Monday, May 14, 2012

I Really Wonder If You See Today Like I Do

The title of this post is from some song lyrics, in case you are wondering, and I will be semi-impressed if you know the reference without looking it up.

This song got into my head last week and refuses to leave. The instigating incident for the infliction of this song in my head was the nth in a series of similar, recent incidents that I will describe below; apparently, there was a tipping point, the consequences of which for me are these song lyrics in my head.

What happened? Not much, actually, but on several separate occasions, groups of people were sending me files. Imagine that a group of people -- say, students or colleagues serving on a committee with you -- are all sending you files by some electronic means (email attachments, uploads to a website etc.). Imagine that there are a 10 or 20 or more of these files, and you have to read them on your computer (for various reasons, you can't read them online).

Because you have to store them, at least temporarily, on your computer, it is useful if these files have distinct filenames. But some/most of these files don't have distinct filenames unless you change the filenames. Imagine getting 10 or 20 or 57 files all named "homework7.pdf" or "myreport_2012.pdf" or "proposal-text.pdf" or even "CV.pdf".

Even worse, for some of these documents, some file creators didn't even put their names in the file, assuming that you can match their file with their name in some other way. Well, you can, but only if you do it right away; after the file has been detached from its original source, you have to go back to the original source to figure this out, assuming you can do that.

In an average year, I spend more time than I would like renaming people's files.

This is possibly rather fascinating(ish). Does anyone think that filenaming habits indicate anything significant about the personality, world view, level of empathy, or something of an individual? For example, is there a deep and important difference between a person who anticipates that (for whatever reason -- your convenience and/or their own) it would be better to put their name in the filename vs. someone who gives the file the most immediately convenient name?

I don't know, but I think that anticipating that it might be more useful to use lastname_CV.pdf instead of CV.pdf does show an ability to think beyond your immediate computer environment.

I realize that in some cases we don't really know how our files will be accessed and by whom. For example, only once I was on a particular committee did I realize that files uploaded by individuals to a website were not compiled into a single pdf with the uploader's name attached to it; committee members just got the files with the original filenames, exactly as they were uploaded. It was a lot of stupid work to rename files (typically 4-8 files for each person) and create folders and keep track of everything. At the very least, I thought that if that particular organization/unit couldn't get its act together to have a decent website, they should at least give some instructions about file names, Clearly, leaving file naming to individuals was not a good idea. I am no longer on that committee, thank the committee gods.

I was thinking about this not only because I got a bunch of generic-named files recently but also because I received instructions from someone who requested that those of us in a particular group only send him email with one very specific subject heading (which he listed) and with information organized in a very particular way. This was clearly someone who had dealt with uninformative emails and files before and wasn't going to take it any more. I give similar instructions to my students when they send/upload homework files.

I sympathized, especially since I had just searched my computer for a CV that someone sent me a month or so ago.. finally found by returning to the original email, which I had saved (unusual for me).. and the file was named: CV.pdf. What was that person thinking?


Anonymous said...

Here is a line from one of my syllabi that seems astonishingly relevant (and yes, this happens to me often enough that I have to include it in my syllabus): "Name your writeup according to the convention “xyzexp1.doc.” Put your name in the file at the top. If I receive an experiment with an improper filename, I will not grade it. "

Quill2006 said...

At some point in my life it occurred to me that it would be extremely helpful to people receiving important files from me, whether they were homework or job applications, if I put my name in the filename. I've been doing that for a LONG time. I'm fairly sure it started in college, when I was sending papers to professors for the first time as a freshman.

I suppose I've never really thought much about it, but I think that it's become such a habit when sending any important email attachments because I want people receiving the documents to associate my name with the quality of my work, not with the bother of having to rename my files!

Alex said...

I harp on this in my class on science career skills. People from the Career Center give presentations on resumes, and I have them read articles on job-hunting. Once it's been impressed upon them that their resumes will be read by busy people whose attention needs to be grabbed within a few seconds, I ask them to imagine that a busy hiring manager actually finds their resume interesting enough to remember, but the file is one of the 400 files named "resume.pdf" so they can't find it. Well, they got 400 other resumes for this job, maybe one of those will be easier to find...

My CV file name is "CV-Alex [last name].pdf" for just that reason.

Finally, why do people distribute final versions of files in .doc or .ppt format? Haven't they had the experience of opening a file in a different version of the software and encountering some weird formatting that makes it turn out weird? Or opened the file to see Word's "Track changes" turned on and a bunch of confusing deletions and comments highlighted?

Always send it as a .pdf.

Anonymous said...

Why make your life harder than is has to be? Just state something like "Please understand that applications [Homework, proposals etc.] can only be considered if compiled in a single PDF document with your name in the filename (e.g. YOUR_LAST_NAME_.pdf)."
in the announcement or the job [course, grant etc.]? Of course, you'd have to be nit-picking to enforce this rule because otherwise it will be happily ignored and you'll be changing filenames forever.

Whoosh... said...

I think that there are quite a few people who just don't think beyond their keyboard and they esp. don't "waste" time thinking about what could be a helpful filename for the recipient.
My favorite example for that is not filenames, but email-addresses. Often I see undergrad students or even PhD candidates, who use email-addresses along the line instead of their general uni-address. And not only for internal communication, but sometimes as well as contact address of the corresponding author on publications. People are too busy in this fast world of communication and information to spend time for this kind of bits and bobs.

