Academic career tip: A faculty member’s crap inbox and sending happy emails

Every single productivity guide tells you not to open your email in the morning. Every single one. And yet for some reason, I still do it. DO NOT BE LIKE LISA.

I got in the habit when I was a consultant, and it was important that I do so then, usually because I was working somewhere far from my husband or from my project colleagues. Get up, get checking for whatever messages came. Yes, there were times when the news was bad or difficult, but it was a necessary part of my day.

I’ve had trouble shaking it, even as I know full well that my best writing comes in the morning. It is undoubtedly a bad habit. You get engaged with smaller items of trivia and then follow up on them or get lost down a rabbit hole.

In fairness to myself, I’ve been scheduling research interviews via email, and so I’ve been checking early and often to make sure I catch those.

But really, as I was reminded this morning, academic email is full of crap news and mean emails from colleagues. I stayed up late reading last night, and let myself sleep in. Had a lovely 8 hours anyway, woke up refreshed, thinking about doing my time on the treadmill, and fresh coffee, and I opened up my email, and it contained a slap in the face. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it was very hurtful nonetheless. One of my colleagues, treating me like the help.

And now I am in tears. Thanks, bad email habits.


What but crap news shows up in an academic’s inbox? On very rare occasions, it’s a delightful invitation, news that one has won an award, a happy check-in with good news from a friend or student.

I’d say my emails run about 60 percent garbage nobody ever needs to see, 3 percent nice things–a generous account, as it’s likely less–and 37 percent crap news:

  • “We need to put you through a 4th round of revision because one of our reviewers is on a power trip I, as the editor, am too spineless to curtail.”, and
  • “We at the university are doubling what you all pay for health care….BECAUSE WE CAN!”
  • “Our new policy on-campus is to disallow drop-offs at buildings because our provost finds the sight of your poor-people cars on campus to be unseemly.”
  • “Dear Miss Schweitzer, I need a better grade because I need a better grade and I tried really hard.”

BTW, for you those of you who want to @ me on the last one, it’s way more common for undergrads to assume I don’t have a PhD than for them to get it right. I wonder what it could be?


This is reason enough to never ever check your email, but to check it first thing in the morning?


I don’t remember which book it was, but Carolyn See gave some advice to young writers that I have tried to follow over the years: randomly write a sincere, short, pleasant fan letter to a person you don’t know every day.

It is remarkable what happens when you do this, sincerely and well. If nothing else, you will have forced yourself to be positive about something. But most likely, you will have sent somebody a reason to smile during a dark job (checking their stupid emails) and will, in turn, get a nice thank-you in return.

Even if they never write you back and never read it, this practice forces you to think about somebody else (trust me, this is a good thing in the academy) and be positive about something.

Sucking is usually pretty obvious, and I’m pretty sure Noam Chomsky doesn’t need any more emails. I tend to pick people who will fully realize I have nothing to gain from reaching out to them.

Last week I wrote to an artist on faculty at UCD because I saw a piece of hers that I absolutely loved. Before that I wrote to a historian, before that a philosopher, before that a classicist.

I make a special effort to write to assistant professors to let them know when I enjoyed an article or book they wrote. Assistant profs get so little validation it’s awful. Having a random full prof show up in their inbox, even if she isn’t an expert in the field, to say they enjoyed a piece, is something happy they can file away amid the constant reviews and critiques and hourly implied threats about losing their livelihoods.

Maybe the rest of you don’t feel this way; I suspect most departmental golden children don’t: their deans and department chairs slobber over their little favorites and it’s validating enough perhaps. Even then I still doubt a happy note from a stranger wouldn’t be appreciated.

It’s not much. But it’s a good thing.