Here's an experiment I'm undertaking this term: I hold four hours of in-person office hours every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-4, and I encourage any student that needs anything from me to come by during those hours. If they're out of town, they can call. At the same time, I'm also telling them: please think twice before emailing me. I'm overwhelmed with tiny tasks ping-ping-ping and I think you can solve most of them on your own, if you just spend five minutes looking it up instead of 30 seconds emailing me so that I can look it up for you. If you want me to solve your tiny problems, I say, come to my office hours and I will totally solve whatever you bring to me. But you might have to wait in line.
Some people keep emailing. I redirect them to my office hours. People are now coming to my office hours.
My office hours are the biggest party in my hallway all week. Students are sometimes lined up four or five deep. Some of them, I can hear calculating: could I fix my own problem faster than standing in line? Or, Wow, Professor Morrison sure has to help a lot of people. Or once they come see me: OH! I feel so much better now / I understand what's happening / I know what book to read / Thanks for your help.
So far, I'm calling the experiment a success. I'm getting less email now, AND, I'm solving more problems for students, more quickly. I'm trying to really devote some Grad Chair time to direct student concerns, but without having it take over my entire life, which it was threatening to do before. Now that time is intense, but it is limited. I'm also, I discover, not super awesome with email. I have trouble triaging what comes in and I forget about stuff that slips below the fold, as it were. When I did my year end review with my chair, and had to identify my own strengths and weaknesses, I brought up the email thing before he did: I often drop the ball and while I keep working on my game, I'm not really getting that much better at it.
In my defense, I often receive malformed or misdirected queries: students ask me ambiguously worded questions without indicating some key salient piece of information, like that they're part time students, or that they are paying international fees of something. These details are fast and easy to sort out in person. And there's nothing wrong in students learning that there are 135 of them that I'm helping and maybe it might not be instant: the open door and the lineups make visible the advising labour in ways that help keep everyone's expectations in check.
I might still fiddle the parameters. I might have a few more drop in hours, but I like limiting them to a couple of days of the week, to give me some flexibility to schedule the other work that I need to do, and not be on campus 35 hours a week like last term: that was too much, and productivity suffered. I'll probably survey the students at the end of the term to see how they liked it. But my sense is that everyone is getting what they need, and faster, and with smiles, and I love to see them and they're even having fun together out in the hallways. It's convivial.
And it helps hold back the ever growing email tide, at the same time as it models a sensible approach to overload. For me, at least.
A couple of my colleagues have expressed skepticism. They use email to track their work and their to-do. I know I used to be like this, too: "Send me an email to remind me!" I'd say. But then, honestly, I'd let the email slide off the first screen and forget anyway. This is how you get to inbox 2000.
For me, a good solution to a good chunk of my email overwhelm was to enforce a system whereby I still do the work the email required of me, but I don't do it over email anymore. Because I have some tiny modicum of authority (this is why so many students need my help) I can shift the culture and the expectations by fiat. I hope it works out for all of us. Like I said, it's an experiment.
In fact, I feel so freed by this loosening of the email noose that I've finally found the wherewithal to start up that drop in writing workshop for dissertating students. Sixteen of them showed up to our first meeting, and we all wrote for an hour. And none of it was email.