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I have a new job title, sort of: Deputy Head of Department. Mostly this means there is another stick to beat me with: I have no formal responsibility for anything, so my ability to effect change is the same as it was before (essentially nil, bar anything achieved by the kind of politicking open to anybody); however, the title gives me the appearance of someone who has the ability to effect change, or – worse! – the appearance of someone who might be responsible for the current state of affairs. Still, I am learning about leadership, so maybe I will be able to adequately disclaim responsibility in future.

As part of my new role, I continue to run in-service training days for the department (INSET days, in the language dreaded by working parents of school-aged children). And for the most recent one, since we were a little short of directed content, I thought it was a good idea to have some open discussion of topical issues, facilitated by A1 pads of paper, post-it notes of various colours, and people with strong opinions about everything. Topics for discussion included: the value of our outreach and marketing activities; how to improve the morale of our cohort of third-years; the effectiveness of personal tutoring; potential improvements of our management information systems...

... and departmental support for teaching and learning. Naïvely, I had expected that the discussion at this point would centre on peer-support structures and how to improve them, such as maybe exchanging experiences about peer observation, or thinking about accreditation for teaching practice or for the curriculum as a whole. Or a request for dedicated workshops on current pedagogical practice, or setting up exchange visits with other institutions, or something – anything – along those lines. The discussion that ensued instead was constructive, but focussed on people’s feeling of overwhelmedness; possibly the scariest comment, bearing in mind that this was a group committed enough to come to a (compulsory) training day and stay throughout, was that people were worried about keeping sufficiently up to date in their fields to be sure of providing relevant and high-quality teaching.

There’s not a lot I can do directly about that, beyond passing the message on and attempting to make sure that it is received by those who actually have their hands on the levers of power, or at least the budget. But there was a second point made, which is that the administration of teaching has tended to encroach on all time available: from taking registers, through managing lab sessions, monitoring online fora, to responding to individual student enquiries about deadlines, hand-in formats, and so on. It is easy for a reactive mode to settline in, and for longer-term projects to be crowded out by the need to be (and be seen to be) responsive to those who are, effectively, our customers. And this problem can then be made worse by staff interactions, where the exchange of requests particularly by e-mail can go on well outside what anyone would consider normal working hours, for no net gain in productivity (seriously, couldn’t the discussion be better handled when all parties are awake and in the same room?)

But of course some people have to work outside normal working hours: I myself have childcare responsibilities one afternoon a week, and I make up the time borrowed by handling administration in the evenings. That’s fine, but I don’t want to trigger the vicious cycle of generating responses to replies, and responses to those responses; not only because it’s generally unproductive, but also because it puts unreasonable pressure on junior staff to sacrifice their non-working hours – which is a particular concern given my new position of leadership.

Thus, motivated by the question at the INSET day about whether we have an e-mail policy, I have instituted a new e-mail régime for myself: I will delay sending e-mails outside of the 9:00-18:00 working day to the start of the next working day, unless there’s a strong reason not to. This could be accomplished by self-discipline, in which case it would last until I next forgot or lost concentration; in reality it needs tool support.

Luckily! I use Gnus for my e-mail. Less of a mail client, more of a mail client construction set, I’ve used it ever since it (and Dan Barlow) completely solved another of my e-mail problems, thirteen years ago. Paying it forward, then, here’s how I’m having Gnus help me not to contribute to out-of-work information pollution:

(defun my/compute-work-life-delay (tlist)
  "Return a delay string suitable for `gnus-delay-article'.
  The delay is until the start of the next working day period."
  (let ((adjhour (mod (- (third tlist) 9) 24))
    (adjdow (if (< (third tlist) 9) (mod (1- (seventh tlist)) 7) (seventh tlist))))
    ;; adj: time starts at 09:00 on a Sunday
    (cond
     ((< adjdow 5) (format "%dm" (+ (* 60 (1- (- 24 adjhour))) (- 60 (second tlist)))))
     (t (format "%dm" (+ (* 24 60 (- 7 adjdow)) (* 60 (1- (- 24 adjhour))) (- 60 (second tlist))))))))

(defun my/work-life-balance-checker ()
  "Confirm sending if outside working hours."
  (let* ((tlist (decode-time))
         (hour (third tlist))
         (dow (seventh tlist)))
    (when (save-restriction
            (message-narrow-to-headers)
            (save-excursion
              (beginning-of-buffer)
              (re-search-forward "^Organization:.*Goldsmiths" (buffer-size) t)))
      (when (or (< hour 9) (>= hour 18) (= dow 0) (= dow 6))
        (when (y-or-n-p "Out of working hours: schedule for tomorrow morning? ")
          (let (message-send-hook)
            (gnus-delay-article (my/compute-work-life-delay tlist)))
            (error "Message delayed"))
        (when (not (y-or-n-p "Out of working hours: send anyway? "))
          (error "Message send aborted"))))))

(add-hook 'message-send-hook 'my/work-life-balance-checker t)

Two points: firstly, as far as I can tell, this functionality is not available in any useful form for our work-approved e-mail provider, which will make scaling this through the organization (or even the Computing department) challenging. Secondly, at least we don’t have it as bad as some other professions...