUTING). Cornell University, for example, has put into place such an e-mail protocol, though its protocol focuses more on helping people learn basic e-mail etiquette than on setting out recommendations regarding timing of e-mails.

Communicating with colleagues: Universities should also adopt a weekday, working-hour approach to e-mail. Once expectations are established—for example, a forty-eight-hour lag time and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday “hours” for e-mail—faculty will be less stressed and spend less time needlessly checking e-mail. Attachments necessary for meetings should be sent forty-eight hours ahead of a meeting time. New faculty could receive information about university e-mail protocol as part of their fall orientation, and this information should also be posted on the university website and pointed out to faculty each year. A standardized e-mail protocol should remind faculty to make an effort to not send group-reply e-mails except when essential, to resist the urge to send trivial e-mail, and to replace detailed or sensitive e-mail interactions with face-to-face meetings or phone calls when possible.

The volume and the function of electronic communication have evolved rapidly in the workplace. This has led to many important innovations in the university setting, but feedback from faculty suggests that without limits, e-mail can take on an unwelcome life of its own. While electronic communication may speed efficiency, it does so at the cost of personal time during the evening and on weekends. Furthermore, when the volume of unregulated e-mail reaches the point where students and colleagues use it in place of other forms of communication, time spent replying to e-mail can quickly become counterproductive. In the past, forms of communication were far slower, setting more reasonable expectations for response times and limiting what could be accomplished in non-face-to-face encounters. As a result, there was little need for an official standardization of such communications. Quickly evolving technologies like e-mail, however, call for ongoing and thoughtful consideration of how we can best use them to our advantage. As one faculty member pointed out during a focus group: “I wish there was something the university could do to put limits on this. . . . The university didn’t need to worry about it before; it is a product of new technology that allows for instant communication. Think about the days of the memo, twenty years ago, when someone would write a memo, and then put it into campus mail, and it would take a week to get there.” Creating a standardized protocol for university-wide e-mail interaction is a crucial first step in placing limits on e-mail overload and establishing a healthy electronic communication culture for faculty, students, staff, and administrators.


Anna Curtis ([email protected]) is a visiting assistant professor at Skidmore College. Jennifer Lundquist ([email protected]) is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Abby Templer ([email protected]) is a PhD student in the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Joya Misra ([email protected]) is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The authors try very hard never to read e-mails on Saturdays or in the evening.