Students, faculty admit to e-mail obsession; solution may be far away

Williams students and faculty increasingly have turned to email as a central form of communication. Although students received their own email accounts six years ago, most now consider email an integral part of college life. “I can’t even imagine how people went to college without email,” Kristin Wikelius ’01 said. “It is such a part of the lifestyle here.”

The Williams email system currently handles approximately 70,000 messages every day, Director of Networks and Systems Information Technology Mark Berman said, although it can be much higher on any given day. With 3000 accounts on the system, the average comes to almost 25 emails per person per day.

Last year the daily average for the entire system was approximately 30,000, or 10 emails per person per day. Berman cited two possible reasons for this increase: “’A,’ faculty are incorporating e-mail communication into their teaching, and ’B’ more outside users, such as parents, now have email access compared to just a year ago.”

Most students agreed that email has become crucial to maintaining contact with the outside world, especially with parents and friends far from Williams. “Email is probably the lone saving grace keeping me close to my friends from high school,” Cristie Ellis ’01 said. “I graduated two years ago, and by now a lot of people have lost touch, but since my friends and I have established this email habit, we are almost as close as ever.”

Brian McDonnell ’01 said, “Email is pretty much my lifeline here. It just makes it so much easier when you talk to people on the phone or go home if you’ve been in constant email contact with them, because you don’t have to just sit there for an hour and listen to everything that’s been going on with them for the past month.”

Email has several distinct advantages over other forms of communication. First, unlike regular mail, it is immediate. “Letters take at least a week, usually two to three weeks,” Karen Chachu ’01 said, “but email is really quick. It helps because my family is far away and I can get new news as opposed to old news and really know what is happening at home.”

Email’s speed renders it both more low-key and more active. “Email is great because it is such a casual way to communicate,” Ellis said. “My friend can write two lines about nothing important every other day, that way we have a constant conversation going rather than the try-to-explain-everything-in-my-life-at-once letter. This way we’re still actively friends.”

Emailing friends at home seems to be a primarily first-year activity. “Last year I used it a lot to talk to my friends,” Josh Goldstein ’00 said, “but this year I’ve gotten a lot lazier and so have my friends.”

Since many first years said they have not yet found a group of really good friends here at Williams – especially during those first few months – email is an easy way to keep in touch with friends from home during that difficult transition time. McDonnell found email very important when he first got here. “I don’t think I would have made it at first without being in contact every day with my friends,” he said.

Upperclassmen also noted an increase in activities which take away from time that otherwise might be spent emailing friends at home. “Freshman year I emailed constantly,” Mara Steinkamp ’98 said, “but then I got too busy.”

In addition to its speed, email has another key advantage: it is free. This aspect of email use makes it more attractive than the phone in many circumstances. “It’s cheap,” Chachu said. “That’s why I use it – calling home is expensive.” Using email has allowed many students to communicate with their friends more frequently than they would if they had to do it by phone. “It doesn’t have the cost limitations that phone calls do,” McDonnell said.

Students insisted, however, that email will never make the phone obsolete, despite its inexpensiveness.

“People I’m closer to I’ll call. Like I call my family and close friends,” Keith Chu ’01 said.

Erin Troy ’01 agreed that for good friends the phone is better. “I prefer the phone,” Troy said. “I like to hear the sound of people’s voices.”

Email is not restricted to long distance communication, it is also used widely within the Williams campus. As Berman pointed out, more and more professors have incorporated email into their classes. “Some classes use it more than others,” Lecturer in Biology Nancy Heins said. “I think it’s a great way [to communicate].”

For many students, email is a crucial way of obtaining information about their classes. “My Spanish prof doesn’t even talk about our assignments in class; she just emails all of them to us,” Wikelius said. Enrique Perez ’01 also said he often receives emails from professors, “usually to clarify something they didn’t mention in class.”

Email can be a useful forum for asking professors questions. “I find that profs here are really good at answering emails quickly,” McDonnell said. “It’s just more convenient to be able to handle little questions this way instead of having to go to their office hours.”

Some email professors more than others. “I don’t really use it to talk to professors,” Ellis said. “But when I do, it’s nice as a less stressful medium than face-to-face or phone conversations can be.”

The possibilities for email also extend to campus jobs and organizations. “I work in two labs,” Steinkamp said, “and they email me about meetings and what I should be doing with the labs.”

Ami Parekh ’01 thought email was a crucial way of communicating within campus groups. “Where would we all be,” she asked, “if we had to call everyone who was a member of an organization to notify them of meetings or agendas?”

Goldstein suggested an extension of this use of email. “I think we should start using email to send all-campus mail instead of putting all this random junk mail in people’s mailboxes,” he said. “It’s very wasteful.”

Students also employ email for casual correspondence here on campus. “The other day I signed on and I had 72 messages,” Anne Hereford ’01 said. “All but three were from my entry.”

Although Hereford’s example may be an extreme case, many people email their Williams friends. “I love the access it gives me to friends when I can’t get out and play because I’ve got too much work,” Darah Schofield ’01 said.

Troy takes advantage of the low levels of energy required by emailing.”I email people here because I’m just too lazy to walk across the quad,” she said.

As beneficial as email is, it also has negative aspects. Many students complained of an “email addiction” that they find difficult to control. “I check it 10, 15 times a day,” Sarah Parkinson ’01 said, “every time I walk into my room, several times a night.”

Others, such as Perez, have set up Eudora or similar email applications that check automatically. “I have Eudora check every five minutes on its own,” he said. “I’ve set up at least 20 people with Eudora, and most of them keep their computers on all day, meaning that they’re checking their email every five or 10 minutes.” Perez added, “Email is vital to my existence.”

Students also said emailing often takes time away from studying and other schoolwork. “Sometimes I think I should look into seeing if I can get course credit for email, because I certainly spend more time per day doing email than I spend doing work for any of my classes,” McDonnell said.

Parekh noted that email often takes the place of writing papers. “I seriously don’t think it is possible for me to sit down in front of my computer and not check my email before starting anything else,” she said. “The email check can lead to an extended ’email session,’ where you
write to all your friends and relatives and tell of how much work you have. It’s obvious that after such a session you need to break away from your computer so you take a break and upon returning check your email once again. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

Goldstein agreed in saying, “It’s a great time-killer when writing a paper. It’s very therapeutic.”

“Even though email has become a method of procrastination,” Parekh said, “I do believe it is a very useful tool.”

Most students seem to agree that email has become an integral part of campus life at Williams, and that its numerous benefits, although mostly social ones, outweigh the time drain it occasionally becomes.