I remember in the fall of 2020 hearing our provost say, “Overcommunication with students will be a must this semester.” He was thinking about the challenges of remote learning. But isn’t overcommunication just what professors do? Our over-long syllabi aside, we’re always crafting top-heavy email invitations for semesters of meaningful work. Pressing “send” on over-communication gives us a satisfaction akin to what Shakespeare must have felt completing Sonnet 116.
And then, we receive our first email from a student: “Hey prof thx the class will be dank idk is textbk in or do u class need it?!?”
So far from the marriage of true minds, our communications cull garbled data from the outer reaches of the galaxy. But I take heart that our puzzlement also besets the smartest astrophysicists in the world. All the recent chatter about Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and 60 Minutes, has scientists asking not whether aliens exist, but how often we should communicate with them.
Dr. Douglas Vakoch, for example, commends overcommunication on the grounds that all those aliens zipping by on galactic interstates could offer assistance to our species. And we could use the help: our planet hasn’t been doing well for a hot minute. Contrarily, Dr. Michio Kaku of the City College of New York argues that attracting more extra-terrestrial attention “would be the biggest mistake in human history.” We’d be consigning our planet to colonization. (Check out their debate on this episode of The Argument podcast.)
The wisdom, then, behind my provost’s call to overcommunicate may be a rethinking of the cadence of our exchanges with students. Our professorial emails are not just about getting stuff done. We’re also preparing students for discourse with those aliens otherwise known as coworkers, supervisors, and clients.
A quick case study will show what I mean. If you’ve read my last blog post for Vocation Matters, you know I’m researching vocational overwhelm among early-career professionals. I was fortunate to interview Olivia Winkowitsch, who serves as a production manager for a Los Angeles-based entertainment advertising agency that does work for projects like Scenes from a Marriage, Uncle Frank, and Westworld. Her company also designs promotional imagery for those “continue watching” grids you’re always scrolling through on your streaming services.
Liv told me a story about the time that she requested a client to send her a vector image for a contracted project. (Vector images are specialized graphics that keep their quality at any size.) But what arrived back in Liv’s inbox wasn’t even close to what she’d asked for. Her client—a Hollywood executive in an industry supposedly based on competence with visual imagery—did not send a vector image, but an mp4 file.
Liv, just a few years out of college, found herself in the same position as a professor staring at a student’s bemusing email.She said her first instinct was to send a quick note back: “Hey, you sent this, and we actually need that.” She was a little startled at her supervisor’s response to such a proposal: Never, never go back to the customer with a follow-up request for anything! Hollywood clients are like busy aliens speeding by Earth, mostly and fortunately oblivious to their contract partners. Draw their attention, and they’ll turn into Death Stars, blasting everyone with a thousand requests for alterations. The wrong kind of overcommunication can, in other words, create a lot of space junk.
That story raises a question for us faculty members: how well does our practice of overcommunication prepare students for their eventual vocational exchanges?
Cal Newport suggests in his book Deep Work that responsible email practice today entails a fine line between clarity and inaccessibility. Overcommunication by email, he notes, consumes far too much professional time today, not least because we all crave distraction. That’s worth keeping in mind before we whip up a copiously worded response to a student question and hit “send.” Newport’s analysis suggest that such an email might incorporate our students in the hyperawareness and instantaneity that burden professionals today. “Ubiquitous e-mail access has become so ingrained in our professional habits,” Newport argues, “that we’re beginning to lose the sense that we have any say in its role in our life” (242). I doubt that your provost will allow you to follow Newport’s advice and take your email address off your faculty page. But we would be wise to think carefully not just about the content, but also the cadence of our email emails with students.
Does not responding to an email make us professors a little more alien to our students? Perhaps. But saying to our students in our next in-person exchange, “I did receive your email but was unsure of how to respond to it” may also cue these soon-to-be professionals towards a wise comportment in today’s professional culture of overcommunication overwhelm.
Liv’s boss suddenly sounds sagacious in comparison with my own professorial tendencies to clarify every single little thing in a 900-word email. I remember one night hearing from a student about some software that he said wasn’t working properly. I burst into the hyperspace of electronic communication. But I wish I had taken Liv’s course of action instead. Instead of using overcommunication to compensate for a perceived scarcity, she relied upon the skill and resourcefulness of her team to recreate the vector image from the video. No further email needed. Her experience makes me think that what my student needed in that troubled moment was for me to quietly trust him to find the hidden sufficiency within the situation. My silence might have felt alien in the moment, but it might also have coached the student to discern unobvious resources that don’t require another email.
Such canny communication takes some grace. But then, that’s all we ever live by anyway as we discern and share the gifts that God gives to us and all the other aliens.
Craig Mattson teaches and researches communication at Trinity Christian College in a south suburb of Chicago. He’s the author of two books, Rethinking Communication in Social Business and Why Spiritual Capital Matters. To follow his research on early-career professionals and how they deal with overwhelm, subscribe to The ModeSwitch.substack.com.