From The Chronicle of Higher Education issue dated March 3, 2000


E-Mail and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I used to pooh-pooh e-mail as a harbinger of the death of literate culture, though I suspect the cause of my disdain was really my being simply too cheap to buy a new computer. My old 286 was little more than a glorified typewriter, but perfectly serviceable. What did I need but a typewriter? I even toyed with the idea of chucking computers altogether, becoming one of those writers whose photos show them posed with their manual Olivetti. That picture fit the image of myself that I had back in those days, when I was one of those annoying people who didn't have a television and liked to slip that fact into the conversation whenever they got the chance.

But then what happened was that a particularly rainy winter befell Washington State, where I was spending my sabbatical, and at the height of March's doldrums, I broke down and bought a laptop. Of course, once I had the computer, I thought my life would be enhanced by e-mail. And when I returned to teaching, I further thought my life would somehow be made easier if I used this technology in which I was newly baptized to communicate with my students.

Using e-mail seemed appropriate and convenient for a number of reasons. I teach creative writing and have long felt compelled to scribble in the margins of my students' work. Recently, however, the multiple sclerosis that I've had for years has begun to affect my handwriting, and typing is now much easier for me, not to mention legible for those who try to read what I have written. Also, for the past decade, I've regularly commuted cross-country. E-mail, I figured, would allow me to communicate with students even when I was out of town, streamlining my workload during the breaks. I could read their poems and zap them my reponses. A secondary advantage would be that the poems would thereby remain "clean," untainted by my comments, which I'd always insisted should not usurp the students' authority over their own work.

What I'd not realized before embarking on this experiment is the cultural baggage that e-mail carries with it. I had only a passing acquaintance with the cybermeaning of the word flame, which my husband, Jim, had to define for me. I'd been reading an M.S. bulletin board on which a woman had posted a series of expletive-laced messages about a plot that she said was being mounted by the board's other habitues to assassinate her character. I told Jim that I couldn't understand why people whose lives already gave them ample need for solace would want to spend their free time engaging in that kind of conversation. Then he explained the first rule of cyberspace: Never assume the writer is not a 12-year-old boy.

But by the Thanksgiving break, my penmanship had begun to resemble dust tracks left by a chicken, and that's when I collected e-mail addresses and told the class that I'd send my comments to anyone who was amenable to getting them that way. We were closing in on the end of the semester, and I figured that e-mail's speed would appeal to those students who wanted as much time as possible to work. At home, I blazed through their batches of poems, which included one presented as a brief play in three acts, written by a man whom I'll call Student X. The play was a monologue railing against some ambiguous authoritarian entity, and though I praised the poem's language and energy, I also said that I found the speaker's nihilism juvenile. (In class we had often discussed the business of not confusing the autobiographical writer with the poem's speaker.) Then I clicked the "send" button and was free to enjoy my turkey.

When I got back to the Midwest, I found an e-mail from my department chair. It said he'd received Student X's evaluation of me and my class, and that "I shouldn't worry about it overmuch." In horror I scrolled down and opened Student X's e-mail, which pronounced my class "time wasted" and me a teacher who didn't "make the effort to really read." It concluded by announcing that he would no longer be attending the class, and that this communique would serve as his class evaluation. Clicking back to the letter from my chair, I read on to learn that a hard copy was going into my file, where it would doubtless remain forever.

Of course I was hurt, because this happened to be from a person whose intellect I respected, although I know he annoyed other people in the class by talking too much, and by using the white space on the poems he photocopied to plug other projects, like his online radio station and his band (if band is what you call it when the music's made by just one person). I thought, however, that I had defended Student X, whose ideas had merit even when they were expressed at too great a length, and whose unwillingness to waste paper appealed to the environmentalist in me. Besides, I am the kind of person who would, as a knee-jerk reflex, be drawn to any band named Electric Kitten Vomit.

I also wondered why Student X had never spoken to me about his discontent, when I fancied myself an approachable professor, one whom most students call by her first name. To form a scab over the incident, I've heaped the blame on computer culture, where interpersonal problems often are not negotiated before one starts to rant about them. Most undergraduates today have grown up online, and I wonder how the computer has shaped their idea of written communication. I also wonder how many of them have written actual pen-and-paper letters, which more or less mandate that the writer provide such archaic courtesies as a "Dear" salutation and a "Sincerely" sign-off.

E-mail, of course, comes with no such courtesies (sorry, those stupid sideways smiley faces don't count), and no mechanisms to slow or halt bursting into flames. The letter doesn't sit in its envelope on the hall table while the writer sleeps on what he or she has said before walking to the mailbox in the morning. Instead, with a mouse click, the mail is not only dropped into the box but also delivered. In my case, I never took the time to consider whether I might have chosen a more diplomatic word than "juvenile" in my comments to Student X about his poetry. In his case, Student X didn't realize that his e-mailed critique of my class would have been more effective if he hadn't at the same time announced to my chair that he wasn't returning to the chair's class, either.

Some years back, a friend -- who is much less technophobic than I am -- used e-mail in her composition class and then used the class to examine the nature of e-mail. After printing some of the class's mail with the names taken off, she asked her students to speculate about the character of the writer of each sample. Mostly they were horrified by how uncivil they came off in print; they claimed that their tone was merely a byproduct of the haste with which the writing was produced. Not surprisingly, one result of those investigations was that my friend stopped giving out her e-mail address to students. What's more, she estimates that 20 percent of her working hours was being spent on e-mail.

As for me, I wish I could say that my run-in with Student X was an isolated event, but there was another complaint that arose from my electronic experimentation. I'd had to go into the hospital for a few days, a visit that I scheduled at the end of the semester, when I figured I could use the downtime to do my grading. My laptop did, I admit, bring some spice to hospital life. I took special delight in dialing into the Academy of American Poets to hear the thunderous voices of Dylan Thomas and Ezra Pound. ("Who's she talking to behind that curtain?," I could hear everyone whispering.)

But I realized that I was an idiot to say that I'd e-mail students their final comments and grades. Naturally, a student immediately complained about a grade and mentioned a grievance. I longed to zap back: Give me a break, I'm in the frigging hospital! I restrained myself, knowing that e-mail breeds more e-mail, and at the same time wishing there was some way to convey my true location. Because e-mail can come from anywhere, it seems to come from nowhere, and that is both its mystery and its curse.

Anyway, I've sort of halfheartedly considered selling my laptop and going back to the 286, because I've noticed that the amount of time I spend writing and reading has declined. My problem is that I feel obligated to attend to all of the information that finds its way into my life, whether it be e-mail or the horoscope posted on the "start page" that my Internet service provides. I confess: I am not a very discerning person. Deep down, I know that the real reason I once did not want to own a TV is because everything TV presents is equally interesting to me. The computer, with its infinite array of choices, makes me very anxious indeed, and the only way I can deal with that anxiety is to permit myself to look at almost none of what it offers -- the way an agoraphobe responds to the limitless world by not leaving the house.

That is why I never looked at the Web site of Electric Kitten Vomit: Who knows where I'd end up if I allowed myself to go down that road?

But yes, I do have cable TV, which, by comparison, seems almost quaint.

Lucia Perillo is an associate professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

The Chronicle of Higher Education
March 3, 2000
Section: Opinion & Arts
Page: A64