Monday, August 30, 2010

Email, Communication Letdown

I'm not going to whine about the death of a letter-writing culture (though I might cry a little on the inside), but I've received some awfully written or just plain awful emails lately that have me wondering if the people who write them realize how they are going to be read. And by that I mean they come off as total asses, and I can't help but wonder if it's intentional, if it's people's general inability to express themselves with the appropriate delivery, or if email is just hopeless at replacing richer forms of communication.

I can separate myself from this because the emails I'm talking about are work or otherwise non-personal emails. The one exception are the emails of a professor whose e-writing is not awful, just unexpectedly curt. I'm beginning to think this is a lame thing to write about, but what fired me up to say something on it was a super bitchy email from someone I'd never talked to before.

So what makes a nasty email, or at least an email that doesn't convey the openness or friendliness that should be there between people doing business together? Here are a few examples...

The Intentional(?) Bitch
Short sentences are the first thing that get to me. The bitchy email started out with no greeting and four short sentences correcting an assumption I had made in my initial email to her, which had been very friendly and only asked for some information we needed to get moving on a project. After the whipping with the short sentences, they got longer and a little more open, to assure me that yes she does want to do business with us. But then she told me to talk to a higher up at my company about it, and ended with a signature block. This was delivered with a "don't bother me, underling" sort of curtness. Sorry lady but you can't just talk to the boss. Do you have an underling you can refer me to so you don't have to talk to me?

Rule number one then, I would have to say, is always use a greeting! Unless you know someone well or are sending an interoffice email, you should greet the person you are talking to, even if you have something bitchy to say to them. If you're mad, just put their name. But most of the time, you are just doing business as usual and a "Hi Robyn," would be nice. I always use "Hi."

Rule number two, based on this email and other curt communications I've received, is don't use a lot of short sentences in a row. It reads as if you are scolding someone. If you need to use a short sentence or be otherwise curt to make a point, don't make a whole email out of it. It's just rude.

Rule number three, if something is being done for you or you are making a deal, you should probably work a thank you in there somewhere. This isn't necessary once you're working with a client or vendor for a long time, or if you're just doing regular maintenance on something. But when you are getting the ball rolling and someone outside your company has to do some work, for instance, to sell your product, maybe you should type "Thanks!" before the signoff. Or don't, and I'll move you to the bottom of the to-do pile.

These are good rules to follow if you don't want to come off as a bitch or a jerk. But I think some email writers revel in the lack of warmth, the apathy, and the distaste they can deliver through the cold medium of email. They wouldn't be able to pull that off in person or on the phone, so they hand it down to you from their office (which is probably in a closet but they want you to imagine it as a penthouse) with their fancy email signature.

The Poor Writer, made Poorer
Sometimes emails read badly because the person writing them doesn't write well in the first place. When letter writing was our written form of communication, poor writers could choose to speak to someone in person. Since the 20th century we've had businesspeople, and they almost always like to speak in person or make a phone call. That works better for sales, but I think this is also because most of them can't write. 21st century communication has gone back to the written, as email, social media, and texting replace phone calls. The learning curve for using these media is quickly surmounted in a world of habitual tech users, but the learning curve for re-learning to write is a little steeper.

I contacted someone with a proposal and he replied from a different email address, using only his name and not the name of the company, and my email was not below his like in a reply email: "Send details." It took me a day to figure out who the email was from. I couldn't help myself -- I sent back a friendly email with the information, but also explained that I can't tell who you are if you don't reference my email or use a subject heading. I used friendly sentences, not short ones. He probably though I was a bitch anyway. But shit like that happens all the time! Anyhow, once our business relationship began I noticed all this guy's emails were short, curt, and terribly written. At first I'd thought he was an asshole. Then I figured out he just can't write. He was very thankful for our services in later emails, and even contacted me again recently to ask for ideas on something. Same bad writing, but after months of emailing with this person I now know he's a good guy.

I don't know what the moral of this story is, except that you should write emails knowing that people will read them, and however you come off (stupid, mean, confused...) could affect how the recipient of your slovenly word pile chooses to do business with you.

Flouting the Email
The final sort of email that always makes me angry when I first see it (then I soften to it) is the email that sort of flouts the coldness and impersonality of email. This could be done in a funny and friendly way if you're emailing someone you know well, but when I read emails from (or facebook comments by) a certain professor I get the feeling I'm watching some kind of personal experiment in writing coldly. There's no way this person doesn't know how to write, and there's no way this person would be intentionally mean or curt. This person is extremely warm and friendly face-to-face. It could be a disconnect in writing/speaking personalities, but I think it's intentional. It's a way to explore being a different type of communicator, which is kind of cool.

