ABSTRACT. Email has become a pervasive feature of academic life. Its impact on academic time will be immediately familiar to contemporary readers; simultaneously, however, academic work associated with email may be hidden from official recognition. Awareness of this contradiction stimulated a proposal to investigate email use over a year of an academic’s life to explore tensions among administrative, research and teaching tasks, using third-generation activity theory to frame the findings. The proposed investigation proved to be too ambitious and unworkable. However, earlier and contemporary forms of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) may still illuminate both the reasons for failure of the study and how email has contributed to the expansion and transformation of the activity system of higher education. A revised study and a comparison with an alternative account of “overload” – files and other artefacts in an attic – suggest that counting and categorizing emails would miss the crucial issues of the object of higher education and internalization of responses to neoliberal and other imperatives. The study concludes with a need to detach from a personal response to email and recognize its contribution to collective practices and their implications, including resistance and solidarity in the face of excessive and hidden workloads. pp. 49–64

Keywords: Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT); higher education; hidden labour; overload; transformation; internalization


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Moray House School of Education,
University of Edinburgh, UK

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