What is up with this new glacial pace of academic emailing?
May 18, 2022 6:25 PM   Subscribe

At first, one colleague took forever to reply to me. Then another, and another. At this point, it's beginning to seem like a weird new normal. What is going on here? Did everyone get the "slow your emails" memo but me?

Over the past year or so, my academic collaborators have become slower and slower in their email response times. These days, profs - with whom I have established working/collaborative relationships, mind you - might take weeks, even over a month, to reply to me. It's true that the emails which receive slow responses are not urgent in nature - they concern project plans which might be a few months out, or collaborations which are ongoing. Nonetheless I'm finding the increasing delays difficult: they leave me unable to take next steps or make plans for unknown and ultimately quite lengthy periods of time.

My spouse is not experiencing this kind of slowdown in his (non-academic) work, and I'm only experiencing it among academics, so it seems like this slowness is specific to university contexts.

Is this a new covid-era normal? Is it even a trend? Or is it just my weird individual experience?
posted by marlys to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
All I can say is, I've been driving myself hard since spring semester 2020 and I am hella running out of -- never mind steam, steam departed long ago, let's say lukewarm water. I am running out of lukewarm water.

Also I'm on a twelve-month contract and mid-to-late May or August are the only reasonable time for me to take a week off, which I am presently doing.

I wouldn't write off the current COVID surge either. It's hitting a lot more of my colleagues and collaborators than prior surges.
posted by humbug at 6:30 PM on May 18 [30 favorites]

I'm so busy I'm drowning, is the answer for me specifically. (Academic, in a leadership position, was once a person who got to inbox zero daily.)
posted by shadygrove at 6:38 PM on May 18 [19 favorites]

Yeah, university prof in the US here; this year has been a dumpster fire in ways that even last year wasn't. Everyone got COVID during the first omicron surge this winter and if they didn't get it then they're getting it now. Student mental health is at an all time low, which has been compounded by adjusting to returning to campus. If you're in a red or even purple state with a red state government you're dealing with attacks on curriculum and/or tenure and/or organization of the university. Continued shrinking of tenure track faculty which accelerated in the pandemic (retirement incentives that a lot of folks took rather than risk COVID!) means increased service load on everyone who's left. Continued childcare issues particularly for people with kids under 5 who often have stricter quarantine/isolation rules because no vaccines.

Everyone's behind on everything that's not an immediate priority. Peer review has slowed to a crawl in a lot of places, I've got coauthors behind on manuscripts, I've been the coauthor behind on manuscripts, etc., Etc.
posted by damayanti at 6:41 PM on May 18 [28 favorites]

I have experienced this, too. I’m an academic librarian on a 12-month contract, and I feel the comments upthread. And I say that working at an institution that I feel has done about as well with the pandemic as is possible in the U.S. context.

On the one hand, it seems like every single chicken of the precarious, neoliberal, corporate university has come home to roost. Most folks I know in academia are busy unionizing, hiring to fill the waves of vacancies, supporting stressed students, or trying to figure out what to do when “one person does three people’s jobs” is no longer possible.

On the other, more academics I know than ever have also started saying “no,” clearly, firmly, and sometimes loudly when it comes to overwork. Ditto the everything-is-urgent email syndrome.

I’m wondering if it’s time for you to adjust your expectations, or to seek new collaborators. I know how frustrating it is to be waiting on responses, but you do acknowledge that the length between mails seems gauged to their urgency. It may be hard to find collaborators able to e gage at the level and frequency you want, but I know there are folks out there who seen not to have been much impacted by *waves hands* all this.
posted by cupcakeninja at 6:50 PM on May 18 [18 favorites]

Academic librarian here also. It's the new normal, and even though I can't stand it I'm also guilty of it as well. I have weird feelings about it within a local service context where everyone saying "No" or ignoring things that really need to get done for shared governance reasons might lead to ceding even more ground to corporatized management. On the research side of things, I've found that with really trusted colleagues, doing things like switching to a phone call for sharing feedback on drafts is sometimes easier than having relying on written feedback by email.
posted by mostly vowels at 6:57 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

I’ve been in academia for 30+ years and slow response has always been common, in my experience.
posted by StrawberryPie at 7:12 PM on May 18

Academic here. I agree it's a challenge. I'm guilty myself.