End Thoughts
It's funny that many of us think of email as impersonal in the first place. When a good writer sends an email, it can be full of warmth, excitement, subtext, everything we expect from other types of communication, even a letter. So I think the biggest problem with email is just that so many people have to write it. Inevitably, much of it will be bad. These people never wrote letters when they had the chance (we writers could still write letters, but the recipients of our little packages might think us strange), and were thrown into writing by technological and temporal demands. Email is what people do, it is fast, and we can get to it on our own schedules. It is a means to an end, for most. The fact that an email is typed characters on a screen does add some sterility to it, but that can't be blamed for everything. Novels and poems are typed characters on a page, a sterile sort of method of conveyance, especially in the form of a crummy new edition (or on a Kindle!) -- but novelists and poets have the gift that gives words life even without the flourish of a pen to emphasize them or the warmth of a voice to read them. We can't say the same for every wretch who owns an email address.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Self-Help for Grad Students

Strange and uncomfortable situations make me want to write. I was taking a short internet-daze break at work (since I didn't feel like driving somewhere to eat fast food), and these chellovecks walked up the stairs and started opening wine bottles on the conference table. They said nothing to me, even though I'm seated outside the offices as if I'm the receptionist. Maybe I don't look very receptive. Anyhow now they've got little sample cups out as if they're ready to give a tasting. Is someone getting married and testing out wines at work? Are they new clients who want us to be intimate with their wares before we market them to the free world? I'm intrigued anyhow, and so I have started to write on something I've been thinking about as I surf the net for grad school information, advice, and related funnies.

(Almost) Text:
I read a lot of blogs and articles about academia. None of them do I read regularly -- I don't bookmark or RSS the stuff, but every day I click on Twitter links that look interesting and always seem to end up somewhere semi-academic. A lot of these blogs end up having a link to some kind of advice column or funny articles about life as a grad student, or life as a pre-tenure associate prof. Most of these blogs and articles (and I haven't figured out why) are by computer science students and professors. They run the gamut from optimistic how-to guides (i.e. "How to survive..." "How to get into..." "How to excel at...") focused on practical information, to cautionary blog posts telling computer science students they'd better forget about getting any more degrees, to student's blog that are both funny and depressing in their portrayal of graduate student life in any discipline.

As a graduate student in the humanities (Holy shit I can say that now! [Holy shit, should I cease with the public cursing?!]), some things stand out to me as different among the graduate computer geeks and scientists. Science students and profs alike iter-and-reiterate how "brilliance" and "smartness" are not all that important in a compsci PhD program, or even in science. One article by a veteran professor cites "perseverance, tenacity, and cogency" as the three traits that define a successful graduate student in his field. He elaborates on each of these traits, and there are some useful practical ideas and advice on attitudes and expectations that apply even to students in the non-sciences like myself. However, he and others come back to the "you don't need to be smart" line so often, you'd think their programs were hurting like hell for new recruits. Or maybe they've just adapted to the new crop of young Americans -- willing to work and bang away at a thesis till they die, but not willing to sit still for an instant to get all enlightened and junk. Either way, I found the call for dummies a little startling.

I'm sure some dummies take English degrees now and again, but it seems to me that being unsmart in this discipline would make a PhD a prohibitive venture. There are very few seats in these programs, even at state schools. Candidates' profiles reek of l'air d'erudition, and it's all very frightening sometimes. If I didn't think I was at least a little smart I'd never entertain ideas of going into a classroom with the likes of them. Maybe the computers department (whatever it's called) is all about camaraderie and geeking out together with the latest RPGs and fluorescent energy drinks.

Another more positive (for them) difference I found between us and them is the sense of humor and openness they have about their discipline and all it takes to become a doctor of it. Do literature students have this humor and openness? I think they're mostly serious and desire some anonymity, at least in public academic blogging. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems that those of us who study an art that often deals in humor, irreverence, sex, and other fun should be a little more conversational about it. Not just the literature but the whole literature student or professor lifestyle, our complaints about it, our fears of it, our--

Context (or, over there):
"We can make custom bottle labels, we even have some custom bottle shapes."
"Can you make bottles shaped like the internet?"

