|By Henry Petroski
MAY HAVE CHANGED THE WAY WE CORRESPOND BUT IT HASN'T
CHANGED HUMAN NATURE.
the preface to the 1979 edition of his cultural study of the
martini, the classicist Lowell Edmunds acknowledged the help
of numerous people. He also noted having discovered "a
law of correspondence," which he stated as follows:
"In both the academic and the business worlds, the more
important the person, the sooner he or she answers a letter."
As if stating a corollary, Edmunds continued, "assistant
professors are the only ones who do not answer their mail
at all; associate professors are prompter, professors still
prompter, and deans the promptest of all," at least
with off-campus correspondence. In my experience, Edmunds's
law and corollary ring true.
When I was a graduate student submitting my first paper to
the top journal in my field, I was greatly impressed that
its editor wrote back to me within days. Subsequent correspondence
with him revealed that, even when traveling abroad, he had
his mail forwarded and responded promptly.
Soon, however, I encountered what might have appeared to
be a counterexample. As a new assistant professor, I found
myself sitting in the office of my division head when his
mail was brought in. As we continued our conversation, he
proceeded to open letters and made a show of tossing them
half-read into the wastebasket.
In retrospect, I realize his behavior did not contradict
Edmunds's law after all. The division head, who had
been department head, retained little power beyond that of
intimidating young faculty members. Rather than encouraging
them to reach out to the senior colleagues in their field,
he made them wonder if writing letters was worth the effort.
Though actions like his may explain why some assistant professors
were reluctant to send out unsolicited letters, what could
explain Edmunds's experience that they did not answer
mail that requests a reply? Perhaps it had something to do
with the unrefereed nature of correspondence.
There is no opprobrium associated with submitting an imperfect
manuscript for publication. Grammatical errors, misspellings,
typos, and even more serious flaws give referees something
to comment upon, and their help can be acknowledged in print.
A letter, however, once sent seldom can be revised. The writer
has only one chance to get it right, and assistant professors
are notoriously fearful of getting it wrong.
In the 25 years since the first edition of Edmunds's
book, the art of correspondence has of course been revolutionized.
Instead of arriving on sheets of white paper, which can be
tossed, communications now come from out of the blue as electronic
messages, which can be deleted.
In the meantime, a revised edition of Edmunds's book
appeared, but in the new (1997) preface he puts forth no new
laws. In fact, e-mail knows few constraints and promotes fewer
inhibitions. From the start, it was no disgrace to use sentence
fragments, idiosyncratic spelling, or bizarre formats. As
a result, it seems, no one should be intimidated in sending
a message to anyone, and no one should have to agonize over
the formality of a response.
However, I still detect a hint of Edmunds's law of
correspondence at play. People who have a penchant for achievement
tend not to accumulate a backlog of undone tasks. Though their
schedule may limit their time online, they often respond immediately
upon opening an e-mail message. Those who read e-mail continuously
may put off responding simply to conceal their accessibility.
Though certainly I generalize, I beg the curious to forego
testing the particulars of my own corresponding practices.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of
Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.
His latest book, Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering,
was published in September.