Sunday, 27 December 2015

Putting email in its place

How it’s grown

We’ve just got back from a week away. We had Wi-Fi in the place where we stayed but didn’t check on Christmas Day nor on the way home. My husband looked at his inbox this morning and had 105 messages. And that’s just his personal account. We’re both off work for two weeks and goodness knows what we’ll find in our work accounts when we return on 4 January.
Interestingly we had far less snailmail than we used to have as little as two years ago and there was very little junk mail. Our spam filters work well and get rid of most of the junk email. We have opted for most bills and invoices to be sent electronically but that only explains the increase partially.
My husband found only one important message though the rest of them were useful and interesting.
For me the main use of being on leave is to get away from the bombardment of it all anyway.

Servant not master

Email is there to serve us, not to be our master. Much of the time it represents other people’s agendas. “Don’t switch on your email until you have done an hour of other work first,” suggested our HR business partner. Good advice. I’d go even further, however, and say that do two hours of other work first.
Sometimes email is used for emergencies. If you really can’t find another way of communicating urgent messages – what about texting, instant messaging, mobile phones – the trick is to switch it on but ignore anything that isn’t urgent. That’s not easy but it can be done.    

Psychological trick

Not checking regularly can have a draw-back. You are left wondering what is waiting. True, as a programme leader, I often have a few emails from colleagues and students alerting me to problems that are not easy to solve. It’s important to remember that those problems would exist even if we didn’t have email and that in fact the email warns us of them sooner rather than later and this means that we’re dealing with the problem sooner. The problem is the problem not the email itself.  
Sometimes a colleague sends you something asking you to do more work. Often work is necessary but perhaps not immediately and it may be less important than some other work you’re already doing. Just take care to assign its own place and set up a routine that means you’ll deal with it in a timely way.
If you analyse the proportion of tricky and urgent emails to others you will see that they are the minority though may take more of your time. The rest are useful, interesting, possibly ones that you don’t have time for now and often very encouraging ones.
We need to train ourselves to relish opening our mail boxes, not dreading it.

Full mailboxes

Yes this is a common problem. Mine was full the other day.  One student had sent me the same email three times with huge pictures attached. They were too big to be submitted as part of an assignment via our virtual learning environment (VLE). We asked her to resize, I double-deleted her email and we were in business again. Yes, we need to keep copies of lots of things but with some discipline this can be come manageable. Below, I’ll describe a routine I find useful.      

Try face-to-face

Emails have the advantage of being quick and can be sent at a time that suits you. They have the disadvantages that nuance and sub-text are lost and the exchange actually takes longer to complete the discussion. There is little point in emailing someone who is working just down the corridor unless you need to send them a lot of content - e.g. graphs, figures and big documents. Even if you do need to send the later, use the email for that and have the conversation face-to-face. Walking across the car park with someone the other day saved me half an hour of email exchanges.

Routine and discipline

I have found a routine that works for me. I complete any core business of the day – make urgent phone calls or prepare for tomorrow’s teaching, meetings or training courses for example before I go to my email.  I then work through everything back to the start of the day before and anything before that that I can now delete, file or action. Each email gets deleted or filed into a folder. I’ll then go through my sent folder and file any that need keeping into the appropriate folder and delete the rest. Occasionally I’ll leave something in the inbox or sent box because I don’t need to keep it forever but I do want it for a while. Then I’ll delete the deleted folder.
At the beginning of each calendar year I delete any emails that are over five years old.
Occasionally the Inbox still fills. I can then quite safely sort the inbox oldest first and delete a month’s worth of emails.
Occasionally if I’m very busy, for example when the marking’s in, I might only answer urgent ones and may put an automatic reply on to that effect. Sometimes, the non-urgent problems have solved themselves by the time I get to them.

Some Local netiquette

Copy and reply

It’s good to get into the habit of distinguishing between who you want to receive the email and who you just want to see a copy of it.  For the latter you should address them on the cc or bcc line. You don’t expect a reply though a reply is allowed. Likewise, you’re not expected to reply if you’re cc’d or bcc’d. You can of course and you may or may not feel you need to keep a copy of that mail.
Think carefully about whom you copy in.  Does this person really need to be involved at this point? If we’re all careful about this, then it becomes safe to assume that if your cc’d, the sender really wanted you to know about this matter.

