Is Email Making Professors Stupid?

Faculty life now means contending with an unending stream of electronic missives, many of which come with an expectation of rapid reply.

In 2014, the Boise State anthropologist John Ziker released the results of a faculty time-use study, which found that the average professor spent a little over 60 hours a week working, with 30 percent of that time dedicated to email and meetings. Anecdotal reports hint that this allocation has only gotten worse over the past five years. “The days of the ivory tower are a distant memory,” concludes Ziker, and many burnt-out professors agree. Until recently, I would have as well.

Now I’m not so sure.

On his website, Knuth offers the following explanation for his refusal to use email: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.” The idea that the life of a professor should be radically different than other professions, and that universities should take far-reaching steps to allow faculty members to be “on the bottom of things” is easy to dismiss as eccentric utopianism. But the time has come to take Knuth’s vision seriously.

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