damned souls in Dantes 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 terminalsinfernal metaphors
may be apthave 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 lecturesnone of which I was aware of
until that momentpop 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 timevia electronic and print mediaall
of us need to digest and reflect, and then to make a realistic schedule.
A months notice seems to be a minimum in order to get just
about anything on someones 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 Dantes 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 academicsand
the lives we are leadingthat 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 toas our colleague in anthropology Bradd Shore so eloquently
wrote in a posting to a faculty list-serve last springour