Reply all

It’s tempting to reply all to general messages so that your colleagues can see what you think. But ask yourself each time is this really necessary for everybody on the list to see your response or does only the sender need to know?  Or possibly just a few people on the list?

All hours of the night and day

Whilst it’s perfectly possible to send emails at 2.00 a.m. and our students certainly do, we should really not expect our colleagues to be working at that time or to reply at that time. If I’ve not managed my sweep before the evening I’ll do it then, or if I suddenly think of something I may send an email on a Sunday afternoon, but I’m not expecting a reply then, nor do I expect my colleague to work at that time even if they can’t fit everything into what might be described as a normal working week. If I work “out of hours” I’m not expecting my colleague to. I also expect them to extend me the same courtesy. Craftily, we can send emails “out of hours” via our VLE so don’t have to open the Pandora’s Box that is the inbox.   

Managing student expectation

No, we are not at our desks 24/7. In fact, we’re expected to answer email within three working days, normally. That might mean if something else is pressing – a conference, marking, a heavy teaching load – it might take longer. Most of the time, we answer within two working days. Sometimes we answer straight away. However, the latter cannot become the norm. We certainly can’t be answering emails whilst we’re eating, shopping, spending time with our families, teaching or doing other work for the university.    
Often students can find the information they seek another way:
·         Consulting their VLE
·         Visiting us during our office hours
·         Setting up a meeting or phone call for another time.
It’s quite interesting, too, how long it takes our students sometimes to respond to the emails we send them.  

In the end, though, email is a very useful tool, and if managed sensibly can be of good service to us.  

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Reading week?

We used to have a reading week. This would be Week 6 Semester. Some colleagues programmed one in Semester 2 as well. Now we have some concern that student aren’t getting their money’s worth, at £9,000 a year, if they’re not getting more contact time.  We’re now making sure they get nine hours per week for twelve weeks per semester. Some universities anyway offer ten hours of contact time a week.
One colleague argued that our second and third years are used to a reading week. So we should keep it for them.
I’ve personally planned a bit of a hiatus anyway. No new material will be taught this week, nor week 12 for that matter. It will be time to go over some try out essays, a time to give feedback. Some classes are having one-to-ones. They did ask for more of this in the recent NSS. I’m giving one-to-ones in class whilst those without work do a class exercise.
Another colleague argues that students do need reading week. What about all of those big novels, especially the Victorian ones? They need that breathing space to get some reading done – or even some writing in my case.  
Anyway, assignments are coming in. We’re getting lots of questions.
Perhaps we need to give some other context here as well: students may only see us for 36 hour per semester per module but they’re supposed to study for 200 per module. They have to do a lot on their own. So, our classes become another resource. We must provide what they might find the most useful. This may well be Reading Week, perhaps backed up with the opportunity for one to ones, phone tutorials and feedback via email.
Intriguing anyway is that a first year started talking about Reading Week. They’re not supposed to know the concept. Maybe she knows people from other years or even graduates.                     

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Technology enhanced learning

Or TEL for short.  Yes, I’m into that and in my current post I’m the TEL champion which means I’m supposed to encourage my colleagues to use “technology” in their teaching. The broad interpretation of this is that everyone should be doing whizzy things with computers. The day to day reality is that I’m often asked to explain the mechanics of Blackboard, our Virtual Learning Environment or trouble-shoot problems with Turnitin, the platform through which our students submit their work

TEL champions want to drop the ‘T’

We recently had a day when a group of TEL champions worked together. In the first half we were give a presentation on the newest features of Blackboard. In the second half we worked in groups, discussed certain matters and then wrote ideas on post-it notes that we attached to flip-chart sheets which we pinned to the wall.  Not a computer in sight and very few people looking at their phones, tablets or lap-tops. It was still a “technology” however. Sitting round a table talking quietly to a small group of people is also a technology.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Another year begins: induction week

Tomorrow we start our induction programme. We meet all of our first years. A colleague and I talked about it on Friday.
“It’s a slightly scary time. First impressions count,” he said. “What if we give them the wrong impression? What if it seems chaotic?”
I can remember my “Freshers’ Week” all those years ago. I was slightly overwhelmed – not so much by what I was about to face – that was all as I expected it to be - but by the complexity of the week’s programme. It did all work, of course.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Work / Life balance – all hail the perfect day job for a writer

