Need to know why it's traditional to dress boys in blue and girls in pink? The percentage of the Russian Federation's gross domestic product spent on defense this year? How to say "Happy Birthday" in Swahili? If you subscribe to STUMPERS-L, a mailing list devoted to answering obscure and difficult-to-research questions, then you already know the answers to these questions.
STUMPERS-L was established to help reference librarians and other researchers who frequently field questions with answers that are difficult to find using traditional search methods. This list demonstrates the greatest benefit of a mailing list: STUMPERS-L allows members to easily and quickly draw on a large pool of expert knowledge and reference materials - in spite of the fact that its participants are scattered throughout the world.
Of course, you may not want to go to the trouble of wading through the 15 to 50 postings generated by STUMPERS-L just to find out which soccer player scored the most goals in a World Cup game. Does this mean lists like STUMPERS-L are useless to you? Not at all - even though you are not subscribed to a list, you may still be able to take advantage of the wealth of information its members have generated in the past. Many mailing lists automatically archive past discussions, which you can search by sending e-mail to the server containing a search command and keywords (even if you are not a list member). How do mailing lists get established? Many are started by one or two individuals who need information that is not readily available to them, and who see the potential resource created by quick and easy communication with a large number of people in the same position. UCD's law-lib list began this way: Al Lewis, now retired from UCD's law library, had been communicating with a few colleagues in San Francisco via e-mail, and convinced them to participate in an e-mail bulletin board, which he set up with the help of Elizabeth St. Goar.
"Word spread, and pretty soon more and more law librarians heard about it and wanted to join," says Judy Janes, who now maintains the law-lib list. "I took over in 1992, and we've since moved on to listproc software - and are thinking about newsgroups." Dave Zavatson of Information Technology, UCD's Postmaster, helped Janes move the list over to Listprocessor in January of 1994. "It came about because the LAW-LIB list became such an enormous time commitment, adding and removing people from an alias file," explained Zavatson. "We wanted the list to be archived, and for those archives to be retrievable in some automated fashion. And we wanted people to be able to add and remove themselves automatically. Listprocessor let us do all that - it worked so well that we moved all the aliases over to Listprocessor mailing lists. Since January we have well over 250 lists."
What does it take to start up your own list? "We have some general guidelines," says Dave Zavatson. "Essentially, it has to support some kind of university function, so it needs to be supporting staff, or a class, or some kind of research topic." Zavatson adds that these guidelines are flexible: "If your list is something that really doesn't support one particular department but it's beneficial to the whole university system, there's no problem with that. Sometimes people will have really good ideas that will serve the whole Internet community - like the law library mailing list - and we'll set up lists like that too."
"They use the list to locate obscure legal materials - foreign and domestic, to share information, to help law librarians who are geographically isolated to stay connected, to post job openings, to make announcements, to discuss problems, and to survey the group when they need collective input," says Janes.
Because LAW-LIB is both large and very active, Janes' spends 3 to 4 hours a week maintaining the list, in spite of the fact that the group's unmoderated status keeps her workload to a minimum. "My duties are basically focused on keeping the bounced mail in line, and answering direct questions about the list from subscribers. You've got to monitor it daily to catch any problems."
Although moderated lists may require greater participation from their owners, they can be ideal for sending essential information to small but widely-scattered groups of people (department faculty, task force or committee members). Using a mailing list to distribute important information like meeting agendas and administrative directives can save time (e-mail arrives in minutes, where campus mail takes at least a day), as well as paper, toner, and wear-and-tear on the department printer, copier, and fax machine.
"Virtually everything we distribute to this group is distributed via my list, which is used by me, or other members of my immediate staff, several times a week, Hamilton says. "Everyone knows to look for these communications, and this is the primary way they receive information from me." In addition, Hamilton's list is concealed, preventing non-members from obtaining the list name and posting inappropriate material to the list.
Hamilton's unit has found e-mail distribution to be big cost-saver. "During the last and most extensive budget reduction process, I reduced the Vice Chancellor's own operating budget by 39%," she says. At the same time, Hamilton's unit merged with the facilities organization, doubling the number of people that she would have to communicate with. "The administrative staff in my immediate office would be hard-pressed to handle communications within the organization by traditional means," states Hamilton.
