Life at the FAS Prompt

Before my senior year in high school, my family didn’t have a computer—when I needed to type papers I would trudge over to my godmother’s apartment, even in the snow. When I came to Harvard, I had never used e-mail before. It’s ironic, then, that as graduation approaches, e-mail—for all its advantages and faults—has ultimately played a central role in my Harvard life.

The day after I finally got my fas account set up, I concluded my second-ever e-mail—to a group of high school friends—with these words: “Finally, I would like to say that I am happy to have joined this fun though slightly weird e-mail group (though all e-mail is probably weird in some way). Though I might not check in as often as everyone else, I will try to make my messages memorable. See ya, Ned, a.k.a. the tall blonde freshman.” As I look back and try to make sense of the last four years, that message is more prescient than I usually give myself credit for. Harvard e-mail has indeed been enjoyable, weird and memorable. And I am still tall and blonde.

How will we remember this place? My roommates can be brutally honest, as one was when we were talking about this subject last week: At Harvard, he said, we have done lots and lots of work, and in the few moments when you have had no work and wanted to do something fun, none of your friends were free. Another roommate chimed in that these last, presumably idyllic weeks will give us happier memories of this place than was actually the case. Both of them seem at least partially right. I’m not trying to say I haven’t been happy here; I generally have. But through e-mail, I’ve discovered, I can try to recount the full breadth of my experience here: as a historical medium it has always been recording and capturing moments, while photos or journals, amid the hectic pace of my and everyone else’s Harvard life, have been much less thorough.

Recently I dug up “Correspondence, 1998-1999,” a haughtily titled booklet I made after my first year that contains all of that year’s important e-mails. Rereading them was a trip, because they cover everything—the Harvard I want to remember, and the Harvard I don’t want to remember. In them I’m obscenely optimistic and cheerful. I’m painfully naïve (and still am a little bit). On Jan. 20, exhilarated to be done with final exams and a very rough first semester, I write: “I’m done! I’m finally done! Hooray!” A week later comes a friendly e-mail from a friend I had worked with at camp the summer before. I never wrote back, and a few months later she was hit by a car and died.

The e-mails resurrect my wonderful intersession my first year, a time of unending fun, and the excitement of getting my first Harvard acting role. They recall the forgotten spontaneity of the night of Feb. 11, 1999: “All the gossip at 2:30: Ben is playing funky music. Ben and I were dancing at our ‘White Guys Hip-Hop Party’ a few minutes ago.” Then there is this uncharacteristically cocky e-mail from Feb. 9, just after I asked someone to the Freshman Formal: “Mission successful! I was very slick. Or she was very nice. Either way, she said yes.”

Then there are the things I’d rather not remember, but at the same time am glad I do. Anxiety-ridden, sleepless nights before exams. An e-mail where I bemoan, all too familiarly, that “I still worry too much.” Mistakes that still make me wince, but which now seem laughable. And, through these pages, there emerge the people I was absolutely infatuated with, in my innocent, lost sort of way. I can see how I’ve evolved, through missteps, painful moments and successes.

E-mail lends itself to impulsiveness, and to sweetness—there’s no easier way to send someone a short, cheery message. It is perfect for the late-night rhythm of a college campus, and useful for group discussions. But it also has severe limitations. During one exam period, it seductively allowed me to be a lazy reporter. At other times, I’ve fallen into the trap of using e-mail as a distanced way of expressing very difficult, and serious, things to say. Most importantly, it has fallen short thus far in my attempts to keep up relationships with far-off friends. One of my best friends, a recent graduate of Columbia, will occasionally send me e-mails that are about as open and full as can be—at that moment I have an intimate update on his life. But we can go long stretches without communicating, having come to a tacit understanding that we will only really catch up the next time we see each other in person.

Next week I will be in France for Let’s Go, and after that I’m not sure where I’m headed. And perhaps, in the end, that’s why I’ve been so focused on e-mail recently. Despite its value in recording the immediate past, in reminding me of who I have been, and in helping to make four years of Harvard fit in place, I have doubts about its ability to create the present. More and more, it seems, e-mail will be how our generation keeps in touch—and while it will definitely be convenient, it remains to be seen how close a connection e-mail can make.

Edward B. Colby ’02, a history concentrator in Winthrop House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2001.