I am so lucky. There is only one aspect to my day job that I dislike and even that’s not too bad because actually, although there’s more of it than there should be, it’s what they pay me for and in fact they also pay me to do things I’d do even if I wasn’t paid.
I’m currently on a writer’s retreat. I’ve chosen to take leave for this, just so that I won’t feel obliged to look at my work email. Technically, writing is part of the day job. Most of my writing is speculative, so I’m never sure whether I’ll be paid for it. So, I consider that part of my salary from the university comes as a retainer; they’re in effect saying, use some of our time to develop your craft, reflect on it, improve and pass on your knowledge to others.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The tyranny of email

Help or hindrance?

It seemed a good idea when it first came along; you can get messages very quickly to people and it only costs time - you’re paying your provider anyway. Most people get a lot less snail mail these days than they used to but the email they now get more than makes up for it. Recently after a few days of not being able to access mine I had 666 (yes, scary number) messages waiting for me. My work account often clogs up. I really daren’t be away from it for too long – even if I’ve put on an out of office message.   

Email stress

I’ve come across a few examples of this just this week. A student apologised for replying late to one of my mails – she claimed that looking at her emails was adding to her stress. A colleague told another colleague to contact him by text – he wasn’t looking at emails at the moment because they were preventing him from getting other things done. I myself wrote a note to a colleague on paper as I didn’t want to open my email. It can be a distraction and a bit of a Pandora’s box.
We often quake before we look at our inboxes, especially if we haven’t been there for a while. I do this too, but sometimes I also find it quite exciting.

A healthy attitude

“Promise me,” said our HR business partner at a recent Senior Lecturer day, “that you won’t look at your email for the first hour of the day.” This prompted a positive discussion about time management and how what comes into our mail boxes is actually from other people’s agendas. Sure, we need to work with others and what is important for one person is possibly important for others too. But all in its own time.  
Let’s do what’s important and urgent first, what’s important second, what’s merely apparently urgent next and then see what’s left.
Today I’m writing (aka researching) for two hours and then intend to have one brief sweep through my work email, write for another two hours and have a brief sweep through my personal accounts.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The creative and critical balance in hybrid modules


We offer several modules that can count as English Literature or Creative Writing. Students are offered the opportunity to submit either a creative piece or a critical essay for the final assignment which is usually the one that carries the most marks.

A potential problem

A snag a can be that English Literature students might select the creative outcome – and they have every right to do so – but they haven’t built up the same creative wring skills as have Creative Writing students.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Engagement or attendance

The engagement / attendance issue 

I spend a lot of time chasing students who do not attend classes. I keep a register of every seminar but not of lectures. I go for a sort of zero tolerance here. I chase every absence. The first one gets a a friendly email, the second something slightly sterner and the third the first of four official letters.
Official letter one points out that absence is not acceptable, letter two invites the student to meet with their personal tutor, the third sets up a meeting with their programme leader and the fourth asks them to withdraw. I'm personally not keen on letter four and try to avoid it. It goes against our retention agenda.  Letter three is prompted by a further absence or a lack of response to letter two and four by a lack of response to three or a further absence. The official letters become part of the student's record, which in turn informs references we may be asked to write.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Opportunities List

About once a week I post an opportunities list on our Virtual Learning Environment, Blackboard. This gives news of many opportunities for publication, performance or work. I vet what is offered very carefully, even though most of the opportunities come from two very reliable sources.


Audience for the list

This is aimed mainly at undergraduates, though it is offered also to our Masters students. As well as posting it on Blackboard, I email it out to subscribers on a list. These are former students and also other people I’ve met when I’ve offered workshops outside the university. I even use the list myself.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Inbox stress – is there a way to avoid it?

