Why Email is No Longer the Bane of My Existence

I wouldn’t be writing about something so banal as email if I didn’t think that I’d found a set of useful tools for coping with a constant influx of messages.  After years of being frustrated by having to spend too much time managing my email, I have finally hit on a strategy that allows me to have an empty inbox at the end of every day while still being able to find any old messages that I may need.  I have adapted my strategy primarily from two very helpful blog posts by Gina Trapani on keeping your inbox empty and separating your email from your to do lists.  (Her strategies, in turn, derive from Merlin Mann of 43 Folders and David Allen’s Getting Things Done.) 

Below I outline my method for incorporating email into my workflow.  This method presupposes that you have what David Allen calls a "leakproof system" for keeping track of both individual tasks and larger projects.  In other words, you have a system for managing your "to do" lists and for filing and organizing materials for all your projects, big and small, with a project being understood as any job that requires more than one step to be completed.  For me, that system is basically David Allen’s "Getting Things Done" (GTD), which is very flexible and holistic.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, though, I should say that it took me about 3 tries, over 3-4 years, to fully implement a GTD-style leakproof system, but the payoff has been immense.)  You should, of course, use whatever system works best for you. 

Here are my basic strategies for dealing with email:

I don’t use email as a to-do list to track my obligations.  (I can’t over-emphasize the importance of this principle — separating email from task management was probably the most important step I took towards getting control over email.)  If I have an email message that I cannot process when I read it the first time, I convert the message into an action item on my paper-based task list.  (I’ve found, contrary to GTD, that having an "Action" folder in email simply doesn’t work.  The folder gets clogged, and pretty soon I’m wasting time sifting through the folder.)  If I can process a message in a minute or so, I try to go ahead and deal with it to avoid transferring it to my list.

Rather than processing email messages as they come in, I try to work on email a few times per day, at times when I am less likely to be productive on other fronts.  For instance, in between classes, I process email for 15-20 minutes as a way to have some down time before preparing for the next class.  The result (or the goal, anyway) is that email doesn’t interrupt my other work by breaking my concentration.  I find that it helps to set email to check hourly in order to minimize interruptions; sometimes, I simply close my email client.

I have a very limited number of folders that I use for processing and archiving email.  At any given time, I have a few project specific folders, but I reserve these only for major, ongoing projects, such as the courses that I am teaching during a given semester.  My other key folders derive from GTD and include:

  • "Waiting For" (This folder is reserved strictly for cases where I am waiting for somebody else to do something specific — I don’t use this to track my own tasks that I am putting off!)
  • "Follow Up" (This folder includes messages that I need to reply to after I have completed some task; again, I track these tasks outside of email.)
  • "Future" (This folder includes just a few messages at a time that I need for major future events; this category isn’t strictly necessary, but I find that I can keep it under control. It’s probably better, for the sake of parsimony, to simply print and file such messages in a tickler file or a folder for the future event.)
  • "Archive" (This folder, which I clean out and archive on my computer on a semester-by-semester basis, holds messages that I may need for future reference.  With today’s search capabilities, it’s usually quite easy to locate needed messages.)
  • "Print/Save" (I use this folder to temporarily hold messages and attachments that I need to print or download to my primary computer.  Having these folders really helps me clean out my inbox, even if I am using webmail.)

I use these same folders for my personal email account as well, with the addition of a "Business" folder where I store all messages related to personal finances, such as statements and receipts; I archive this folder annually.

By consistently adhering to these principles, I find that I can keep my inbox empty most of the time — certainly by the end of each work day.  To keep the system flowing smoothly, I regularly review the folders mentioned above to keep them pruned to just a few or several messages each and to make sure that I’m not procrastinating on some task.  Instead of being a grand distraction, email is now a fairly innocuous part of my work-flow.

Diigo as a Teaching Tool

I’ve recently started using a new social bookmarking service called Diigo to collect and share online resources with my students. (Diigo has features similar to del.icio.us, which I have also used for teaching, but it’s substantially more powerful.) The appealing thing about Diigo is that it allows me not only to create a list of links but also to highlight and annotate webpages. In other words, I can point to and comment on specific sections of a webpage.

Diigo works really well for sharing, but I also think that it could be very useful for doing research online, because you can essentially highlight and annotate much as you do on paper.

To get a better idea of what Diigo can do, take a look at my annotated collection of links on “Race, Culture, and Politics in the New South,” or access my links collections (see the sidebar to the right).

To get started using Diigo, simply add the Diigolet tool to your browser’s toolbar. Also, check out their Flash tutorials for a quick introduction to Diigo’s features.

Blogging for Your Students

(This posting is a companion to my essay on “Blogging for Your Students” in the May 2007 issue of the AHA Perspectives.)

