'Academic Diary'

Author discusses his new book about why higher education still matters.

June 13, 2016

In his new book, Les Back mixes the daily events he experiences as a faculty member with larger issues facing his fellow professors and people who rely on academe. The book -- which features witty criticism of the way some administrators and politicians view higher education -- grew out of columns he started writing for his union's magazine. Back is a professor of sociology at the University of London, and while he describes developments in British higher education, many of the themes will resonate with American academics. The book is Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters. It was published by Goldsmiths Press of the University of London and is being distributed in the United States by MIT Press. Back responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: When you started the column that turned into many of these book chapters, how did you pick your topics?

A: Eudora Welty has this wonderful idea that writers don’t just listen to stories but we listen for stories. So, our imagination is always sifting what we notice. We are listening for significance, tuning in and making connections between any detail and its larger importance. That’s what I did in the process of writing Academic Diary. So the topics came from the moments when the value and significance of teaching and scholarship came to life on any given day on campus. So the book makes a case for the university the details of small everyday events. In that sense, it a case for why higher education matters from below.

The storyline of the book is derived from campus tales that I hope have some entertainment value too as well as provide evidence of the structural damage being visited on us by the changes in higher education policy in the U.K. So I hope the book is funny but also serious and poignant.

Q: In one chapter, you note that academics are "not always very likable," but then describe an exercise that changed your opinion of one set of academics. What happened that day? Are there lessons for academics generally from that experience?

A: I was asked by a research council to attend a workshop for people who that had received research grants. All the people there were successful academics. The facilitator of the workshop asked each of us to introduce ourselves, where we worked, our research and then say one thing about our biography that might be surprising. I remember at the time whispering to myself, "Ooh, no!"

I think the professional culture of academic life often encourages us to keep the most likable parts of ourselves hidden. We are prized for the sharpness of our minds, the unflinching nature of our critical capacities and our world-class braininess. This often means that we can be very ungenerous to each other. American sociologist Harvey Molotoch puts it well when he writes, the problem with sociologists is that we like to "eat each other"!

I was dreading that research council workshop, but when my colleagues started to answer the icebreaker question, a wonderful window opened into the extracurricular lives of the academics present. As we went round the table, secret passions were revealed, ranging from their involvement in folk singing or fire eating and juggling. The exercise certainly broke the ice, but it also thawed my view of this wonderful collection of eccentric people all presenting themselves as serious academics. Perhaps we should stop trying so hard to hide behind the mask of academic professionalism and perhaps we’d all get along a little better if we did: that was the lesson I took from that workshop.

Q: As you discuss in the book, what do you like and dislike about academic Twitter?

A: Social media can be a place where the worst excesses of academic self-presentation can be performed, including intellectual vanity, self-importance, self-promotion. August Comte use to have a large mirror above his writing desk. He would write one of his obtuse sentences and then look up admiringly at himself. Twitter can be a bit like Comte’s mirror.

It can also be a place for harsh judgments and crude sloganeering. Name-calling is not thinking. So, all that is the downside of academic social media. Having said all this, I still think that there are positive aspects to social media.

The thing I like about Twitter is that it can also be a place to pick up clues and pointers about matters of substance. When you follow a writer or theorist you admire on Twitter, you are often following their attentiveness to the world and the things they are pointing to. I think that is brilliant, and I learn so much from that.

The other thing that I like about Twitter is the democracy of the network. So many people I had lost contact with -- former students and colleagues -- have reconnected with me via Twitter. I also love the fact that it can put us seasoned campus veterans in contact with teenage students who are encountering our disciplines for the first time. I love that. At best this can be a really democratic circulation of hunches, clues and insights.

It’s been really wonderful to track who is reading Academic Diary in the Twittersphere. Often people tweet pictures of the book in bookshop windows or photographs of passages that they like. They often say what they think about and ask me to respond. That is something I hadn’t anticipated, to be able to eavesdrop on the reading of this book -- how it is being read, who is reading it and what they find compelling.

So, yes, I am a fan of Twitter. I don’t think it is a good place to have an argument or political disagreement, but I think it is a good place to follow the circulation of hunches and insights.

Q: In several of the essays, you talk about the importance of academe reaching low-income or disadvantaged students. Do you think trends are moving in the right direction in that regard?

A: I am really influenced by people like Stuart Hall, bell hooks and Richard Hoggart. I really believe in the transformative power for education. I benefited from it myself. Education is not a commercial transaction of networking and occupational opportunities. What higher education offers students is an opportunity to be more than what they are already and to learn how to think for themselves about the things that matter to them.

This vision of education is besieged in our time, because students are reduced to seeing themselves as consumers and teachers become little more than service providers. Also, it concerns me that in the U.K. government policy is not only increasing the financial cost of university education, it is also creating status hierarchies within the university sector.

All this has not deterred students in the U.K. from poorer families from applying. What concerns me is that students from those communities have been tricked into debt. I remember going to higher education talks with my own children and hearing representatives from students unions and universities saying, “Who offers you a loan and doesn’t expect you to pay it back?” The punch line is, “The government!” The fact that repayment of student loans in the U.K. doesn’t start until then lender earns £17,495 [about $25,000] a year -- which seems like a lot of money to a teenager -- was used to sell this lie.

I know that many young people have been encouraged to take loans and then for one reason or another have had to drop out. They don’t finish their course, but they still have thousands of pounds to repay. This is having a devastating effect on this generation, and I think it is too early to really tell what it will mean in the long term. I think the eventual consequence of the increase in fees and the burden of student debt will make universities more exclusive and largely available only to the children of the professional classes.

All this makes the honorable tradition of seeing education as a collective highway harder to sustain. I feel so angry about it, because it seems to me that the progress that was achieved in widening access and making universities less-elitist institutions is being rolled back. To my mind this is nothing short of an intergenerational betrayal.

Q: Would you describe the way you analyze academic conferences and their traditions in several countries?

A: There is an entry in the diary about the seasonal migrations of conference season that I hope is both lighthearted and serious. One of the things that is difficult for younger academics is to navigate conference culture. I am an admirer of the novels of David Lodge and I love his trilogy of books set in a university in the English Midlands. He has some wonderful accounts of the contrast between the occupational cultures of U.K. and U.S. universities. I think in the U.S. conferences have become increasingly about networking, professional gaming and deference. It’s like meeting people who are reciting their CVs all the time. In Australia it all seems more adversarial and a kind of intellectual brawling. While in the U.K., the cut and thrust of intellectual exchange can often be achingly polite on the surface but just as vicious behind the scenes.

I am always struck by how much we put ourselves on the line when we talk about our work at conferences. It is a risky business, and I know many people -- myself included -- who find this existentially precarious. One of the things that I don’t think we talk about enough is how to make and take criticism. That’s the serious point behind the absurdities of the "performance of intelligence" in the conference colloquia.

Q: How would you (briefly) answer the question raised by your subtitle: Why does higher education still matter?

A: Higher education still matters because thinking and the life of the mind matters. We live in a time where more information is being generated than at any other point in human history. The university offers one key place where that information can be weighed and judged.

Our society seems hell-bent on producing ignorance rather than understanding. So the university matters as a place to consider the big questions of the 21st century but also as a place where esoteric preoccupations are legitimate, too.

The classroom still provides a place for bloodless revolutions of thinking. Academic Diary offers some frontline documentation of that happening. University teachers often play a role in helping students figure out where they fit in the mix of society and history. It's what makes the work we do precious and worth enduring all the madness of the assessment exercises and academic audits. You can’t measure that with a performance metric or put a figure on the value of that.


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