Hamilton is ready to expand her e-mail usage. "We are in the process of implementing a pilot project which may be extended to the entire campus," Hamilton says. "Beginning this month, all Office of Administration's official directives will be distributed to my units via my list. They will receive no hard copies. If this works well, it is possible that all campus directives will be distributed exclusively through e-mail at some point in the future."
About three weeks before the end of the Winter quarter, Shepard used the preliminary roster for AGE 143 to write a short note to his students, letting them know what they might expect from the class. Shepard feels this initial contact allowed him to establish an early rapport with class members. "When you lecture to 300 students, you're scouring your brain to find ways to make it a personal experience," says Shepard. "On the first day of class, I'd already corresponded with about two-thirds of my students - they knew I was excited about the course."
Shepard required his students to sign up for a computing account within the first two weeks of the class, and he made learning to read and send e-mail a part of the homework by incorporating I.T. Quick Tip publications into his course syllabus. He was then able to distribute class assignments, homework assignments, answers to problem sets, optional readings, and information about class projects via the class mailing list.
"The students talked to each other as well as to me. For example, if you were a student who was trying to tout a certain stock on our stock market game, then you could send it to the whole class, and everyone saw the same piece of mail," Shepard says. Rumors swept through the simulated stock market daily, adding realism and insight into how real financial markets work, and how they fail.
While Shepard agrees that the savings in class materials (handouts, homework corrections, etc.) was significant, he feels that the most important thing that e-mail saved him was time. "This quarter I felt like I finally had time to do something I've been wanting to do for maybe ten years: to have weekly career counseling sessions," Shepard says. "A lot of students come into my class - senior students who are business-oriented - and they're asking a lot of the same career questions, and expressing many of the same uncertainties. We ended up filling the conference room by my office every Wednesday afternoon, from 5 to 7 - students benefitted from hearing other students express anxieties that they themselves are entertaining. We could take the time to do this kind of thing because the factual questions from the course were being answered more efficiently via e-mail and in the electronic office hours."
Electronic office hours? Yes - in conjunction with the class mailing list, Shepard also utilized Internet Chat Relay (IRC) software to hold online office hours for his students, in addition to his regular hours. "On Tuesday and Thursday nights at 9:30, students found me on a channel that we called #invest," he says. Students were encouraged to log on to discuss the class material, the stock market game, or even real-world investments that they might have an interest in. "It's far more efficient to do it with 25 people at once, rather than one at a time - and the shy person who might not raise a hand in the back of a lecture hall filled with 300 students might be very comfortable doing it at a keyboard under a pseudonym."
Student response to the combination of electronic and traditional teaching methods was "fantastic," says Shepard. "Participation was nearly universal. The common comment on evaluations was 'I thought I was going to hate e-mail, but I'm really glad you made us learn to use it.' And a lot of them said 'He's the most accessible professor I've ever had' - but I'm not any more accessible than I was before except by virtue of e-mail."
Shepard had no experience with a mailing list before he tried it in class last spring. "You don't have to have experience," he says. "I just communicated with Dave Zavatson, and he told me how to do it. That's the best part - you don't have to be an expert." Shepard also took advantage of the computer expertise his students already possessed - he asked for a volunteer to serve as class postmaster - a student who was already familiar with e-mail and could also help others who had problems. "Students are often ahead of faculty when it comes to electronic communication."
Enthusiastic about the results of his first attempt at incorporating electronic communication into his class, Shepard intends to use this same format for all of his future classes. He stresses the personal touch that e-mail allowed him to bring to his students. "It doesn't make a class of three hundred like a class of fifteen, but it does make a class of three hundred like a class of fifty," he says. "You get to know a significant number of the people - not just by name, but by their personal qualities, their sense of humor, and their means of expression. It enhances those things that draw professors to teaching."
If you are interested in learning more about setting up a mailing list - for a class, department, or other group - contact Dave Zavatson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 752-7758.