The Man who Mistook his Wife for an Email Address
In keeping with my current fixation on metaphors, I present to you our current bugbear, and my pet peeve of the moment: wacky email addresses. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of universities have this same problem; students arriving on our doorsteps already married to a goofy email address, and not feeling any particular need for another (official) one. I’m talking about cuddly_girl1988 and hotstufflolxxox and firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the email address all their friends and loved ones know; so it’s the one they keep on using as students.
It seems to me that email addresses feel akin to phone numbers to people; this is the place at which you can be contacted, it is a set of characters completely without meaning, and you should avoid changing it at all costs to avoid confusion or loss of contact. Sometimes I wonder if an email is also akin to a personal name; you only change it in the case of something truly life-changing, like a witness protection program, an adoption and (maybe) a marriage. No matter how stupid it is (see Peaches Geldof about that one), you don’t change your name on a whim. It’s yours. Having to change it would be a fundamental shift that would throw your whole world into chaos, and no matter how important a change it was, someone would always call you but your former moniker, just because they’re so used to it.
Institutionally, students’ unwillingnes to use their school email accounts is a problem because the probability of these addresses getting typed in wrong the first time is so high. One little typo in email@example.com results in a lot of errors when we need to send a student something important. It means a lot of password resets when they use these accounts with courseware. Every student’s institutional email address is generated by the system, and thus, it’s far more likely to be correct the first time. We have elaborate password schemes to (try to) ensure that the right person gets the right email. We care about privacy. We care about sensitive information staying controlled. Those are the official reasons for encouraging the use of institutional email.
What I don’t understand is why more students don’t jump at the chance to have an institutional email address. These folks worked hard to get into school; isn’t this email address a mark of that success? You have arrived; you are one of the elite pack. It’s like getting stamped with a particular kind of honour or authority; me @ this great and glorious insitution! ph34r my mad academic skillz! I’m a smrtypants! Yet, it seems like the majority of students don’t bother to ever activate their school email accounts. They stick with firstname.lastname@example.org instead.
And thus, my latest metaphor: your institutional email is your interview suit. Your church outfit. Your best dress. The clothes you put on when you want to be taken seriously, make an impression, get a job. Institutional email gives you a degree of authority before you even open your mouth. Imagine a room where you need a certain amount of intelligence to get in; your institutional email address is like flashing your sterling transcript at someone, who then taps the bouncer on the shoulder and tells him to make way for you. it’s like saying,hey, I’m an adult, I got into a university, listen to what I have to say! I’m not just some joker. I belong. Not only that, but because this account can only be set up by an administrator, your addressee know for sure who you are; you’re the one with the name in the “from” line. Undebatable. (Though of course there are exceptions…but they are that. Exceptions.) Anyone can get a hotmail account; not everyone has an the right to an institutional email address. It’s a useful priviledge of membership.
Sure, you don’t want to wear your best clothes all the time. Your friends aren’t impressed by them; they know you and don’t care what you’re wearing. They just want to hear what you have to say. Your hotmail email is like your ripped jeans and your favourite t-shirt with the stubborn stain down the front that still doesn’t stop you from wearing it. But do you want to wear that outfit to a job interview? Do you want you thesis adviser or a graduate admissions committee to see you in it? Your email@example.com might be kicky in some circles, but it’s not really the way you want your instructor to think of you, is it?
I can understand people liking the idea of having just one email to check, but I highly recommend two email addresses for everyone. You should have one for your “professional” activities (that includes your student work and communication), and one for your personal life. Have you ever been in a situation where you need to grab a document from your email in order to do a presentation? Have you ever had to do it from a computer that’s projected onto a screen, in front of a roomful of students and your instructor? Do you really want all your personal email displayed to these people? Do you really want to log in as firstname.lastname@example.org in a situation like that?
Having two email addresses also means you can shut off school or work. When I need a break, I don’t check my work email on the weekends. Because I have two accounts, I can still check my personal email, and keep in touch with friends and family, without having to get dragged back into work (or school). Doesn’t everyone need a break now and then? Let the school account collect the “work” for you, and keep your personal email for everything else. It’s like having an office, and an office phone; you don’t want it ringing in your face when you’re at home watching a movie.
On the flip side, I’d strongly caution everyone from using work email (or school email) to do anything personal. It doesn’t happen often, but there’s always a possibility that an administrator may at some point be given the authority to go through that email. It belongs to the school/office, after all; that’s in the fine print. Don’t say anything in work/school email that would make you blanch if you knew your boss/instructor/administrator might see it. This is why I think everyone should have two email accounts; we always need a secondary channel. We need to be able to be a little bit off the record sometimes, though committing something to “paper” (even digitally) comes with its risks.
So keep email@example.com. Check it often! But don’t email your instructors from there. It doesn’t look good, and it just means you have to hear back about school stuff when you’re in fun mode. Activate that school account! That way, we all win!