Academic Diary, written by Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths (UoL) is the first book to be published by Goldsmiths Press.
Composed of highlights from 30 years in academia, Academic Diary provides an articulate reflection on higher education, the various challenges of academia and the day to day encounters British universities face. Structured in Terms (Autumn, Spring and Summer), Academic Diary offers a companionate guide, borrowing from many perspectives toward higher education: the Undergraduate, Postgraduate, Lecturer and Professor.
Despite higher education’s ever-growing anxiety over finances, Academic Diary explores and embraces what university is meant for – an environment to learn and absorb. Les argues the university shouldn’t be considered just a commercialised system which follows the protocols of a transaction, and critically analyses university in a chronological time frame; offering a companionship which is written from a rich academic experience.
The resolve not to change Academic Diary’s concept, so it could have been published earlier, reflects Les’ interest in preserving the university as a learning environment and the will not to be swayed by commercialisation. It is a quick-witted reminder of what university should be whilst still considering the issues that surround higher education.
The following interview with Les allows for a brief insight into the concepts of Academic Diary, as well as an uplifting critique of what life in the framework of university actually represents.
Academic Diary was originally designated to be a book, but then it adapted to a very successful blog, what do you think the physical form of it as a book adds and how does its interpretation differ from online?
This is a really good question because I think books and blogs have a different relationship to time. A blog always starts with the most recent addition to the unfolding concerns of the blogger. In a way, bloggers tell their story from the time frame of the present and now. Books are different and I really had to think about the story I wanted to tell in the book version of Academic Diary. Where does my story start but also where does it finish?
It’s the type of book you are able to pick up and read sections almost as guidance, was this your intention? An insight into higher education from an insider…
Yes, I hope it has that function but more as a companion rather than being directive. I never wanted to write an academic self-help book but I do want it to be a book that teachers, researchers, and writers can use to invite reflection of what is at stake for them as academics. I also hope that the book will encourage academics to follow their conscience and sometimes be brave enough to act differently where necessary.
There is a subtle element of humour in the book, was this intentional?
I want the book to be entertaining and funny to read. Sometimes making fun of academic absurdities has a serious point to make too. Humour can be a way of reckoning with incommensurable things and the academic contradictions we have to live with while at the same time not being trapped within them. I hope I am also laughing at myself too because as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz once commented, it’s good for intellectuals, and by extension professors, to be made to feel a fool on occasion.
You chose to write it as an academic working in academia with a time perimeter and content reflecting that, why?
Well, I have always loved the annual rhythm of university life. It has a tempo that repeats year after year but never the same way twice. Academic work is seasonal work! It is very different from other jobs that have more or less the same quality all year round. My wife is a nurse and she often comments that it must be nice to work in an environment where what you do in the autumn is different from the summer. I wanted to use that as a kind of story line for the book and that’s why it is organised in the form of a single year. However, it’s misleading in that the entries are really a reflection of thirty years of experience.
The book provides an alternative look at higher education. What made you want to write from this view?
Well, I started to get a little impatient with the elegant critiques of what has happened to the university today. All the brilliantly depressing dissections of the neoliberal academy – from metricisation, corporate university, financialisation, managerialism and all the rest – sometimes borders on high-minded self-satisfaction. So, I wanted to write in a more affirmative mode – I wanted to argue for why universities still matter. I wanted to make an argument about the importance of the idea of defining and defending the values of higher education through the way we act every day.
The book is really about the vocation of learning and teaching from the classroom, invigilating exams, visiting schools or open days or the coffee shop where you steal five minutes peace. I hope the message of the book is that we can take the power we have to define the university from below. Students and staff can act together, even against the odds, to preserve the revolutions in thinking that take place on any given day in the classroom, and even in the face of those bloodless few who want to make learning a commercial transaction.
Obviously, this is a great accomplishment and it’s really interesting, what was your initial starting point and did you think that this would become what it has?
Well, the book was an idea that wouldn’t let go of me. It was made available online first because although editors loved the idea it just didn’t fit within the conventions of academic publishing. It was read by tens of thousands of people online from all around the world. I never thought it would ever be realised as a book. Then the Goldsmiths Press and MIT became interested in a book version. In a way, the story of the publication of the book is an example of the wider message: we shouldn’t give up on the things that we think are important just because they don’t fit in with what publishers or auditors of academic value, or politicians want from us.
Academic Diary is available now from Goldsmiths Press
Article and Interview by Maddy White, Goldsmiths Journalism student and writer for The Leopard