SETTING UP A BLOG

If you would like to set up a blog, there are many blogging services to choose from. Ex Post Facto, for instance, runs on WordPress, a free, open-source, and very flexible blogging software package. While you can run WordPress on your own server, you can also use it on a number free webhosts, including WordPress.com and edublog. (One additional advantage of WordPress is that it allows you to have as many static pages, outside of the blog structure, as you desire, and there are scores of free plugins to add extra functions. One such plugin, called ScholarPress Courseware, allows you to use a blog to manage a course. For example, see Jeremy Boggs’s U.S. History Survey at GMU.) Blogger (or Blogspot), which is run by Google, is one of the most popular free blog hosts. Although it is less flexible than WordPress, Blogger has several education-friendly features, including support for multiple authors and privacy control, and it is quite easy to configure and maintain. For a sample Blogspot educational blog, visit Cyborg Culture, which my colleague Clif Ganyard created as an interactive space for his students. See also Russell Olwell’s “Taking History Personally: How Blogs Connect Students Outside the Classroom,” from the Jan. 2008 issue of Perspectives on History.

USING A BLOG AS A TEACHING AND LEARNING TOOL

If you lack familiarity with blogs and RSS feeds, you should probably start with a good old fashioned book. I recommend Will Richardson’s Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classroom (Corwin Press, 2006).

James Farmer (of Melbourne, Australia) has written provocatively about the use of blogs in education. He is the founder of edublogs, a hosting service for educational blogs. See the “blogging for education” section of Blogsavvy and his blog, incorporated subversion. See also Anne Bartlett-Bragg and James Farmer, “Blogs @ Anywhere: High Fidelity Online Communication,” from July 2005. This scholarly paper analyzes the communication dynamic of blogs, compared to email and bulletin boards, with an emphasis on the potential applications of RSS feed technology. It also includes a bibliography. Farmer has condensed the conclusions of “Blogs @ Anywhere” in “How NOT to Use Blogs in Education” and “How You SHOULD Use Blogs in Education.” He has also written a highly suggestive piece on virtual personal learning environments, and he has produced a related screencast.

Bud Gibson, whose “Community Engine” site includes a bevy of posts on education, wrote a pair of articles called “A Learning Blogosphere” (Part 1) (Part 2). He describes and evaluates his experience using student blogs as a key course component.

For ideas and inspiration, see the Edublog Awards as well as this list of the “Top 100 Education Blogs,” compiled at the Online Education Database.

I have found it especially useful to solicit comments from authors my students are reading. (See, for example, the comment #10 posted here and comment #13 posted here.) I have also found it very fruitful to interview an author for my class. (For instance, I interviewed Curtis White via email before my students discussed The Spirit of Disobedience.) I have also found it useful to comment on my students’ comments with a summative “final comment” as we wrap up each topic. (Here’s an example.)

Finally, for links to some very thought-provoking reflections on the “read-write” web, see Reflections on the Web 2.0.

Anatomy of a Comment

Blogs provide a useful forum for readers to interact with blog authors and with one another. There are many different kinds of blogs, however, and there is no single correct way to post a comment. Different kinds of blogs engender different kinds of comments. The primary purpose of Ex Post Facto is to promote discussion of history, and many historical issues are complex. A constructive comment, then, may be fairly complex while still being concise. When making comments here, please consider including the following elements:

  1. Opening: Start by making it clear, somehow, what you are responding to. Are you responding to an idea or question in the original post? Make that clear. Or, are you responding to a comment left by another reader? If so, use the person’s name in your opening sentence.
  2. Main Point: A solid comment often consists of a single paragraph. In most cases, you should use this paragraph to make a single main point, and you should state that point as clearly as you can. If you have multiple, separate points to make, it’s probably best to post more than one comment, simply to make it easier for others to respond.
  3. Explanation and Evidence: After you have stated your point, you will probably need to explain it a bit. In many cases, you will need to give evidence to support your point. Why do you believe your position to be true? Feel free to include links to any evidence that exists online. (See the second comment below.)
  4. Further Questions: You may want to conclude by asking a question or two of the blog author or of other readers. If you do ask a question, or if you just want to follow any subsequent discussion of the post, you can click the checkbox to sign up for comment notification for the post that you are responding to.

When commenting, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind. First, remember that your comment will be published online. You are making a public statement, and you should therefore be civil. This site will not publicize your email address, but whatever name you enter will be public. You may use your first name and last initial, rather than your full name — it’s up to you. Second, if you are making a substantial point, you should use standard written English. (Write in complete sentences and use proper spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.) Finally, if your comment is very specific, you can add a title at the top in ALL CAPS in order to make your topic clear, visible, and easy for other readers to refer to.

I have posted a sample comment below to illustrate the points that I’ve made here.

Reflections on the Web 2.0

The “Web 2.0” is the interactive internet made possible by wikis, blogs, social bookmarking sites, etc.

For an analysis of Wikipedia, one of the most successful implementations of this new technology, see Marshal Poe’s “The Hive,” from the Sept. 2006 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. For a demonstration of Wikipedia at work, watch: Heavy Metal Umlaut, a screencast by John Udell.

For some delightfully thought-provoking (and creatively presented) reflections on the power of the evolving web, see Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us and (in reply) Re: Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us. These presentations are being discussed at Digital Ethnography @ Kansas State University.

Stayed tuned for a post on “Information versus Knowledge,” in which I will reflect on the implications of some of these new technologies within the context of human learning.