Explaining the Department LISTSERV to Millennial Graduate Students

I am old, older than the Internet, and our department uses a LISTSERV to communicate with our graduate students. Each year I rediscover that LISTSERV behavior for some graduate students is a very odd thing. And recently, Microsoft Outlook, our campus email, has been taking a dim view of LISTSERV messages, sending them all to Clutter. So one thing that I try to do is make official LISTSERV messages slightly more engaging, in hope that some students will read them. So below is a sample what serves as official communication to graduate students in my department.

Date: Monday, August 5, 2019 at 9:30 AM
To: GRADENGLISH LISTSERV (address_with_held)
Subject: Communicating with LISTSERV, long view


If you send to or reply to LISTSERV (address_with_held), it means that you wish to send your message to everyone on the LISTSERV. Typically, that is the default behavior of email clients (like MS Outlook), that replies go “To” the sending address. To reply to me individually as the sender of a message to LISTSERV, forward the message to (address_with_held), my email address, the Graduate Coordinator.

LISTSERV protocols, which still are widely used by academics for discussion lists, are older than the Internet but younger than Morse code and carrier pigeons. And when older technologies continue zombie-like into new forms, the intersections between them get complicated, among which the following.

  • Microsoft’s Outlook client, the Kent State default for faculty, staff and students, is trying to act like a social media interface because of millennials or something, with two levels of “OK to ignore,” which are designated “Clutter” and “Junk Email.”
  • LISTSERV is mass email, like marketing, so Outlook sorting algorithms tend to class large number of messages from LISTSERVs into Clutter, in same way that social media software downplays important stuff like putting direct messages in some kind of separate area and instead highlights important stuff like ads and branding among regular communications.
  • If you REPLY to LISTSERV message, the LISTSERV software is notifying the list moderator, also me. But since LISTSERV behavior is to send message to moderator as an attachment, your message to me is far more likely in turn to be interpreted as SPAM by Outlook, and thus goes to my Clutter folder.

Therefore, two things are likely to demand personal attention when dealing with LISTSERV messages:

  • If you are not seeing my messages, that is because they are in your Clutter folder. That’s likely where this one is going also, so you’re not reading it, and this is depressing.
  • I have to check my Clutter folder periodically. And I usually do, about once weekly, but because Microsoft and Apple don’t play well together, my message search is effed up, so I don’t see it. Yes I have reported to name_ withheld, it’s probably Microsoft’s fault, and Microsoft don’t give a damn because it thinks I’m a millennial and want my email to behave like social media.

If both of us are not going to some effort to work around these MS mail service defaults when dealing with LISTSERV messages, things may easily slip through the cracks. You reply to LISTSERV, goes to my Clutter, and I do my weekly check but don’t notice your message. Therefore, we each must do more:

  • I have to check Clutter more regularly to see if any of you replied to LISTSERV instead of where you should have, to me. I am genuinely trying.
    If I do not reply to you in a reasonable amount of time—and it was an important message that deserved a reply, not “Thanks,” etc. (PS: don’t bother with that)—you should assume that A) I have not checked Clutter yet, B) I may have checked Clutter but not noticed your message because MS Search is broken.
  • Because you assume both of above, re-send your message, but this time addressed to [address_withheld]. That way, I’m far more likely to see it—and far more likely to respond.

We cannot switch to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram for department communication, for LISTSERV has a singular advantage of central management of address book, and email is relatively secure as compared to the other systems. Nor can we get away from MS Outlook because it is university-wide email system. These are our textual condition.

I regret that technology is not making things easy, but look on bright side. In Middle Ages one had to pee in the ash and rendered fats to make one’s own ink and then sharpen the nib of quill from the left wing of a goose (if right-handed) lest feather tickle your eye-ball when trying to write. And send copies to Scriptorium to have 100 copies made on vellum. So back then not as much time to indulge in this much thinking about writing as a medium, for there were geese to be caught and lambs to be slaughtered for the manufacture of vellum. And that will keep you busy enough that no one has time to imagine a need for an English department.

Wesley Raabe
Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator
Department of English
Kent State University

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