Handling Email for Professors (Part II)

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Getting started with Email

(This is the second artilce in a series about how I use email. The first one is here.)

The most important thing there is to know about email is, stop using webmail. Webmail is easy and simple because you can access your account from any web browser and the interface works just like browsing the web. But here is the problem: webmail is inefficient and a pain for handling large amounts of email. In fact I would suggest that most complaints about email that I hear from professors are really complaints about webmail. You wouldn’t ever agree to only receive one letter at a time in your mailbox, why would you handle email this way?

Step One: What These Programs Do

If you already know about these programs (Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail.app) and use them you can skip this section and go down to Step Two: Setting Up, but if you have no idea what these programs do/are read on. These programs are specifically designed to handle email, unlike web browsers which serve a different function. Take a look at the following screen shot.


Many of the mail programs work this way. That is with three windows, on the left is one that shows all of your folders, one at the top that shows all of the messages in that folder, and one main window that shows you the current message.

So why is this important:

  • It enables you to download all of your messages at once, this makes it much faster than clicking between all of your messages (you can leave your message on the server or take them off-more on this later, don’t worry about it).
  • It enables you to manage multiple email accounts at once. Lets say you teach at more than one school and thus have more than one account. It is a pain to log on to each different school and check email. These programs allow you to see them all at once, press one button, check all of your accounts.
  • Sending attachments is easier, you don’t have to click a bunch of buttons and wait for the web page to load.
  • It is easier to sort messages into folders, to stay organized and keep track of all of your messages, separating work from personal email.
  • These programs are much better at handling junk mail, so junk mail becomes far less of a nuisance.
  • You can compose, write and read email when you are not online.
  • It doesn’t restrict you using webmail. I use mail.app (for Mac only), but when I am away from my computer I can still check email using a web browser.
  • You can search thru all of your email messages. Let’s say you remember a student emailing you a link you wanted to visit but can’t remember when, just search for the students name and see all of the messages she sent you recently.
  • The list goes on . . .the main point here is that it is exponentially more efficient than webmail.

Let me make another analogy for those who are not convinced, or might think this sounds like a bit much to take on: Using Web Mail is like trying to write a book by only writing one sentence on a page, sure you will eventually finish, but you sure will waste a lot of time and resources, and things will be damn hard to organize.

Step Two:Pick a Program for Handling Email, and Get Set Up.

Okay if you don’t already have a program set up there are two good options. If you are a PC user get Thunderbird if you are a Mac user you can get Thunderbird or use Mail.app which comes ready to use on your computer. If you already have Outlook set up and have been using it, I won’t try to convince you to not use it, but if you are starting fresh no reason to pick up bad habits, avoid Outlook (it doesn’t play nice with others and is far more vulnerable to viruses).

I am not going to walk thru setting up these programs here, why? because there are far better tutorials to be had (in a moment I will point you to these). But before you start you have one decision to make. There are two ways these programs function:

  1. IMAP-this leaves a copy of the messages stored on the server (usually the campus). The advantage of this is that you can still read these messages if you are not at your computer. (This is the one you want if you have two “main” computers. For example if you have one in the office and one at home, that you want to check email on, as it will allow you to have an email program on each that works exactly the same.)
  2. POP-this “pulls” the message of the server and puts it onto your computer only. The advantage of this is it tends to be a bit faster and you don’t have to worry about reaching your quota on the campus storage space.

I would recommend using IMAP until you get used to how these apps work, warning though you need to make sure that you don’t leave to many messages on the server as you can reach your limit and not know it, since you will not be getting those mailbox full meters like in webmail. When you set up these programs they will ask you whether you want to have an IMAP or a POP account.

So if you are going to use Thunderbird download it here and follow the tutorial here.

If you are going to use Mac’s Mail.app (this is the one I use, and I recommend it over Thunderbrid on the Mac, because of how it works with other Mac programs-but in the end it is really a matter of preference) go here and read the basics, also you can use choose Mail Help from the Help Menu at the top of your screen (oh how easy Mac makes things).

So, get set up with one of these play around with them. Even if you don’t start using it for all of your email, compose a few, read a few, and get used to how the program works, I’ll be back to show how I configure this program to handle all of the “academic” work I do.

Go to Part III.