Are you setting clear timelines? I love emails that say things like "here is the draft. I plan to submit to Journal of Llama Farming on Monday. Please send your comments by Friday at 6pm." Put the date in bold if you have to.

Disagree with suggestion to turn revisions into another zoom meeting or phone call.
posted by basalganglia at 7:29 PM on May 18 [7 favorites]

I have a friend who is a full-time adjunct professor with a PhD teaching online at community college due to life circumstances. They often receive 30 emails a day from students with questions: before as a grad student or in a previous tenure-track position, there were lots of emails but nothing like this. I'm in K12 education in a district where we're discouraged from putting work email on our phones, etc. and things are super busy but mostly contained to work hours due to worker protections that university academics rarely have these days, sadly. I agree with everyone that people have stated above: people are overwhelmed, COVID is hitting hard, new boundaries are being set, the old speed was already slow, etc. I'm sorry that things have felt even slower than usual but the fact that people are even getting back to you and are willing to collaborate is positive, if less than ideal.
posted by smorgasbord at 7:47 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

In my business email excess and delay has hit some important inflection point to becoming the medium for things not urgent enough to warrant a phone call. My inbound phone calls have doubled or tripled in the past few months.
posted by MattD at 7:59 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Everything damayanti said. We responded to our budget crisis by incentivizing early retirement, which resulted in a totally nonstrategic exit of everyone with the most institutional knowledge. It has been crippling. Everyone who’s left has two or three times as much work to do. And now they can’t pay enough to attract new hires, so anyone still here knows their job is secure, faculty and staff alike. People can only work at surge capacity for so long and that time is long since past. When there is no fear of repercussion for underperforming, and no promise of reward for overperforming, you get what you’re seeing now.
posted by HotToddy at 9:15 PM on May 18 [10 favorites]

I’m going to contradict your spouse and say it’s a known thing in other business contexts, especially publishing and other media. In my case, many departments are understaffed and overworked.

Also agree that email often feels like a huge imposition—more so than a quick chat. Every email is a problem (or disorganized mess of 5-10 problems) dropped on one’s lap, requiring minutes or hours or endless months of work (and who knows which one until you open every new email!) Each email is someone else clearing their own backlog by shoving it into mine. Enough already with the email.
posted by kapers at 9:23 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

For the past two years, there has always been something on fire. Any reserves I had are gone, as are my working memory abilities. So an email that does not actually involve something on fire, and also requires cognitive processing (e.g. scholarship) is going to slowly meander down my inbox page, until it falls off to the part I no longer scroll down to.

Fun side effect - periodically a synapse will fire when I'm sleeping and I'll wake up in a cold sweat remembering a form or question Important Colleague sent me 6 weeks ago that I had intended to respond to right away.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 10:11 PM on May 18 [16 favorites]

This is a soothing and friendly thread for me, I usually try to reply to all mails straight away, but I'm increasingly finding myself unable to do so.
COVID is definitely a factor. Things have gotten worse since 2020. At my university, most report that they have spent double the normal time teaching, to compensate for classes being online, and that time had to go from something else. But it was already bad before. The whole higher-education system is melting down, IMO, and it is a global phenomena. I could write a whole essay on why this is happening, and I'm sure a lot of others here could too. But I'm too tired, and I don't have the time because there is a paper that needs to be sent today (or maybe yesterday in which case it is then another reason to feel inadequate).
posted by mumimor at 12:12 AM on May 19 [9 favorites]

I, also in academia, have been experiencing the same sort of thing, and attribute it to the same issues of pandemic-worsened overwork and understaffing mentioned so many times above. The only thing I have to add is that it’s not useful to think of the correspondence as being slow. People (in my workplace anyhow) generally aren’t slow. Rather, they’re making choices about what to spend time on, in the context of a pile of demands that are, in aggregate, literally impossible to meet on any useful time scale. Email that isn’t urgent doesn’t go into the I’ll-answer-this-next-month folder; it gets buried in the avalanche of maybe-someday/wish-I-could. Understanding it that way, the rational response isn’t to wait indefinitely; it’s to be a squeaky wheel so they prioritize your thing, or find ways to get things done without their active input.
posted by jon1270 at 2:46 AM on May 19 [6 favorites]

