Today was definitely one of those “I’m not alive until I’ve had three cups of coffee” types of days.
As the head of outreach for an academic library, I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to communicate with other people. Most of my job involves bringing people together, managing projects that involve multiple units, and keeping the right people in the loop at the right times.
Determining the best method of communication is worth a little extra time and hand-wringing: do these people respond well to meeting invites? does this person prefer a phone call? when is the best time to reach them? do they typically reply to email quickly or slowly?
Like most modern offices, email is the predominant form of communication in my place of work. I’ve come to dislike email more and more over the years but I’ve also spent considerable time developing a very particular style of emailing that, for me, tends to produce the best results.
I created the following best practices document for my team. I hope you find it useful as well. A list of sources for many of these ideas is at the end.
Email tip #1: Lead with your ask
Determine what action you want the recipient to perform or what piece of information you want them to provide. That request should appear within in the first three sentences (and end with a line break). For example:
Thank you for meeting with me today to review the draft of our event poster. Can you confirm by Friday if we are OK to print?
Email tip #2: Keep it short
The shorter your email the more likely it is that someone will respond. If you need to include a lot of information, consider creating an “appendix”. For example:
Thank you for meeting with me today. Here is the draft of the document we discussed (below). Can you confirm by Friday if this is Ok to print?
Email tip #3: Use formatting to highlight the most important info
Recognize that many people will be powering through their email as quickly as possible. The easier you can make it for them to scan your email, the better. Use bold, bulleted text (lots of bullets), hyperlinks (for additional info), frequent paragraph breaks, and headers to make it easier for your reader to identify the most important information.
Email tip #4: Use clear subject lines
Cryptic or unclear subject lines cause more anxiety and confusion than interest. A good subject line summarizes your email so the recipient knows the gist of the content before it’s even opened. Is your email an invitation? An ask? Just an FYI or “for your records” type of email? I prefer to always lead with context and end with an action or ask. For example:
- Common Book: Selecting our shortlist nominations – deadline March 1
- For Tom Jarvis: An invitation to be a 2020-21 Faculty Pub Night Speaker
- LNAP 2020: Where are we on the donations from housing?
- FYI. Lali has approved the following events. No action needed.
Using unique phrases, dates, and proper names also makes it easier to find later.
Email tip #5: Don’t make your recipient do the work
Give your recipient clear outcomes or expectations about how you want them to respond to your email. You might even consider giving them a list of options. For example:
I’m so glad you’re on board with being a participant in our workshop next week. I need to finalize the catering so can you please let me know which of the following options you prefer?
A) Light fare and tea
B) Coffee and dessert
C) Champagne and cake
You should also offer a “default” option in case they don’t respond, e.g. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll go with Option A.
Email tip #6: Be thankful of their time and attention
This probably goes without saying, but always recognize that email sucks our attention away from more impactful work and thank people for taking the time to consider your request.
Email tip #7: Move people to BCC when they need to be dropped from the chain
If someone is on the CC line and they no longer need to be on the message, move them to the BCC line and note that you’re doing it in the email. For example:
Since Javier and I have this covered moving forward, I’m going to drop James into the BCC line (thanks James!) …
Email tip #8: Edit ruthlessly
If you can cut anything, cut it. If you can make it shorter, make it shorter. Realize that many people will hastily read your email or possibly read it on a mobile device (30% and growing at mpow).
Email tip #9: Tell people what you plan to do next
Always let people know what your next action will be once they respond to your message. For example:
Tom, can you confirm that this class is coming to our event tomorrow? Once you confirm, I’ll let our event planner know so we can reserve their seats.
It’s also good to let people know when you will follow up. It puts pressure on them to respond sooner. For example:
Tom, can you let me know what the next steps will be re: the website migration? I understand you’re busy with other projects, so I’ll follow up with a phone call in a week if I don’t hear from you.
Other things to note
Email is not chat (Pick up the phone or use chat)
If you have more than one ask, if you expect your email to generate a lot of replies back and forth, if your ask is time-sensitive, or if you have an ask that is sensitive or complicated, consider using the phone instead. If it’s simple enough, use chat. If you have anxieties about calling someone, ask yourself: What anxieties do I have about this ask? The answer might be revealing. (Note: that same question can be asked whenever you hesitate about sending an email… the answer can help you clarify your ask)
Email supports our work, but email is not work.