--methods of dealing with it, our methods of even getting into it. As I mentioned, many of these blogging compsci folk tell us how they got where they are and think it necessary or at least helpful to reach out to students who would like to be where they are. Even when they have to be discouraging about a certain program or a certain type of student, they remain friendly in their delivery of this bad news. Perhaps literature is too competitive, and we don't want to share our secrets unless we want to scare the competition shitless? Even professors who have their tenure engraved in stone try to frighten us off. Some of them are well meaning, maybe others think we want to force them into retirement. The English department, after all, only has so much cutter, O my brothers.

Last year I blogged about how to do well on the literature GRE, partly because there is a dearth of published guides for this test (like the dearth of internet guides in everything else English), and partly because half the bumpkins who took the test with me looked scared stiff. (The other half weren't bumpkins at all but real competition with all like learned diction. One even wore an ascot.) I was not afraid that I would give someone else my spot by helping them with the test. I'm not yet into the thick of grad student life, but you can be sure I will continue to share my thoughts on it without paranoia, and I really can't wait to have useful advice to give to prospective grad students. It's a hard road, this getting in, and who doesn't go looking for help? So lately, I've just been a little disappointed looking for help with my next step, the PhD program and the application to such, since not many literature students are sharing.

What can you find out about our discipline online? The MLA has good articles on what's going on with teaching, some sites for academics publish articles on the "state of women" in humanities higher ed (mostly undervalued, sometimes "desperate"), abuse of adjunct faculty, etc etc. But none of this stuff is from a specific point of view, and it is not intended to prevent, diagnose, or cure any academic malaise you might be facing, especially as a student. So I've been looking at what the scientists have to say, and taking away the parts that might cure what ails me. Reading this stuff, I also see what all grad students have in common even if most of my kind don't like to talk about it.

Here is a useful and friendly "blog" by a compsci professor, wherein he shares tips on lecturing, getting into school, being successful at school, the academic job hunt, and academic blogging itself. You can apply most of this to whatever non-computer discipline you fancy:

A detailed PhD survival guide by a compsci grad student (some of it applies to all of us):

A depressing day-in-the-life of a compsci student that will resonate with procrastinators:

A general guide to grad studenting, not as useful if you're already in it, but offers some wisdom to those who are thinking about it:

The wine-bearing vecks took off. Things are back to normal on the second floor.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Books are Things

The Kindle commercials have a hold on me. The human-stop-motion commercials that marked Kindle's debut last Christmas rivaled a Peter Gabriel music video, and that sweet song chosen by Amazon to tell you all the things Kindle can do (or that you should imagine it can do) was the icing on the holiday fruitcake. And those don't normally even have icing.

One of last year's spots showed what appeared to be a single mom and her daughter. While daughter went away to school on her stop-motion bus, mom wiled the day away with Kindle, presumably the most romantic partner a single mom could hope for. Kindle, her "favorite one man show," made her daily life a dream.

The other spot I remember featured a gorgeous blond girl falling into and rolling out of scenes from the books Kindle shared with her. Unfortunately for blonds and for reading women in general, the young lady seemed to be reading at the second grade level. She did appear in drag as Davey Crocket and a moustached magician, so while unrealistic at least the commercial was not sexist. (Girls like "shiny things," but we also like "faded maps.") Her pouty lips carried any bad art direction anyway. Kindle, in this world, was both a friend and a toy.

Lastly I remember a Kindle commercial that featured a boy and a girl together. The same song played, with its lovey lyrics, and it became confusing whether we were supposed to fall in love with Kindle, with a boy who owns a Kindle, or with the idea that Kindle brings romance all around. "Will you fly me away? Take me away with you my love." Can Kindle really do that?

This summer's Kindle push is no longer artsy. A couple sit on the beach, reminiscent of a Corona commercial, but instead of sharing a couple beers each holds a Kindle. Are they reading the same thing? Or are they living in two different Kindle romances? To quote a completely different song, completely out of context, "When we [read together . . .] who do you think of? Does he look like me?" And the pretty voice still begs to be flown away, taken away.

As much as these commercials hold my attention, frustrate me, "kindle" something inside me whether I like it or not, they do not make me desire a Kindle. Why not? Kindle is not a book. It doesn't even store books. It stores information. Kindle is a thing, a device. Books are things too. But they don't fit inside a Kindle. What has a book got that Kindle hasn't got? A lot.

