This story made explicit something that many of us suspected but may not have thought was widespread: email is perhaps the worst way to connect with people in the teens and twenties. But the reasons why many people today avoid email is partly due to how poorly email is used by the rest of us. Vague subject lines, people selecting “Reply All,” emails that are 18 paragraphs long or consist trails of 11 previous emails in the string.
Courtney Rubin wrote:
As a professor who favors pop quizzes, Dr. Cedrick May is used to grimaces from students caught unprepared. But a couple of years ago, in his class on early American literature at the University of Texas at Arlington, he said he noticed “horrible, pained looks” from the whole class when they saw the questions.
He soon learned that the students did not know he had changed the reading assignment because they did not check their email regularly, if at all. To the students, email was as antiquated as the spellings “chuse” and “musick” in the works by Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards that they read on their electronic books.
“Some of them didn’t even seem to know they had a college email account,” May said. Nor were these wide-eyed freshmen.
“This is considered a junior-level class, so they’d been around,” he said. That is when he added to his course syllabuses: “Students must check email daily.” May said the university now recommends similar wording.
So students prefer social media. So far, so 2005. But some professors do not want to “friend” students on Facebook (“I don’t want to learn things about them I can’t unlearn,” said Thomas Tierney, an associate professor of sociology at the College of Wooster in Ohio) or do not think it is their job to explore every possible medium a student might prefer to use at 2 a.m. to find out about a test later that day.
How to get students, some of whom consider their school email accounts so irrelevant that they give their parents the passwords, to take a look? At the University of Southern California, Dr. Nina Eliasoph’s Sociology 250 syllabus reads: “You must check email DAILY every weekday,” with boldface for emphasis.
In an email, Eliasoph wrote: “Earlier it was because some students weren’t plugged in enough into any virtual communication.” Seven years later, she said she cannot remove the instruction because now students avoid email because it is “too slow compared to texting.”
Morgan Judge, a sophomore at Fordham University in New York, said she thought it was “cool” last semester when a professor announced that students could text him. Then she received one from him: “Check your email for an update on the assignment.”
“Email has never really been a fun thing to use,” said Judge, 19. “It’s always like, ‘This is something you have to do.’ School is a boring thing. Email is a boring thing. It goes together.”
The University of Alabama’s cooperative education office tries a pileup of retro-style reminders. Engineering students, some of whom recently lined up at 2 a.m. to sign up for job-recruiting interviews, are told, individually and in person, to check email at a particular day and time to confirm their spot.
Even after all that, and the threat of their spot being given away, staff members still resort to texting some students. They respond immediately, said Amy Ratliff, senior coordinator for cooperative education.
When job offers arrive, Ratliff often has excited students turn up in her office only to realize they have forgotten a form they need to send to the company. Using email to get the form or to send it apparently does not cross their minds.
“I say: ‘Do you have your phone with you? OK, can you get email on it?’” she said.
Ratliff added: “It’s like an out-of-body experience. These are incredibly bright kids.”
Eric Stoller, who consults with universities on social media and communication, said schools often have outsize expectations for students when it comes to all things tech.
“We have this perception that because students are fluent with things like smartphones and downloading music that they are born with chips embedded in them that make them technology wizards,” he said. “They are no better at managing email than anyone else.”
(When Stoller, 36, was an academic adviser at Oregon State University from 2007 to 2010, he frequently answered students’ questions with, “Have you tried Google?” Usually, they hadn’t.)
Just how little are students using email these days? Six minutes a day, according to an experiment done earlier this year by Dr. Reynol Junco, an associate professor of library science at Purdue. With the promise of a $10 Amazon gift card, Junco persuaded students to download a program letting him track their computer habits. During the semester, they spent an average of 123 minutes a day on a computer, by far the biggest portion of it, 31 minutes, on social networking. The only thing they spent less time on than email: hunting for content via search engines (four minutes).
The actual average of email time, at least on a tablet or desktop, could be even lower because Junco recruited students by — wait for it — email.
“Yes, there’s other ways, but they’re so much more resource-intensive,” he said.
Use of the school email account may be slightly higher at elite universities, said Kenneth C. Green, founder of the Campus Computing Project, one of the largest continuing studies of information technology in American higher education.
Scott Simpson, 22, a recent Yale graduate, agreed.
“When I was a freshman I used it a lot because I felt really cool having my name at Yale dot edu,” he said.
Brittney Carver, 20, a junior at the University of Iowa, said she checks her email once a day, more if she’s expecting something. Before college, she used email mostly for buying concert tickets. She said she would never use it if she could avoid it.
“I never know what to say in the subject line and how to address the person,” Carver said. “Is it mister or professor and comma and return, and do I have to capitalize and use full sentences? By the time I do all that I could have an answer by text if I could text them.”
Stoller said some of the blame for Carver’s frustration with email goes right back to the people who wish she and her fellow students would use it.
“Faculty and staff love to blame students for not checking email instead of owning up to the fact that no one ever got that good at using email in the first place,” he said, citing vague subject lines and (exaggerating to make his point) 36-paragraph emails from faculty in which the crucial information is in paragraph 27. “How are they going to learn to use email when that’s the model, and why would they want to?”
Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, does not think they should have to.
“Email is a sinkhole where knowledge goes to die,” said Jones, who said that he gave up email in 2011. It was a radical move, not least because Jones helped write the code for UNC’s first email program some 30 years ago. “I’m trying to undo that sinful work,” he said, joking.
Emails to him receive an automated reply: “Goodbye email, I’m divesting,” plus some 20 ways to reach him. About the only person frustrated by this, he said, was a department head who wanted to know “how will you possibly read our important departmental announcements?” Jones said with a laugh.
But in his quest to eliminate email, Jones may have a surprising obstacle: students.
Canvas, a 2-year-old learning management system used by Brown University, among others, allows students to choose how to receive messages like “The reading assignment has been changed to Chapter 2.” The options: email, text, Facebook and Twitter. According to company figures, 98 percent chose email.