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Have you filled out your course evaluations? Have you? Have you???

My classmate Serious Law Student is perfectly justified in her criticism of the Columbia administration's use of email. Given that she asks a lot of good questions, I'd like to take a stab at some answers:

Honestly, I've gotten more information on such things from word-of-mouth and scouring the enormously inconvenient Columbia Law School website than I have from direct email communication from administration. On the one hand, it makes sense that we're all adults and that Columbia thinks we're responsible enough to figure such things out on our own. On the other hand though, apparently the same doesn't apply to something like course evaluations or the ice cream social or all the student activities going on at school, for which we're by now accustomed to getting three dozen emails a day.

How about a nice email outlining the class selection lottery, or descriptions of classes for next year? How about a little email telling us the procedure for journal competition, for which rumors abounded for weeks until the official journal meeting a few weeks ago? Or would it be asking too much to find out what the grading curve looks like, or the length of our respective exams, or about when the library starts on the exams schedule? Or perhaps the procedure for subletting your university apartment, or the procedure for applying for the housing lottery for next year? Why is it that EVERYTHING that I learn about this school is through word-of-mouth?


All perfectly valid criticisms, although by no means limited to the law school. The CLS administration, like most bodies, simply doesn't use online communication effectively. Email's virtue and its vice is that it's a simple-to-use and ubiquitous information-push medium. If you want to make sure everyone's notified, it's a great tool. However, given the vast diversity of interests at the law school and the (laudable) high frequency of events, consumers of this information suffer from information overload.

SLS's cry of frustration (which she repents of slightly in a later post) doesn't differ much from those of a hundred thousand cubicle drones with mailboxes bulging to a near-burst. And the law school could address the problem quickly with a few best-practice tools and tips cheaply implemented. In truth, putting such systems in place would probably save their staff a great deal of time and effort. It's all a matter of matching the type of information with the proper tool:

Bulletin Boards and Email Opt-Ins: Take the student events emails. Most of these advertise some student society's event, or a guest lecture, happening in the next few days. These are most suitable for a bulletin board system, or even a heavily-modified blog. Instead of mailing thousands of people with information they don't need, student services could post events which would automatically be displayed based upon date, and in subsections based upon the subject matter or group-affiliation of the event.

But won't most people miss all the events because they never check the system? Most bulletin board systems allow users to subscribe or unsubscribe to threads, sending them reminder emails only when they want them. I can already hear the cry: "But Tony, most people aren't tech-smart like you. [1] They'll never be able to figure out how to subscribe." I generally find that underestimating user ability is a mistake, but in this case it's no impediment. Set up every user account presubscribed to every thread. (People would get the same mails they do now.) I guarantee you that in order to avoid the persistent noise of unimportant emails, they'll learn.

This is nothing that couldn't be set up in two man-week's worth of work. Software like Ikonboard, PHPBB or the like is already out there to deal with such issues. It would take a bit more modification, but you could even do all of the above on Moveabletype.

Persistent Lore: Learn to Love The Wiki: Similarly, there's a lot of knowledge in the law school that's passed down from word of mouth, or through the website, or even from looking at old CLS blogs, that should really be structured for the use of the school as a whole. Serious Law Student mentions the 'rumours' regarding the write-on competition--something I still don't understand, since the meeting conflicted with another event--or Moot Court policies and traditions or selecting courses. Ideally, information on these would be centralized, but students who had been 'through the mill' would be able to add their own information, subject to some central editing.

Fortunately, there's already a tool available to manage this knowledge: it's a Wiki. Basically, a Wiki is a collection of easy-to-update articles managed off a central server. Readers can add new articles or edit them as and when, linking them to other articles as necessary. An example of the system in use (and an excellent resource on damn near anything) is the Wikipedia.

Take a look at the Wikipedia, and imagine going to a page called "Write-On Competition." Imagine that at the top there's a list of all our journals, and short snippets about their policies and application procedures. (Journals which wanted one could easily add a page--very little HTML knowledge required.) Further, students who had bits of advice or helpful suggestions have left them at the bottom of the page, under the editorial control of the Student Senate. You got to this page because it was linked from the Bulletin Board, and although you missed the meeting, at least you have an idea of who to talk to.

