All-campus e-mails proliferate, spreading information, intimacy, and annoyance
It's delightful. No, it's exasperating.
It's a reflection of Kenyon's openness--the community's love of personal expression and neighborly banter, the academy's devotion to freewheeling exchange, to the noisy marketplace of views and news.
No, it's openness gone amuck--a misguided tolerance for yet another form of word pollution in our already overstimulated lives, a quaintly perverse policy that invites abuse, proof positive of what an absolute loony bin Kenyon can be.
I'm talking about the all-campus e-mail message: the fact that anybody with an account on the campus network can broadcast any message, at any time, for any reason, to everybody else. Do you want the ear (technically, the screen) of the entire student body? Send to: "firstname.lastname@example.org." Do you want to contact all faculty members, administrators, and staff? The address is "email@example.com." And of course, you can reach out and touch both groups, so that every single one of us will see your message-line pop up in our increasingly cluttered inbox.
"Allstus" and "allemps" account for a good deal of the clutter these days. People use them to:
- sell everything from babysitting services to home-grown beef;
- plead for the return of misplaced backpacks, sweatshirts with sentimental value, and family heirlooms;
- urge everyone to come out and watch the soccer / basketball / lacrosse team kick Denison's butt;
- make official announcements (a retired professor has died, a new provost named);
- express views about public issues (the Middle East, Kenyon labor relations);
- advertise upcoming events, including speakers, films, plays, and concerts--and then advertise them again later in the day, and then at night, and a few times the next day, and the next, and the next.
And the next. The proliferation of all-campus come-ons has spawned its own escalation, akin to the competitive outpourings of the larger junk-mail culture, in which catalogues break on us like waves and do-good groups supplement letters screaming "Urgent!" with phone calls at dinner time. At Kenyon, if you want to promote a visiting lecturer, it's no longer enough to print a poster and send out a few well-timed e-mail announcements, because the message-rich environment has habituated us to an electronic din. To get our attention, you have to send e-mail messages ad nauseam, and then some. You've got to, because everybody else does it. And everybody else is also learning technical tricks that turn their e-mail promotional spots into Disney productions, with oversize colored fonts, big color photographs, and clip-art animation.
One result is an oddly twisted sense of proportion. The grunge band passing through Gambier for a one-night gig gets as much billing as the Nobel laureate coming for a two-day visit.
Egalitarian souls would argue that this is as it should be. Like the World Wide Web, that great bazaar where theoretical physicists rub shoulders with pencil collectors (not to mention Holocaust deniers, bomb-builders, and pornographers), the Kenyon network offers equal access to all, sans editor, sans censor, sans control. The fact that few, if any, other colleges allow such all-campus access--many, indeed, think we're crazy--only bolsters the egalitarian's view that this is one of those precious Kenyon customs worth preserving, like unlocked residence-hall doors.
I have to admit to some sympathy for this point of view. Despite its annoyances, the allstu/allemp cyber-realm brims with voices that give a feel for the human community here. What is a college campus, after all, if not an ocean of voices, roiled, calm, glorious, ugly, incessant?
True, the allstus can be vulgar. And students are sometimes weirdly inappropriate--once, a music student inflicted upon the entire campus his frustrations with his guitar instructor. They also lack decorum, cussing and guffawing electronically just the way they do verbally in the supermarket check-out line in Mount Vernon. It's revealing that one of the standard openings for an all-campus e-mail is "hey kenyon!"
The word hey and the slipshod lowercase betray a presumption of casualness and a sense of entitlement. It's as if the students assume that we're all sitting around together after dinner in Peirce, yakking, that all of us belong to their private conversation.
But that's the part I enjoy, even as it occasionally repels me. That yakking is the rhythm and timbre of campus life. It offers a picture of who we are and what we do. It's revealing, it's intriguing. And sometimes it can be wonderfully quirky and endearing. When the Ballroom Dance Club returns from one of its big competitions, for example, they always send out an allstu / allemp celebrating their victories, complete with a list of events (Cha-Cha, Rhumba, Swing / Mambo) and the places earned by Kenyon students. One e-mail last winter went on for three screens.
I can't tell a West Coast Swing from an International Samba / Jive, and I knew only a few of the students listed in that e-mail. But I loved the poetry of it, the sound of the kids' names and the names of their dances. And I loved the fact that they wanted cheerfully to brag to me about their exploits, that they assumed I'd be interested as a fellow member of the Kenyon network.
"Good for you!" I cheer to them whenever one of their e-mails pops up on my screen.
"You go, Kenyon Ballroom Dance Club! What a weird, cool place this is."
And then I hit the delete key.
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