Professional Development And Email: Three Stories Set In Motion At The Same Time

Professional Development And Email: Three Stories Set In Motion At The Same Time

The appeal of Flann O’Brien’s novel ‘At-Swim-Two-Birds’ rests within its oblique interpretation of the world.  The literature student in the book disagrees with one beginning and one ending in a novel. So we get three stories set in motion at the same time. This makes me think of communicating about professional development via email. Educational interaction has always involved interpersonal and non-interpersonal interaction (for example classroom interaction and written interaction). Today we witness email giving us a ‘third story’ of virtual interaction in education.

I try to make sure that I respond to all my emails each day. But often it is like the experience of clearing leaves from a long drive in the autumn. They return again in the night, like a suburban challenge for Sisyphus. My thoughts about research, teaching and administration become like windscreen wipers. They move with a relentless sense of ‘forwards and backwards’. And email lurks in the background of my life beyond the University. It’s like an annoying tune I can’t get out of my head.

The characteristics of email are similar to other forms of life in education. There are emails that we need to have- clear, apparent instructions to guide our academic lives. The arrangements for the IPDA (International Professional Development Association) conference in November 2016 were largely communicated by email. In this example, email is an indispensable friend. But there are also emails that we do not need to have. A student has lost her coat – and this email is sent to all the staff- and sent on again to all the staff by someone else (and so on). And this third life of email has its black humour too- like our other lives in education. The email sent to all the staff about ‘The Assistant Dean’s lost wedding ring’- with the inappropriate quip (again sent to all the staff) that ‘Mrs Assistant Dean will be livid!’

There are emails with Freudian slips within them. The ‘brow-beaten’ secretary of the pompous professor- who intends to write ‘Please see the email below from Professor xxxxxxx’ but writes hurriedly- ‘please see email ‘bellow’ from Professor xxxxxxx’. These email exchanges can result in a sense of camaraderie. There is, however, a feeling that we’re embroiled within a virtual ‘Mad Hatter’s’ tea-party.

The creativity of personal and professional life is also shared by email. I heard of a furious email response to a decision to stop scones being served by a University catering service. The revolution against this decision occurred through an electronic whirlwind of email. In a virtual ‘I’m Spartacus’, staff emailed to rail about this decision.  ‘When it’s scone it’s scone’ was one of the email responses. ‘I’m so cheesed off’ came another email reply. ‘There’s no raisin for it’ quipped a third response.

This third life of email is now a fundamental feature of all forms of education. In a recent encounter with a delegate at the IPDA conference about writing a book review for IPDA, I advised keeping in touch by email, as if it is somehow more appropriate to ‘do it by email’. The reality is that this form of virtual communication can seem artificial and unreal.

So, how can we interpret this third story of educational email?

I argue that the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard offers one compelling explanation for the rise in importance of email in education. In his (1983) book ‘Simulations’, Baudrillard reflects on the importance of signs and images in societies we can describe as ‘late modern’.  The basis of this argument is that the social world has evolved beyond a tangible material reality into something else. The ‘signs’ within this late modern world become transformed to such an extent that they acquire a potent reality. Baudrillard exemplifies this argument with ‘Disneyland’. A make-believe world of stories and images becomes a form of life in itself. Interaction may be more frequent because of email, but it is not necessarily better quality. This is more than just another form of communication. It is a virtual interaction in education characterised by its own scripts and its own motion picture. So we have at least three stories being set into action at the same time. And the growing presence of its virtual ‘sister’- Twitter- adds to the sense that another educational story is unfolding and in need of future comment.


Baudrillard, J. 1983. Simulations: London: The Mit Press

O’Nolan, B. 1939. At Swim-Two-Birds. London: Longman.


Ewan Ingleby, School of Social Sciences Business and Law Education Department, Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK, Email:

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