Each class that comes here absorbs a body of knowledge from the class before. As Serious Law Student notes, however, most of this knowledge exists only as a kind of oral history. The beauty of Wikis is that, while they start slow, as soon as they have a critical mass of information they begin to become the source to which one turns when stumped.

The Proper Use of Email: Of course, this wouldn't eliminate all the emails going to students, and it shouldn't. Some events are properly the concern of everyone. The important career services panels, the meetings on selection of courses, events which we hope will be attended by one or more classes: these are the proper subject of email broadcast. And because they're not buried in 300 messages regarding the new board of the Esperanto Speakers Law Review Society, they have that much more emphasis.

A Final Note: Systems Integration: One more plaintive wail is undoubtedly rising from my Columbia audience: "Tony, do we really need more systems in this place? I can't remember which of the thirty-five passwords for the multiple online systems I'm supposed to use already." And this complaint has some justification.

So far this year, I've used Quickplace, Columbia's internal Courseweb system, LAWNET, and the innumerable Career Services websites in order to retrieve critical information about my courses or the law school's offerings. These systems seem to have evolved, rather than been implemented with strategic considerations in mind. [2] As a result, students and teachers are forced to learn complex and redundant systems just to get by.

The beauty of the systems I've mentioned above is their flexibility. They can be repurposed and reapplied for multiple uses, meanwhile keeping a clever framework in place to minimize the hassle users face. With a little work and some innovative cookie-work, you could get close to single-sign on: users log in once, and for the most part stay logged in as they go through different systems. (Coursewebs, for instance, seems to do nothing that PHPBB doesn't.) The key thing is that new systems are used to solve old problems, and new technologies aren't allowed to be used unless they fit into this strategic framework.

Of course, these are questions of strategic architecture: not just solving the immediate problem, but making sure that the solution fits with other solutions existing or foreseeable. This isn't easy, and in case anyone thinks I'm being overly critical of the CLS adminstration, let me make it clear: these are suggestions for best-practice methods that many if not most organizations don't get right. If they did, my last company wouldn't have been able to charge high hourly rates to solve these problems.

'Eating Your Own Dog Food': All of this is empty advice. I'm coming up to finals (hence this article gets 1/2 an hour of my time), and even during the rest of my law school career I doubt I'd have a chance to make these changes. But as some of you might have noted (you may have gotten the email), I'm now treasurer of a student society. As a result, I'm going to be running this organization's website, as soon as I've negotiated the hurdles set up by the Law School and University IT departments. Already we're going to have three mailing lists (one each for members, alumni, and board) and a webpage updateable through Moveabletype. It's a small step, but I'm sort of hoping this will prove a best-practice example. At the very least, I'm hoping the number of spams we send out to the law school at large will decrease.

[1]: Isn't it funny how most people compliment you like that when they want to tell you that your ideas won't work?

[2]: For instance, Quickplace requires a code-snippet to display its 'drag and drop' file system. This snippet, last I tried it, wouldn't download to most University computers, because it violates their security restrictions. This is one of those simple but annoying oversights that pester any strategic implementation.

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Comments

Once you're at it Tony, can you at least find out for us all when we can enter our course selections. I thought one email said April 23rd, but have not heard anything about it since, and I do not see anything on LAWNET.
One simple-but-effective way to make large quantities of email more manageable is to sort into folder according to various criteria. All good mailers (and most mediocre ones) provide ways to do this, usually easy enough for all but the most technophobic users to handle. So all that needs to be done is to ensure that all the various emails sent by Columbia's admins have some easily classifiable difference in the headers (like being from different list addresses, for example). (Oh - glad to see mention of Wiki. As you probably know, I'm a huge fan !)
Whew, you really have given this a lot of thought, haven't you? Perhaps something may come out of all this yet!
But ye gods, must university systems send out quite so MUCH email? I just got four IDENTICAL emails notifying me that I needed to confirm something for this summer. I know that that's a server or database problem, but ye flippin gods!

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