Tuesday, March 12, 2019


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Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

I have a couple of reasons to ask you to visit and browse emeritus professor of computing Donald Knuth's (ka-NOOTH) website (Stanford University). He is highly regarded. His publications provide an idea of his range of scholarship. He is most noted for his work on the mathematical  mathematical analysis of computer algorithms.

I point out something I urge you to open and read once you are at the site. It is under Frequently Asked Questions and is titled "When Did You Stop Using Email?" I don't know why I never paid much attention to this but he recommends dropping the hyphen in e-mail, a rule I will follow, try to follow, in future.

If you poke around at his site I think you will see that he has a great sense of humor. But my real reason for asking you to take a look at this question is his explanation of why he doesn't use email.  Instead, he provides a mailing address and describes how he manages requests. The rule of thumb is "don't expect a prompt reply." He will answer eventually, providing the question is serious.

Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, uses Knuth's response to explore a question, "Is email making professors stupid?"  It makes an argument for "the long-term value of uninterrupted concentration over the short-term convenience of accessibility."  This is required for scholarship.

The essay, well written and easy to read, while long, makes an important observation about the effect of email on the profession of professing, namely that is has changed the game, making professors middle managers and administrators. Newport explores Knuth's solution.

A few years ago I talked with two research scientists regarding their research which led to two similar but slightly different responses.
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One of them was a full-time research scientist working for a government agency. He told me that he missed the old days when he had access to a secretary to handle routine tasks. He no longer thought that he was as productive. He spent way too much time answering e-mail requests and handling other administrative tasks.

The second was a professor in a University department. I wanted to know whether he'd welcome, well consider, having a volunteer in his lab. I thought I could make a convincing case that I might be useful but recognized that I'd need some help and advice from time-to time. He took the request seriously which I appreciated but said that with his own research, publishing, attending scientific meetings, administrative duties, supervising Ph.D. and MS candidates, and keeping the lights on (writing grants) that while he was interested and at one time would have talked with me, he no longer had the time. He also mentioned the demand emails make.

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