If you’re spending most of your time emailing people, you’re probably not focusing on the right things. (This may not be true for all work in higher ed, but most of it). You might also be unnecessarily making more work for other people rather than doing the work yourself. Most of all, emailing doesn’t count/matter until you’ve closed the loop on the issue.
Avoid emailing after hours.
This one is tricky because not everyone works the same hours. For sure, don’t email after hours and expect a response. If I do find myself writing email outside normal business hours, I usually save them as drafts and send them during the next business day. There is some evidence to show that emails sent late morning are the ones most likely to get a response (because by then people have had a change to clean out their inboxes). More importantly though, emailing after hours sets up unhealthy expectations within your team and with your colleagues.
This evening, I had the pleasure of attending a discussion between Brian Stelter, host of the CNN show Reliable Sources, and Carol Costello, former host of CNN Newsroom. Their conversation floated effortlessly over, through, and between topics such as misinformation, the impact of mainstream media outlets like CNN and FoxNews, the Trump presidency, the intersection of journalism and entertainment, and social media. At one point in the conversation, Stelter reflected upon how social media has changed in the last decade, from the heyday of blogging and SMS-based Twitter to the notably ugly situation we are in now.
As someone who moved into adulthood during the emergence of “Web 2.0,” I often catch myself looking back longingly on the internet of the 21st century’s mid-aughts. Many of my friends and colleagues built careers, passions, and communities of practice that propelled them to where they are now through the connections they built in these proto-social media spaces. Some of those friends and colleagues have now left those spaces behind, leaving them to the wolves of hate, cynicism, and always-on indignation. These things have always existed on the internet, but their pervasiveness now feels unstoppable. It feels woven directly into the fabric of the web. To go online is to experience violence.
Nonetheless, I still have a small hope that we can make it through this time into something less violent, less polarizing, and less destructive to our civic discourse. I don’t know what that thing will be, but when I reflect upon how much the digital landscape has changed in just 10 years, I can imagine something entirely other taking its place in the next 10 years; and I invite it to arise.
Two years ago I quit LinkedIn. Last year, I erased by Facebook footprint. This year, I’m slowly letting go of Twitter. I don’t miss these things as they are in their current states, but I miss what they used to be (well, except LinkedIn. That was always a mess). Most of all, I miss the hope and optimism many of us held for these platforms.
This video hits close to home. I think most of my anxiety about work can be attributed to a habit of ruminating rather than recharging. This quote in particular struck me as telling:
“We don’t stress about work at work the same way we stress about work at home.”Guy Winch
I’ve been giving more thought to how I can do better at compartmentalizing my job. I’m forcing myself to sleep instead of working an extra 2-3 hours every evening. I’ve turned off push notifications from almost all of my mobile services. Moreover, I’ve been working to stop thinking of my profession as a part of my identity.
Me [driving to kids’ daycare]: Hey Amiens, have you noticed that there are hardly any trees on Kenyon Ave?
Amiens (4): Maybe a beaver got loose in the neighborhood and cut them all down.
My son’s world is infinitely more exciting than my own.
“The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”Source: The Once and Future King, T.H. White (h/t Brain Pickings
Three posts on student surveillance at colleges and universities came through my feeds recently.
From Drew Harwell at The Washington Post, “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands” focuses primarily on the SpotterEDU app, which calls itself an “automated attendance monitoring and early alerting platform” and is utilized by athletics departments to
monitor track student athletes.
Harwell’s article is full of quotes from IHE staff that are troubling at best and illustrate an ignorance about the [lack of] actual benefits that these tracking systems provide and a blind belief in the unconfirmed benefits of “big data.” As one librarian quoted in the article notes, IHE’s are completely missing the point:
“[The use of these systems] embodies a very cynical view of education — that it’s something we need to enforce on students, almost against their will,” said Erin Rose Glass, a digital scholarship librarian at the University of California San Diego. “We’re reinforcing this sense of powerlessness … when we could be asking harder questions, like: Why are we creating institutions where students don’t want to show up?”Source: “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands”, Washington Post
Furthermore, these systems tend to reinforce white, upper-middle class expectations of “normal” student activity, putting students from already vulnerable populations into even more vulnerable positions. Jenny Davis, responding to Harwell’s article, writes:
“These tracking technologies veer towards [mechanisms of control], portending a very near future in which extrinsic accountability displaces intrinsic motivation and data extraction looms inevitable. […] Speaking of data extraction, these tracking technologies run on data. Data is a valuable resource. Historically, valuable resources are exploited to the benefit of those in power and the detriment of those in positions of disadvantage.”Source: “A Clear Care for Resisting Student Tracking”, Cyborgology
Finally, Erin Glass (the librarian quoted above), has provided a useful “Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom.” I especially love #2, 4 and 5:
2. “Inform your students on your syllabus — say, by adding a sentence or two in that section about academic integrity — that many of the technologies they use to support their educational activities likely practice forms of data collection that are ethically dubious even if legally accepted.”