Anonymous said...

When I first started grad school I would date my files, but only with the day and month. At 22, I guess that it didn't occur to me that I would be accumulating files over many years. Maybe because the undergraduate classes I had taken were only a semester long, they didn't need the year, I don't know. But it definitely reflected my world view at the time. Kind of funny now.

SocSciProf said...

There is a distinct lack of training in professionalism at the undergrad and even graduate levels. I've definitely taught students who email their files as document.docx or something nondescript. I accept it, of course, but I do make a point of explaining that - in the real world - an employer with dozens or hundreds of applicants for a job will not put up with that. It's incredibly important to learn how to be professional in college - from addressing emails to your professor with an introduction ("Dear Prof..."), body, and conclusion; to understanding that most instructors with doctorates don't want to be called "Mrs."; to naming your files with your last name and something descriptive about it.

Anything I send off for a job has my last name in the document title (e.g., Lastname-CV.pdf) as well as in the document itself (e.g., Name at top of first page of CV, then in the footer on subsequent pages). You don't want an employer forgetting who you are mid-CV. They've got lots to read. Don't make their job harder.

So, if I have time, I will happily correct students about these little things that make all the difference in getting and keeping a job.

Female Science Professor said...

As I said in the post, I give file-naming instructions to my students about homework, papers etc. submitted as part of courses, but there are many examples in which I don't have the ability to give instructions in advance. Has anyone seen instructions about file-naming in an ad for a faculty position or postdoc? Internships? Or similar instructions to PIs for some grant or award programs? Or in requests for letters of reference?

Anonymous said...

I don't grade homework, but I do select grad students and hire postdocs from pools of lovely young people who I'm sure are all brimming with enthusiasm and great ideas. Those who name files in an informative manner, and provide easily accessible and salient information (credentials, publications, references) start with a huge advantage when I apply my "Do I want to look at this one further?" filter.

Anonymous said...

Several of the faculty ads I applied to in 2010 gave file-naming instructions, actually. I'm a computer scientist.

plam said...

I usually do name files descriptively. What's more, I used to edit PostScript files, before PDF became the standard, to include my name in the paper metadata (which appeared in the title of my PS viewer). PDF metadata is not as visible to me, so I don't edit that.

Susan said...

I was on the job market this year. I think I remember seeing one instruction about using identifiable filenames (which I do already and have done since many years).

The uploading systems were frustratingly different -- and of them, AcademicJobsOnline was by far the worst.

Some jobs wanted me to email a single PDF to a specific email address (this is what I preferred, actually, as 'basic' as it may seem).

Most had a site to which I uploaded docs or PDFs. Some of the latter were also frustrating in that they had a million fields (all mandatory!) that requested information and details (name, address, dissertation title, etc) that were, of course, already in my CV and/or cover letter. All that typing drove me nuts, especially when I suspected it was basically useless.

Anonymous said...

I'm a computer scientist too and I would say that faculty position ads that give file-naming instructions are in the minority. And I'd also add that being a computer scientist doesn't mean that you're going to think about the filename very hard.

Anonymous said...

Oh and also computer scientists don't seem particularly likely to have application submission sites that rename uploaded files, which would be the best case. Of course, the reason for that is that the computer scientists aren't making those sites themselves (that not being part of computer science).

Anonymous said...

I've seen some job ads and letter of rec requests that specify file naming format. It makes sense to me to have this. I always do this now (Me_CV, Me_ResearchStatement, etc) but don't really know where I picked it up, it wasn't discussed in job preparation but possible because my mentors may have thought it was so obvious. I'll make a point of saying this to my grad students.

John Vidale said...

I'm surprised not to see the simple explanation that usually comes to mind when I see non-descriptive labels.

It is a (minor) nuisance. I probably mail out 5 attachments a day, and each one should have a different file name for the recipient(s) than I give it internally on my computer.

Should I make a copy of each, renamed, then delete it again once it is attached and sent? I do for some requests and some times when I am sending in unsolicited materials, but sometimes I don't.

I assume people who send me materials are similarly challenged in labeling their attachments. So I keep all email I've ever received, and go find the attachment if I lose track of where it's been downloaded.

That's why gmail and apple mail offer many Gbytes of mailboxes.

Classes are more of an issue. When 50 kids mail attachments, they should have names, but assignments mailed in by 50 kids have more organizational issue than just sorting the files.

Anonymous said...

I probably did the "generic thoughtless filename" thing occasionally in college, but after my first semester as a TA I never did it again. I wish I had thought of the resume example as a way to explain to my students why it's a good habit to get into!

Andy said...

Usually I love you, FSP, but in this case I can't help but think that this is a file-management peculiarity that I've never seen as a problem. Keep the emails in folders rather than the files and you don't have this problem; find the email (with the person's name) and you have the file.

Anonymous said...

I tend to use my initials to identify files (eg: fml_cv.pdf). I think it has to do with the programming style I grew up with, which tended toward descriptive but as-short-as-possible lowercase variable names. But reading these comments suggests that might be less than ideal for someone not familiar with me searching for my file. Sounds like I should consider the more modern style of variable names, which tends towards longer, more explicit names with upper and lower case (eg: FMLast_cv.pdf).

Ms. Scientist, Ph.D. said...

My advisor repeatedly chastised me for not naming files correctly. I thought they were being picky. And then I became a TA. In the future I'm definitely going to put something into the syllabus!