There was a time when I enjoyed e-mail. Before my PhD, e-mail had been largely peripheral to my life and something that was simply a back-up when other options weren’t available. Yet suddenly in my first year, it became ever more interesting. I’d log into my inbox and suddenly I’d find news about an event I wanted to go to, a part time job I could apply for or an interesting discussion on a mailing list I couldn’t help but read. There was so much interesting stuff in this new academic world that was opening up to me and e-mail felt like the conduit through which I could access it all.
How naive I was. A few years on, e-mail has become the bane of my existence, as I’ve become ever more familiar with the endlessly dispiriting Sisyphean cycle of finally clearing my inbox then, before you know it, suddenly finding it full again. Granted, I realise it was an incredible revolution in human communications but an abstract sociological appreciation of that fact doesn’t make it any less dispiriting when you yet again find yourself doing two hours of e-mail before bed just so you can start the next day with a vague feeling of self-organisation. In my brief working life in academia, e-mail has begun to seem like a self-perpetuating machine for constant distraction and over-commital. With this has come my introduction to the feeling of never quite being on top of everything which increasingly pervades academic life. In a 2009 article about the ‘hidden injuries’ of the modern university Rosalind Gil observes how:
In the extract that begins this section, the male professor characterises himself as variously ‘addicted’, ‘obsessive’ and ‘compulsive’ when he might more accurately be seen as enacting quite reasonable strategies in order to cope with an entirely unreasonable workload. ‘Addiction’ metaphors suffuse academics’ talk of their relationship to e-mail, even as they report such high levels of anxiety that they feel they have to check e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and in which time away (on sick leave, on holiday) generates fears of what might be lurking in the inbox when they return. Again, inventive ‘strategies’ abound for keeping such anxiety at bay eg putting on your ‘out of office’ reply when you are actually in the office.
Gill, R (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge
How common is this experience? I don’t know and, ironically, I realise I feel too pressured by the need to do e-mail tonight to properly research this question for a short article. Anecdotally though it seems pretty damn widespread. Yet within the contemporary university system, it is too easily framed as a marginal issue of personal productivity: ‘e-mail overload’ to be managed through ‘personal productivity’ strategies and coaching rather than an indicator of structural and infrastructural inadequacies within the university system. Academics are forced to seek biographical solutions to systemic contradictions. The fact universities offer support in better meeting those demands on an individual level is certainlywelcome but it doesn’t exactly address the issue.
There’s a need for much greater pluralism and creativity within internal comms strategy. Without institutional support for diversification away from the present over-reliance on e-mail, it’s difficult to see how innovation can be sustained within higher education, given the demands placed on staff to do more with lessin the current climate and the limitations of the communications infrastructure drawn upon at every stage of that activity. Paradoxically, it’s these ever-increasing occupational responsibilities which stand in the way of diversification away from e-mail on an individual level, as experimentation with other forms of internal communication is too easily dismissed as something one doesn’t have the time for.
Developing strategies to diversify away from e-mail should be a major strategic priority within higher-education. In order to avoid being yet another occupational pressures, these strategies must have a participatory focus, seeking to expand the repertoire of communicative styles and platforms available to academics in a way which is personally empowering. In doing so the institution would work towards maximising the latent capacity for creative communication and collaboration contained within it. By which I mean that, sociologically speaking, the communications infrastructure an institution relies on functions as both enablement and constraint in relation to the particular projects of the individuals within it (whose projects, in the broadest sense of the term, are very important to the institution because the individuals still enjoy a relatively high degree of occupational autonomy relative to much of the working world).
There’s only so much collaboration that can emerge if the communicative tools available are limited i.e. the latent capacity within the institution. Exactly how much of that capacity contingently gets exercised in a particular time and place is an empirical question but, in principle, everyone wins. Academics connect more seamlessly, autonomously and enjoyably with others. Institutions create the communicative conditions for a thriving, creative and interdisciplinary research culture. Exactly how this works in practice is a complex question. It’s also undoubtedly situational, at least somewhat defined by all manner of internal socio-cultural characteristics and histories of particular institutions. But as research questions go, it’s far from unsurmountable. It just needs time, resources and support at an institutional level.