4. “Ask students to make a list of at least ten digital tools they’ve used formally or informally in the most recent two months of their educational activities. […] Ask each student to (a) find and (b) copy/paste at least one ToS into a clean text-searchable file. Then spend a meeting engaging in some good ol’ close reading of these Terms as a class and discussing.”
5. “Get to know your campus IT.”Source: “Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom . . . next term!”, HASTAC
Librarians, whether they teach classes or not, might consider starting #4 on their own to learn more about the systems they use and encourage students to use. With our core professional values to support us, there’s a good chance we will be the last holdouts on this trend toward increased surveillance of student life. Let’s get in-formation.
This year, I want to change the way I experience the internet. In both architecture and rhetoric, we talk about ductus: simply put, the way in which the pathway influences our experience of the content. Imagine entering a cathedral and moving from a small, enclosed narthex to the nave and into the crossing. The experience of the space is very different than if you had entered from the porch’s side entrance.
I want to forcibly change my experience of the web by building a new path. A slower path. A quieter path. At the risk of sounding like an aging technologist who first surfed the World Wide Web from a dial-up modem (which I did), I want to recreate to the extent possible that experience. Fewer inputs. Smaller circles. Less connection.
Social media offers us a great, almost irresistible level of connection, but it never stops moving. I want to find space to disconnect, reflect, and muddle about. I want richer content with less focus on personal brands. I want cool takes. I want the ability to disconnect for days without consequence. I don’t want the pressure of real-time information.
These are some of the initial steps I’m taking to create a quieter internet for myself:
- remove social media apps from my mobile device
- stop posting to social media (I may allow myself 2-3 tweets per week)
- set up an RSS reader on my desktop machine
- subscribe to a small, manageable selection of feeds
- when I feel the urge to surf, scroll or wander, start at metafilter, LibraryThing, or a random wikipedia page
- spend time curating my bookmarks (possibly revisiting old ones)
- share my thoughts and findings here
Some say the heyday of blogging is over. Google Reader is dead (may it live on forever in our memory) and many of the great blogs of the late aughts and early teens have gone silent, but it is still possible to find quality, long(er)-form content out there. This new year, I want to go back on an RSS-based diet.
As I putter around the office today in anticipation of the deluge that the next few weeks will bring, I keep thinking about this line from one of Marianne Moore’s poems:
There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious fastidiousness.“Critics and Connoisseurs” from Selected Poems (1935)
If libraries simply report outputs as we always have, we run the risk of someone else dictating our worth.Meredith Farkas, “Your Library’s Story”
I think about this potential pitfall frequently. Even more so, I worry about how relying on traditional metrics creates eyes-glazed-over reactions from stakeholders who already struggle to remember how libraries’ play a necessary and invaluable role in higher education.
Libraries are essential to the educational mission of the university, but we have become so very efficient at integrating into that mission that we’ve become invisible. While I knee-jerkingly resist worn out tropes about librarians, I sometimes find it valuable to play on these archetypes in my outreach and communications work.
Over the centuries, we’ve gotten pretty good at developing workflows that maximize our ability to support IHEs. Libraries and the work they do are certainly not without problems, but considering all that we do for our students and faculty, especially in the areas of collection development and research support, we are a damn fine and extraordinary machine. That outputs that we’ve traditionally reported to stakeholders were, for decades, the simplest distillation of an extremely complex operation.
But these outputs were predicated on a false ideal of “growth.” Academic libraries today don’t need to show evidence of growth as much as they need to show evidence of enrichment. As Farkas says, we need to showcase “how patrons use the library and its effect on their lives.” And we need to drive that message home.