Reading Bill Cronon’s emails

For those in and around the planning academy, we’ve been having a discussion about the request from the head of the Republican Party of Wisconsin to read all of Cronon’s emails since January 1, the ones that contain words of particular interest to them.

Cronon’s response is here. His response is well-reasoned if a mite too long. But his basic takeaway point is that much of his university email has to do with students, and they are entitled to privacy.

The reason for subjecting state emails to FOIA requests are evident enough. But the restriction on political content goes to back to trying to make sure that elected officials and state workers do not use state emails and electronic media to conduct campaigns–at least outwardly. Things from a .gov email address should be about .gov business, not about campaign business.

Various responses have been posted, but one sent in to the planning listserv is potentially very counterproductive: to send Cronon email with the word “Republican” or ‘republican’ in it so that they have to sort through all those emails.

There are text mining methods that take the tedium out of such work, and the resulting word cloud can be interpreted to mean anything. Which is one of the problems with word clouds, in general. So if you were to do anything like that, it would allow the political content to pop out of the analysis, which is what they want.

As it is, I suspect the naturalistic word cloud from Cronon’s emails, if they are anything like mine, would read “CAN I HAVE EXTRA CREDIT?” and “THE COMMITTEE MEETING WILL BE HELD….”

I propose the following:

By all means, read my email from January 1 onward. But for each subject that arises in those emails, you have to write a summary of that subject–only a sentence or two–interpreting the content and context of that subject, the same way a rigorous qualitative researcher would have to do. You want to wade through 10,000+ emails, go right ahead, but you don’t get to use text mining to pull things out of context and create your cudgel with which to beat me until you’ve done the work to understand what I’m writing emails about.

To Cronon’s larger point, that the request is abusing the Freedom of Information Act, yes. It’s kind of interesting that the requester seems to think that all this information should just be sent to him. What country do you live in, Pumpkin? Because in my world, where I regularly go through archival information from big state institutions, I’m spending my life (or student’s lives) actually going to the institutions that have the information I request.

Here’s how FOIA requests go for the average community member who would like information released about any number government documents:

1. You can have the information, but not electronically, and we don’t sort through documents to suit you. You can get the emails, but they will be printed out with big black Sharpie strikethroughs redacting information that identifies students or personnel.

2. You may not leave the building with the big stack of papers. You must photocopy them at 5 cents a page. We don’t want your FOIA requests sucking up taxpayer resources, now do we? Oh, and the copier will be up three flights of stairs, which you will have to run up and down 14 times because the copier (which hasn’t been replaced since the Carter administration) keeps getting jammed, resetting, or refusing your code/card/instructions.

3. Alternatively, you may bring in a pen scanner to scan line by line. That’s some special awesome fun there.

Nothing can be boxed and sent, as that would take up state worker time and postage. You must come to my office, leave proof of your identity, and then work with the archive of my email with the supervision of the librarian. We should do a background check on you beforehand. Can’t be letting the terrorists win by taking advantage of our open government, can we?

Enjoy your reading, sir.

On happier things, William Cronon’s work matters–a lot. As a historian, his work is nothing less than magisterial. I have two favorites to recommend:

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.

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Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature

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Finally, let’s look at this scary scary guy who needs such watching:

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I bet he *rides a bicycle* to work. Commie.

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