Paperless Presentism
Academic life is driven by the electronic moment

B y James H. Morey, Associate Professor of English

The damned souls in Dante’s Inferno, unsurprisingly, know the past, but they have the remarkable ability to predict the future. Strangest of all, they do not know what is happening at that very moment on earth. The present is a mobile lacuna in their minds. We who live in front of our computer terminals—infernal metaphors may be apt—have the opposite problem. Whatever is happening right now is insistently present, even as we have little recollection of what we did last week or premonition of what is going to happen in the days to come.

Academic life was not always so driven by the moment, and by the computers in offices, libraries, and dormitories. The technologies that dominated each stage of my academic career clearly influenced the pacing and character of my work: manual typewriter in college, dual-floppy PC in graduate school, a bitnet e-mail address at my first job, web-based mail at Emory. Regardless of the technologies, they helped me do two things: word process and communicate. In the last two or three years, however, I have noticed a significant shift in the role played by electronic communication, a shift that has deteriorated campus and academic life. Something is wrong when personal encounters do not start with “Good morning,” or “How are you?” but “Did you get my e-mail?”

I should identify myself as a medievalist, an admission that for many will account for my Luddite tone. Nevertheless I maintain that we no longer really communicate by e-mail. Increasingly, we administrate by e-mail and we announce to each other by e-mail. These announcements often come in the form of hasty, poorly composed, open-the-attachment-(if you can)-for-more-information messages. Timing can also be irritating, in that they pop up just days before (sometimes even as) whatever lecture, conference, symposium, brown-bag or deadline is to take place. I make a good effort to keep up in old fashioned ways: I read the Emory Report, the Wheel, the Academic Exchange, and the many fine newsletters that populate my department mailbox. I also check the internal web page and various LearnLink conferences. Finally, like most people, I monitor my e-mail obsessively, and thus I continue to be perplexed when full-blown conferences, panels, and big name lectures—none of which I was aware of until that moment—pop up on my screen.

My point is not that electronic reminders are unhelpful, since I rely on them as much as anyone. Rather, I am concerned about the amount of lead time—via electronic and print media—all of us need to digest and reflect, and then to make a realistic schedule. A month’s notice seems to be a minimum in order to get just about anything on someone’s personal calendar. Scheduling a meeting with two or more people generates a series of e-mails (what else?) that would be comical if it were not so time-consuming, and also disheartening when we discover that the schedules of our students are often just as crowded.

We are lucky to be working at a university with much more going on than any of us can possibly attend. I wish, however, that some more traditional, long-range, printed calendar could be produced for the major events of departments and programs, along the lines of the arts calendar, which to my amazement provides nine months of lead time. Martine Brownley, in the last issue of the Exchange, indicated that the Center for Humanistic Inquiry may be able to coordinate and better publicize events. One always has the option of searching the university calendar at events.cc.emory.edu, but unless one is looking for an event on a specific date, one has to be as psychic as one of Dante’s damned souls to find anything. Music, theater, exhibitions, and religious services are consistently represented, but not much else. What does it say about us as academics—and the lives we are leading—that only the artists and the clerics know what they are doing next month, or six months from now?

My complaints, I realize, are endemic, and academic life simply has changed, in many ways to the good. Ad-hoc list-serves that have recently been set up for strategic planning and the benefits debate generate many insightful messages and exchanges, and I am pleased to hear from colleagues who would otherwise remain silent. But it is also well known that the ease of e-mail breeds bad habits, both for the harried faculty member or administrator trying to publish a memo at the last minute, and for the student firing off a question that could have been answered by the printed syllabus. Years ago on my syllabus I replaced my home phone number with my e-mail address. I may go back to the phone number, since in all the years it appeared I never received a phone call with a trivial inquiry. Perhaps our computers could be programmed to impose a twenty-four-hour delay, with an obligatory review and resend command. Or we could observe the time-honored practice of imagining that the writer or teacher we admire most is looking over our shoulder as we write everything.

Many would object that I am defeating the purpose of electronic communication, but any message that makes a claim on the time of a student, a colleague, or list-serve subscribers is worth composing and revising as best we can. Our paperless office has induced a presentist myopia. There must be a better antidote than the delete key to—as our colleague in anthropology Bradd Shore so eloquently wrote in a posting to a faculty list-serve last spring—our “distracted exhaustion.”