Academic staff rather than faculty here but: yes. Everyone, including me to my dismay, is a bit slow right now. Everyone is burned out and overloaded. Also, because universities gave up on masking, crowd limits, etc., everything has gotten really unpredictable because projects that were on track keep getting derailed when multiple people get covid and are knocked out for days and then have brain fog for weeks. Also also, at least one department I depend on to get my own work done is massively understaffed because they forced everyone back to the office and half the staff promptly found new remote work and quit. So even when I am on top of things I’m slowed by Other Department being half strength and staffed with untrained people and a huge loss of institutional knowledge.
posted by Stacey at 4:09 AM on May 19 [8 favorites]

Another academic here chiming in to confirm that we’ve been in constant triage mode since 2019—first with the pivot to online teaching, then back with a wrenching round of COVID-“inspired” faculty and staff cuts, and then in the classroom where everyone got sick and our students are struggling big time…all while also managing the impacts these years have had on our own kids and aging parents. Meanwhile, at my institution at least, we were all already running on fumes when the pandemic hit. I am (barely) getting done exactly what needs to be done on this day and not much else.

As an academic whose email inbox is constantly flooded with correspondence re: ongoing and complex collaborations (many with entirely different stakeholders) and who is also managing their own new responsibilities thanks to cuts alongside ongoing individual research projects, it’s so incredibly helpful for me when folks let me know by when they need a reply—and if I have that information, I really do my best to make sure I don’t let you linger in radio silence. And I’m not at all testy about someone giving me that info; I’m really grateful, in fact. And in these times, sending me a follow-up email is also no big deal; I’m glad for the reminder.
posted by pinkacademic at 4:59 AM on May 19 [4 favorites]

The staffing problems also snowball in bad ways. I had a package that would normally be submitted over the summer, but this year the university’s central admin decided they needed it right at the end of the semester.

Why? Because they need longer to process on their end due to being short staffed. And because they need input from other academics, whose response times have slowed.

So, as a result, I had to take a few weeks near the end of the semester where I basically did nothing other than teach and attend to this project. I still had to pull some all nighters which I am way too old for. So yeah, I’m behind on email, and still not back at full capacity even two weeks later.
posted by nat at 8:02 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]

Oh, there’s also the issue that this is so across the board; all of my fellow colleagues who were a little irresponsible are now massively so. All of my colleagues who were conscientious now aren’t, because they have been asked to cover for the irresponsible ones. Several colleagues who used to be responsive are now retired. A few have long covid and the brain fog doesn’t give them the option.

It’s covid, but it’s also not just covid. Service need has gone up in other ways too— my field is (finally) having some of the diversity discussions we should have had decades ago. We’re trying to change minds and procedures so we don’t perpetuate the sexism, racism, homophobia that are endemic. It’s exhausting, time consuming, emotionally draining, and really important.

Students are also having a much harder time. They’ve been sick or been caring for sick family. They’ve missed crucial material due to years of unplanned virtual school. They’ve missed soft skills like “how to work with peers in person.” They’ve lost jobs or can’t afford food due to inflation. So anyone who is student facing (teaching, staff who do student support, etc) is doing extra work with fewer functional colleagues to help.

It’s going to take years to recover. Especially since the youngest affected students are currently in kindergarten and won’t be here for another thirteen years.
posted by nat at 8:17 AM on May 19 [8 favorites]

my strategy (didn’t say good strategy) has been to ignore e-mail to have any hope of getting anything done that’s already been on my plate so long it’s expiring. Checking e-mail means receiving more stuff for my plate and less hope of ever clearing it. If I don’t look at it, maybe it’s not there. It’s a last-ditch effort to avoid complete burnout.
posted by meijusa at 10:14 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. Your answers are revealing something much bigger and more systemic than I expected. I knew things were rough in academia right now, but what you all report is several degrees beyond than what I have tended to imagine.

Now instead of puzzlement, I'm feeling a whole bunch of empathy for everyone trapped in this collective mess. I thank you all for your comments: you've helped me adjust my understanding, and offered some nice ideas on how to navigate current correspondence too. I'm so sorry that academic work has become this overwhelming and dysfunctional.
posted by marlys at 1:02 PM on May 19 [8 favorites]

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