“judici d’amor e razos de trobar” (literally) translated to 2019, respectful workplaces, and fictional chatbots



From time to time during the academic year, it is useful (for all concerned) to deploy an automated email message that is able to reply on one’s behalf to all incoming messages: when one is away on annual leave, at a conference, or ill (academics are humans too and get ill, also due to our work including a lot of human contact); and at times of the year when email traffic is very heavy, it’s helpful, as a correspondent may be anxious, to send a quick reply first (be it automated or just short) to acknowledge receipt of a message and to explain that it will take a little longer to reply. Many of our university services do this, for example, giving a possible reply time of a few days or a week. One can also add some links to where answers to frequently-asked questions may be found. FAQs are only frequent for the recipient; for the person who is asking them, it’s usually the first time they’ve asked, these questions are often far from obvious, and finding information may be difficult.

I don’t usually set up “out of office” emails to run for shorter recurring times like overnight, at the weekend, and on public holidays. Our institutional email system is set up so that one could, but I’d rather not do this in case a student emails in a genuine emergency. While I’m neither on 24-hour call (not only am I human, I’m one of these humans who need 8-10 hours’ sleep a night) nor a member of the emergency services, I do check email outside working hours just in case there are any urgent messages.

And email is the way to do this. I do not share my own mobile telephone number or our home number with students (nor indeed with many other people), and I use my work ‘phone as little as possible (it has a message asking you to email me). No-one needs to have access to me for work reasons in private time. When at work, there is no reason why I should be immediately contactable and interruptible by telephone at any time at anyone else’s convenience. This is a matter of consideration, consultation, and consent. It’s also a matter of workplace health (disability, anxiety, stress, sensitivity to sounds like repeated ringing tones at certain pitches) and safety (aggressive calls, threats, harassment, sexual harassment). A further and practical reason not to answer a telephone the moment it rings: most cold calls, at work and at home and on my mobile, are irrelevant sales and marketing spam. I do sometimes answer the phone when working in my office (usually when I recognise department colleague numbers); it has never been anything that could not have been done in real live human person or in writing / by email.

Urgency is a matter of judgement: that is, my judgement, in my time, taking the necessary time for thinking and sometimes also for research. If you are asking me a serious question about something that matters to you, I would like to be able to pay attention to it, and to you, properly and fully: just as I do for other work and for working in person with other people while teaching and in office hours. That is a further reason for not disrupting work and interrupting the other people concerned, whether they’re physically present (students in office hours, colleagues in a meeting, a whole class of students when teaching) or at the other end of an email; besides, such interruption is selfish, disrespectful, and rude.

This “judgement” business is part of “advising” and why it is a “responsibility.” That judgement is inextricably associated with criticism, and indeed part of it, when you see what both words mean in their full deep senses:

Project Perseus (Tufts University): http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/


Today (Monday 14 January) is the last day for students to change their registration: adding and dropping classes, moving from one section of a multi-section course to another to fit with the rest of their schedules, figuring out what courses one should take.* That might seem urgent. Yet in many cases it is not. It is not a reason to expect special treatment if, for example, one sends an email at 8:36 p.m. on a Saturday evening or 4:48 p.m. this afternoon. Today is also the first day of the third week of term. 15% of term is over. Course registration has been open for months. Students have had two weeks this term, and all of last term (and in some cases last year or several previous years as well), to work with academic advisors in their home faculty and in individual departments to sort out credit transfer, pre-requisites, placement at the right level, and so on.

  • [UPDATE, Thursday 17th: famous last words. The change of registration deadline moved to Wednesday—so that students had two full weeks of classes in which to decide on courses—which means that continued yesterday (up to nearly midnight) and, for some late cases, today.]

Meanwhile, our institution has policies on being a respectful workplace and has placed wellbeing as a priority in its strategic plan; that includes respect for, and the wellbeing of, faculty.

Imagining automated responses and triage-systems for advising work is always a calming therapeutic exercise. On Saturday evening, an uncannily fortuitious coincidence set me to thinking about the potential for bots. An email arrived at the moment that a dinner-party conversation had turned to the topic of artificial intelligence and the potential for its application to registration and (some) academic advising. We would later talk about chatbots. (I didn’t read my email at the time, obviously: that would have been a gross breach of good manners, especially as the hostess.)

Here’s a nice simple example, from Friday, of an elegant French chatbot that has the added piquant of sounding more human than the predetermined permitted responses from the human interlocutor:

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So. I was thinking about bots. While academics who work in, on, and around literature may dream of applying our experience, training, expertise, and talents to creative writing, sometimes there are good reasons for us to stay in our lane. “Our lane,” as humanities faculty working within the larger sphere of philology, is “sense” and “meaning” on what Christine de Pizan nicely called a “path of long study”; and we work enough in collaboration with philosophers to have some idea of a “lane” that is the path of wisdom.

Here, then, is a sort of short story in the form of an automated telephone option menu combined with automated email replies. It may be rearranged as a bingo card, recombined as a choose-your-own-adventure, or remixed as material for your own creative delight.

It is a cautionary tale. I hope that it helps to explain why I’m not setting out-of-office email replies outside working hours every day, why we should think very carefully about chatbot design (even with the most sophisticated semantic, rhetorico-poetic, and sociolinguistic cue recognition that we have right now), and why such creatures should only be created by collaborative interdisciplinary teams: neither computer scientists alone, nor writers alone.

We can return to this post in ten years’ time and laugh at it; may we all still be here in ten years, and may that be a “we” that includes non-human intelligences artificial, alien, and otherwise unimaginable other.


“Thank you for contacting us. We are currently closed. Our opening hours are … [insert office hours / other as applicable here]”

“There is no menu option 0.”

(a nearly-invisible yet audible shrug)

“Further information is on our website.”

“To speak to a customer service representative, please stay on the line.”

(music on hold)

“Further information is on our website. Please consult it and read it carefully and completely before communicating with us again. Ever.”

“For personalised side-eye and further options / discussion, please wait for the next available customer service representative. Alternatively, you may visit us in person during regular office hours.”

(in lieu of music on hold) “Have you heard about our latest exciting special offer?”

“Do you still wish to contact us? Say ‘Yes” for yes, or ‘no’ for no …”

“…and enter the # sign when you have finished.”

“Standard working hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00-18:00. The standard wait time for a response is one working day; messages received on Friday and over the weekend will be answered on Monday or Tuesday. Please plan accordingly.”

“Some messages may be sent automatically to spam. We apologise for any inconvenience.”

“If you are a human and would like to interact with another human in a human-appropriate way, please call on our resident human in their office hours.”

“Hello, I am a human. My next availability is during office hours. Office hour times and locations for all faculty are on the department website.”

“Please do not leave a message with a personal telephone number and the suggestion that I call you on it. I am a lady. Ladies have personal telephone numbers for one thing, and one thing only, and that thing is not you.”

(interrupting you in mid-flow when you thought that you were talking to a live intelligence) “Your call may be monitored for customer training purposes.”

“Thank you for your message. As it is now no longer the weekend, during which I do weekending things, I am now available for advice, discussion, and further contact.”

“Please see me in office hours. PLEASE. Yes, I mean it. Yes, YOU!”

(connected to your mobile device’s health monitoring apps’ tracking of your blood pressure and endorphin levels, primed to intervene if you exhibit signs of contentedness or delight) “This is a prerecorded standard message returning you to the main menu.”


And now you know far too much about what university faculty do when they are not plugged into a classroom or their office computer.



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