Les Back (2016) Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters (Goldsmiths Press)
I often flick onto academic Twitter at lunchtime to see the latest developments in higher education. In recent months, the stream of articles and hot takes seems to have grown increasingly dark: Job cuts, gaming TEF metrics, portability of REF outputs, grade inflation. It’s enough to make me log out of the twittersphere.
What a pleasure it was, then, to pick up this book from Goldsmith’s sociologist Les Back (@AcademicDiary). Back is, by common acclaim, a really nice guy; in fact, an excellent review of Academic Diary by Rosalind Gill is titled "What would Les Back do?" In this diary-like set of short essays – spanning the academic calendar from graduation to the summer examination boards – he deals with a variety of issues (Twitter, PhD supervision, colleagues) in a light, humorous and perceptive manner. Back’s heart for research, colleagues, the local community and his students is clear and I challenge anyone to not feel a little envy at his evident concern for those lucky enough to know him professionally or personally. There is, for instance, a wonderful letter that Back writes to a soon-to-be first-year undergraduate student giving some excellent advice on doing well at university (“listen but don’t be silent”). I also learnt much about the particular history and ethos of Goldsmiths, and I enjoyed the generous anecdotes about two of Back's intellectual heroes: Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart. And yet there is also challenge and critique here; increased student fees, the neoliberalisation of the university, and Prevent, are all confronted in separate entries. "Part of the point of academic metrics," Back writes in one particularly pithy section (173-4), "is to make us as employees feel like we are failing even when we are killing ourselves to succeed." A poisonous discourse is exposed.
I’d really recommend this book for anyone starting out in higher education or, for that matter, those falling out with the modern university too. It really is a breath of fresh air that has provided me with a lot to contemplate as I mull over the next steps in my academic career.