Books are never plastic. There may be arty exceptions to that, but in general your books will be paper. Plastic is just about the most unromantic, uninteresting substance you can make a thing out of. Paper is organic, it molds to us, it accepts our oils and smells, it becomes almost a part of us. Smell a book you love. Heaven, right? Smell a Kindle. Nothing. Unless you've mucked it up in some unspeakable way, it probably just smells like plastic.

Paper, precious as it is, is also more approachable than a device. We can leave our mark on it, and it is not altered for the worse. Dog-ear it, write on it, highlight it. How do you even do those things on a Kindle? Maybe they've thought of this. Maybe you can bookmark pages, even make notes? Does it store your marginalia? A book does that quite easily, and you don't fret over what you're writing in it.

Book covers are something special. They come in all sorts of glosses and materials, from cloth bound pre-1950s editions, to mid-century patterned cardboard designs, to graphic and bleak '60s paperback novel covers, to today's aqueous coated anthology covers emblazoned with some famous painting to remind you what period you're picking up. These texts have texture. You can run your hand over the stiff woven ones, or curl up the wrinkly thin paperback ones.

Aside from all the obvious physical differences between a paper book and a plastic device, books, for me anyway, have a kind of fetishism associated with them. We display them on shelves, we prop them up with meaningful or interesting bookends, we choose the one with the cover that speaks to us, sometimes even when it's not the best edition for the job. Some readers simply store them in great heaps or double-stack them on sagging shelves, sideways even, but these readers value the books no less than those of us who showcase our tomes. Their book clutter is a testament to their excitement. We share books and trade books, we send along the "heavily marked" copies hoping someone will benefit from or at least enjoy our marginal scribblings, and we grow familiar with our own copies of favorites, so much that another person's copy in another edition seems quite alien -- as if it is not the same book at all.

I just received the above pictured copy of Prose of the Victorian Period, and I attributed mystical qualities to it before I even looked inside. I judged it by its faded, red, mid-century patterned cover. (I was subsequently not disappointed when I looked inside and found that most of the "prose" is in fact some example of Victorian literary criticism. So it's a double treat.) The book -- the thing -- now occupies a place next to Dionysus, a wooden pineapple, some dead flowers and some handmade owls. So we have, coming to life on my dresser, a stone god, dead plants, a fruit, an animal, and yes, a book. It looks much lovelier than it sounds. And Kindle, if I had one and I chose to store it there, would look quite out of place. I think I'll sing that catchy song to my bookshelves instead.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Academic Planner

I bought an academic planner today. Nothing fancy, but it does have bikes on it. I've never had one of these before. As an undergrad I would always write assignments at the end of the day's notes for each class, then I'd leave the spiral folded back on itself to the last pages scribbled on. Term and midterm projects would get their due dates written extra big across the top of some handout, and shoved in a folder. I kept track of all these papers and spirals without any great effort, and kept appointments in my head (philosophy club, play rehearsals).

I always thought the kids who used academic planners must have incredibly disorganized brains, or incredible neuroses. Last spring, during my 20 credit semester of insanity, I sat next to two dedicated planners in my Brit Lit class. I sat in the front row -- I always do because I like to run my mouth. But I think they were in front so they'd never miss a homework announcement. I'd watch them, probably a little too closely, as they'd pull out these huge leather academic planners, a set of Post-it flags, and a rainbow of highlighters. They would spend as much time blocking in, crossing out, and flagging with urgency as they did looking up at the professor.

The planner girls were not identical. At least my confusion and disbelief about them wasn't. I decided, based on these young women's efforts, that there are two types of academic planners: the slow study and the control freak. The slow study really does have to plan, just like she really does have to study (whatever that looks like). The control freak, in this case a communications major who was pretty sharp at literature and also at dressing herself, plans because even though she's capable, she just can't leave anything up to the possibility of being forgotten. She doesn't trust her own memory. Everything that is is what is written in the plan.

Something about starting graduate school, about going to school as a job really, may have made me worry about my own memory. But I think a more likely explanation for my impulse planner purchase (ha! already fighting the plan) was that I think I might actually benefit from planning how I get work done at this level. There's self direction involved, and eventually a thesis. I don't think I'll be a slow study. I've never been a control freak. But I'm a graduate student now. They plan, right? At the undergraduate level a mis-planned paper just meant a long night of coffee and fingerless gloves and feet on the radiator while I tap, tap, tapped out eight or so pages from note piles (seems I only procrastinated in winter). Such a mis-plan won't fly anymore, even in the spring. Such a mis-plan would be a disaster.

So I have this planner. It has bikes on it. It was only $3.50.