One day, when email was catching on as a normal mode of student–faculty communication, a student approached me after class to inquire about my health.
She explained that since I had taken more than 24 hours to reply to her email, she thought I must be in the hospital or something. It was then that it hit home that it was a new day.
Office hours, when a few hours a week are set aside for students to visit a professor in his office—a given time and place—were over. Now, I was expected to be accessible all the time and wherever I was. My time was no longer my own. It was one way in which technological advances were making the uninterrupted focus and concentration needed for scholarly work ever more difficult to sustain in the modern university.
This experience came to mind when I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work,” which argued that the knowledge economy—with its new technologies—undervalued uninterrupted concentration and overvalued convenience and flexibility. His new article asks, “Is Email Making Professors More Stupid?”
Put differently, the concern is that professors are less able to address the central research and education functions of the university.
As universities equipped their faculties with personal computers, email accounts, and word processors, they cut out most of the administrative support they provided for faculty. Professors could type and send their own memos, letters, and expense claims. They learned to type up their own syllabi and other course materials. They became accessible, not only to colleagues they collaborated with in their areas of research, but also to students, administrators, and the world beyond.
“Faculty life,” says Newport, “now means contending with an unending stream of electronic missives, many of which come with an expectation of rapid reply.” Demands increased on a professor’s time and attention, “making email into a kind of digital water torture for the scholar struggling to think without interruption.”
In the rest of the world, professors are a privileged group, with high status and low workloads, so their complaints about being interrupted by emails may look self-serving and elicit little sympathy—like the grumbling of the affluent about how hard it is to get good help these days.
There’s much to complain about in higher education—for example, its skyrocketing cost, the ideological conformity, and intolerance of conservative or Christian viewpoints, the coddling of students, the growth of bureaucracy, and full professors who leave much of the teaching to their junior colleagues and graduate students, among other issues.
I want to suggest, though, that we take seriously Newport’s argument about the negative impact of email and what he calls the “hyperactive digital distraction and onerous administrative burdens” that strangle productivity and make people miserable.
The issue goes beyond the work satisfaction of an elite. The deterioration in working conditions about which professors complain reflects and furthers the decline in quality and the increase in costs of higher education. The university’s benefit to society and the culture deteriorates, while its corrosive effects on society increase as the costs go up. Email enables this decline and is one expression of it.
Decluttering or Reducing Workload?
The growth in university bureaucracy makes matters worse. The University of Michigan, often cited as an example of this expansion, has a vice-provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer who is paid some $400,000 per year and has a staff of nearly 100. Such expansion reflects political pressures, legal requirements, and accreditation standards.
It increases the costs of higher education, but also burdens the time and attention of faculty with tasks, trainings, bureaucratic goals, assessments, and visions.
All this activity required an increased flow of communication between administration and faculty that email made possible. Newport cites a 2014 faculty time-use study that found the average professor “spent a little over 60 hours a week working, with 30 percent of that time dedicated to email and meetings.”
Faculty time was filling up with busy work, Newport notes. Research and teaching were being squeezed. The monastic environment in which scholarship had thrived was giving way to a workplace in which scholars became middle managers. Focused thought gave way to distraction.
There’s an urgent need for administrative decluttering, Newport argues. The work culture of universities needs to change so as “to provide professors more uninterrupted time for thinking and teaching, and require less time on email and administrative duties.”
Newport mentions two famous professors who came up with their own personal solutions. Donald Knuth, one of the world’s most famous computer scientists, is an emeritus professor at Stanford. As of Jan. 1, 1990, he no longer had an email address, relying instead on snail mail letters, which an administrative assistant prioritizes to separate urgent correspondence from the rest. He reviews the latter about once every three months.
Another approach, adopted by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, is to shirk administrative responsibilities by cultivating a myth of irresponsibility, making sure that no administrator would rely on him to take on administrative responsibilities that could be assigned to a colleague.
Both Knuth and Feynman were exceptionally distinguished. Knuth was both an emeritus professor (i.e., retired) and had his own assistant, something afforded few professors these days, unless they are administrators. The Feynman approach is obviously unfair and depends on having a thick skin. In Newport’s words, it “rewards those few individuals who happen to be born with an unusually low level of agreeableness—enforcing an implicit niceness tax on everyone else.”
Newport recommends instead a general restructuring of workloads so that the amount of time a professor is expected to devote to service is made specific and explicit; thus, the tradeoffs are made clear and service expectations vary, according to the professor’s career stage—creating new courses, working toward tenure, running a department, and so on.
That’s the approach I have generally experienced, however imperfectly, subjectively, and arbitrarily administered. The difficulty is that few professors are as brilliant or distinguished as Feynman or Knuth. Not all will use the work time that such methods free up by increasing their deep thinking, focus, and concentration. Some will spend the time, on or off their computers, in even more distracting activities.
Professors who attract well-funded research grants will as likely be relieved of teaching as of service responsibilities. They use grant money to buy themselves out of teaching courses.
No Easy Solutions
There are no easy solutions, from the point of view of professors or of those who pay for them. Higher education must renew its commitment to education and research, to enhancing and transmitting the knowledge and wisdom of our culture.
A place to start is to ask whether burgeoning administrative tasks and use of email help or hinder achieving the fundamental purposes of the university and its contribution to society and the common good.
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.