That sinking feeling

There isn’t much about my job that I don’t like. There may be a little too much admin but even that is manageable if you just get on and do it and if you allow it its rightful position; it’s important and needs to be done effectively but is not as important as some other aspects of the job.
No, what I really dread is opening my inbox – especially after an absence or even on a Monday when they’ve continued to flow in over the weekend even though I don’t look at them. My refusal to look at them after about 5.00 p.m. Monday to Friday and at the weekend comes from my attempt to manage all the other work that is part of my role. I do work in the evening and at the weekend quite frequently, just not on email.  
Frequently in my inbox are:
  • Complaints
  • Problems I can’t solve quickly
  • Students wishing to make appointments
  • Questions that I can answer
  • Questions that I can’t answer and I don’t know who can.
  • More work
  • News - some interesting and useful, some less so.
  • Very occasionally, a nice one, saying thank you or bringing some really good news
Every day I spend a couple of hours sorting them all out. I’m nervous, with physical symptoms to prove that, every time I open my inbox and I want that to stop happening.
I am beginning to devise some strategies.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Pushing Boundaries, Flying Higher


It’s a sunny but crisp March morning. I notice the barrier is down on the car park.  I’m not all that surprised. Why would they leave it open now if we don’t finish until 5.45? I must remember to ask though. Vicky from the conference office, the caretaker and our IT technician are already there. Yes, they know. The barrier is down, but it will be opened later.
I check out the main room. Perfect. The tables and chairs are set out cabaret style. The Old Fire Station is fabulous that way. Any number of people can be accommodated well. 

People begin to arrive. Coffee is served at 10.00. The delegates are SCBWI members, some of our students and members of the public, all aspiring writers.  I’m able to chat with people as they arrive. I join Nikki Heath, a school librarian, and the IT technician. Yes, the Apple Mac hooks up to our system okay.
Through the big windows that used to be the entrance for the fire engines I can still see people arriving. I worry a little as I’ve not yet seen our first key note speaker. I needn’t have worried. When I return to the coffee lounge he’s busily chatting to couple of the delegates.


Saturday, 28 February 2015

A Day in the Life

Easing into the day  

This is what yesterday looked like:
The alarm goes off at six. A little mad I know, but I like to read for about half an hour with a first cup of tea no matter how early I get up. This is half an hour before my normal getting up time because I have a nine o’clock lecture. Most times setting off straight after breakfast will get me there in time. However, I daren’t risk it. Going at this time I’ll probably arrive at about eight. If I leave it until normal time I might arrive just before nine.  Or I may not.
I arrive at five past eight in the end/. I have a quick look through my emails. There’s nothing particularly urgent though there are a couple I can answer quickly.
I have some time to do some writing. I’m working on the second draft of my latest novel. The first draft was a disaster.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Blended learning?

Four of the buildings at the university are shut today. There are problems with the water supply. Lectures and seminars are cancelled. Even the main library is shut. What to do?
Ironically, I’m not affected yet I’ve met this situation before.


In the shadow of the volcano

I managed to get myself stuck in Cyprus when the volcano in Iceland erupted. I successfully taught one class, in real time, using slightly slow broadband. Ironically, when I managed to get back to England suddenly the day before a parallel class was due, I couldn’t get the technology to work on our own campus. Nevertheless the class did take place, just not in real time.


Replacing lectures

This is always difficult. Finding a mutually convenient time and a suitable classroom is quite a nightmare. Almost every student these days also has a part-time job so there are often whole days or half days that are not at all suitable.   
So, when a lecture has to be cancelled or postponed, I tend to go for a distance learning option.
I have to miss a class next Friday. I gave my students the option of moving it for one week only to later in the day or having a distance learning session. They’ve opted for the latter. That’s a little more prep for me but it may create something I can use again.

What I’m doing this time

I’m making four short videos of my lecture using a tool we have called Screenmatic. Then, between 4.00 and 6.00 on the day we’ll exchange messages via a Facebook page that I’ll create and the forum on our Blackboard site. Blackboard is our Virtual Learning Environment.
Hopefully it all goes well. Watch this space.  

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Time Management and Professional Development Review

Professional Development Review (PDR)

This involves three meetings a year, about an hour long each, and replaces what we used to call appraisal. We’re encouraged to be ambitious but at the same time keep SMART principles in view. This means that the targets we set for ourselves should be:
·         Specific
·         Measurable
·         Attainable
·         Relevant
·         Time-bound
As a Senior Lecturer I’ve had to work with some other colleagues on their PDR. Mainly they’ve been junior colleagues but I have also worked with another Senior Lecturer who like me is also a Programme Leader.
We have a meeting half way through the academic year to see if we’re on target and a final one at the end of the year.