“Incline thy ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!” Psalm 102

Forms—let’s call them for the moment manners, little rules of protocol, the observance of ceremonies—are the heart and soul of civilized life. And that is why the conservative, pre- or post-modern, is so solicitous of them, for he/she knows that civility is what keeps the wheels of social intercourse rolling. It is a fine thing, therefore, to have these little rules. I know, for example, that when I see a colleague, whatever I may think of him/her (or whatever she/he may think of me), I am supposed to offer a greeting.  It is a convention that often helps me get past the moment.

The opposite of forms is captured by the wonderful democratic phrase “let it all hang out,” which I think—meaning the internet told me—originated as a lyric with a rock group called the hombres. Letting it all hang out, excluding any of its more graphic connotations, means, according to various dictionaries, “saying or doing exactly what you want” (generally a poor idea), or “being yourself” (a worse idea still). I recall a wedding I attended many years ago, in which the ceremony, dictated by centuries of careful thought and adjustment—a “form”—was going very nicely; but then, alas, the presiding member of the clergy took it upon himself to step outside of the rules and add something of his own. Following a ten-minute soliloquy on why the congregation should support the president (it was Bill Clinton at the time) and urge our congresspersons to support his wife’s healthcare plan, we returned to the couple at hand, standing before their Maker, ready to pledge their vows till death do us part. Somehow the little ethical interlude did not quite measure up to the solemnity of the occasion.

But what happens when there are no forms to guide us, when some new situation or circumstance occurs that is unregulated by any previous rules? Technological innovation is often the source of such situations, which is reason enough for some staunch conservatives to be opposed in principle to technology itself. Take some of my friends sitting on their front porches in their little communities. There is a whole protocol of communication that is built up around this little idyllic setting. If you place yourself and your family on the front porch, unprotected by any kind of hedge, you announce that you are fair game. Someone strolls by on a hot summer evening—that is what people are supposed to be doing—and if they call to you, you are obliged to respond. You have signed away your privacy. And if they persist in chatting you up, all tiny signals of resistance notwithstanding, you have no alternative but to oblige. Form demands it.

Which brings me to the problem of email. Just what are the forms, especially—for my specific concerns—between teacher and student? I have no choice but to list my email address at my university, at pain of not knowing of upcoming lectures (thus sacrificing my intellectual well-being), or of department meetings (thus relinquishing my civic rights), or of social events (thus forgoing all social intercourse). But my address being “out there” in cyberspace, does it follow that I am supposed to respond to an inquiry from any student? Have I been placed, willy-nilly and without my consent, on the proverbial front porch, so that when the message arrives, invariably beginning “Hello Professor,” I will break conventions and commit an act of rudeness by a quick deletion? Certainly, this is how students see things, no doubt especially students at small liberal arts colleges. An email message is not like a telephone call without an answering machine. It has arrived and there is no denying it. It is like a letter, but how often would a student in the past have sent a letter, which imposed the costs of paper, thought, envelope, a stamp, and a trip to the mailbox? For the students today, the matter is all but settled: incline your ear and answer me speedily in the day that I write. I am still resisting, applying this principle only in regard to my occasional communications to them.

I agonized over this dilemma with a couple of post-doctoral fellows the other day. They listened bemusedly, as if the whole issue were passé. Their response? Just wait till you are on Facebook! To paraphrase a lyric of Metallica, May that day never come.

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