A failure of e-communication

Nobody at Swarthmore replies to email. Everyone at the College is guilty, including me.

Sure, there are some administrators, faculty members, staff, and students who never forget to reply to any email directed at them, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

After coming back here from the working world this summer, people not replying to emails annoys me more than ever before. My workplace this summer had a simple system that everyone followed in the 300-person organization. Emails sent before 4 p.m. were replied to before leaving for the day, and emails sent after 4 p.m. were replied to by the next day at noon, unless the email was urgent. These e-mails were always marked “urgent.”

At Swarthmore, getting a reply to an email even the next day would be a major improvement. Over the summer, I sent one Swarthmore dean an email that she replied to over a month later, during the second week of this semester. Another Swarthmore dean has still not replied to an email exchange we had months ago, even scheduling a time delayed email to be sent on the first day of her vacation over the summer. She clearly has no interest in talking to me anymore. I still haven’t received a reply to my short complaint about the bad dryers in my dorm I sent last year. Either that’s mismanagement, or blatant ignoring.

Other students are another story. I left electric cables in Olde Club one time last year, only to have the person in charge ignore my first email asking if they were found. The next email I sent elicited an angry response, as if I was supposed to take his non-answer as a “no, they were not found.” I had no idea he had seen my email.

Friends of mine have complained about students not replying to emails that are directed at new members of student groups, even when a clear “PLEASE REPLY” or link to a Google doc is included in the message. It only gets worse as the four years go on. Replies to emails end up coming in quick, awkward conversations in Sharples when you see the person who sent you an email and realize you never sent a response. Sometimes a simple “yes” that you will be able to attend a meeting is necessary. Why could that not have been done when you saw the email first?

Administrative assistants who help run academic departments are the quickest with replying to emails.

Professors are probably the second best, surprising considering how busy they often are with research, families, and many different students and classes. You also get to know your professors and how best to contact each of them.

While student-to-student email etiquette could change, the biggest problem is with administrators at Swarthmore. Hired specifically to make the Swarthmore experience better for each student, replying to emails is an essential job function. The reply may be to just set up a meeting or acknowledge receipt of the email. If the email reply can be handled by an executive assistant for non-confidential matters, then that should be explored.

The email problems I have experienced are at the very least rude, and sometimes constitute a serious neglect of duties. After all the turmoil last semester and the many grievances Swarthmore students had for the administration, you have to wonder if not replying to email is just one of the many duties Parrish has neglected over the years.

In order to solve the problem, the Swarthmore administration should adopt a strict email etiquette policy. If a student, staff or faculty member sends an email before 5 p.m. one day, the email should be replied to within two days by 5 p.m., excluding weekends.

More urgent emails should be marked with as urgent by the students, or by putting the email subject in all-caps. At least letting the sender know the email has been received constitutes a reply. Swarthmore students would be wise to also follow this policy out of courtesy for their fellow students.

In the real world, everyone has to reply to the emails they receive in the workplace in a timely fashion. Swarthmore should be no different. Adopting an email etiquette policy enforces what already should be common courtesy.

Until such a policy is adopted, I’d recommend adding a “read receipt” to all emails you send the administration to compel a response. At least you’ll know you are being ignored.