My first email address, that I got at York in 1993, was this: email@example.com. I probably only remember it because it was my very first email address, and I only knew, like 10 other people with email addresses, pretty much my friends who were geeks and who were at university: queensu.ca, uoguelph.ca. We memorized each other’s weird handles and it all felt very computery and The Future. We were emailing with command line Lynx.
When I got to Guelph for my MA, I had a new address: firstname.lastname@example.org. The first thing I did was go into the settings of my mail program (Pegasus!) and configure the account so that the name “Aimee Morrison” attached to the email address email@example.com. That way, if you got an email from me, it would list my actual name in your inbox. And if you were on campus and typed part of my name, it would autocomplete the address from the directory. When I got to the University of Alberta (in 1998) I did the further trickery of registering an actual alias address: firstname.lastname@example.org worked, but so did email@example.com. People marvelled at my astonishing computer skills.
None of this was hard to do. And it was the professional thing to do. Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won’t check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won’t use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.
Honest to god. Stop this. This is why people think we’re useless.
It got me thinking about bigger issues, about a different kind of professionalization, and institutionalization. One of the ways, I fear, that graduate students become institutionalized to think that there is no good life for them outside of the university is that we both passively support and sometimes actively encourage a very high degree of practical uselessness in them. You’re 30 years old and wrote a book length treatise on cycle plays but didn’t get paid in September because you never told HR that you moved, and they still have your email address from high school? Yeah. You might not be ready to have a regular job.
My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.
Perhaps when we claim that our careers must take place in universities, we are as much about the negative valuation as the positive: we literally cannot function in office environments, because we don’t even know how to do a hanging indent in Microsoft Word, let alone create a pivot table, or use Excel functions to sort a table along two axes. Maybe we are unemployable.
This is depressing. Yes, academics are eccentric. One of my dear dear colleagues (love you!) knows how to ride a horse, but not drive a car. This type of thing is endemic. But can’t we be both eccentric AND competent? Paleography AND touch typing? Multi-modal poetry AND hand your grades in on time?
It begins with training. You know, when I started as grad chair, I was handed a master key, and a password to an email account, and left at it. Unacceptable. This work is complex, collaborative, multi-departmental, deeply financially implicated, full of ethical pitfalls and legal duties. Not one minute of training. I didn’t have the knowledge to run a lemonade stand, and I found myself in charge of a whole graduate program. It doesn’t speak well of the professional standards of my profession, truly. Just this year, the university is beginning to offer formal training for these roles. Next week, two and a half years into my three year term, I’m going to a workshop on how to lead meetings. Thank god.
We can do better by our students. The number one thing would be to inculcate the idea of the university *as* a workplace, and all of us as professionals in it. And of course, many professors (me!) need a lot more training in the mechanics of the workplace than we ever get. The next, and much easier thing, would be to offer opportunities to acquire basic workplace technical skills: using software, running meetings, emailing like a grownup, navigating the org chart.
Somewhere between debauched bohemian and corporate drone, there’s got to be some kind of middle place, some kind of basic competence in workplace skills and behaviours, so that we have more opportunities open to us, rather than fewer?
What do you want training in?