“And what do you for a living?” This sounds a familiar question to me. So far, I am never really sure how I should answer it. The good news is that I am not alone facing these perplexed eyebrows from my interlocutors. Les Back, a Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, recounts in his book, An Academic Diary – Or Why Higher Education Still Matters (Goldsmiths Press, 2016), with humility and humanity some of his attempts to provide satisfying answers to this question when he makes new encounters. This book is a treasure of little anecdotes describing tactfully relationships between an academic and his colleagues, his students, his friends and family.
Written with the very sharp eye of a sociologist used to note life details skillfully, this book maps with candor the main highlights of an academic year, under the form of diary entries. So there are entries mainly related to teaching (eg: welcome week, open days, silence please – exam in progress, exam board etc.), to administration (eg: research expenses, holding the fort) and to research and writing (eg: that special pen, writing and scholastic style, lost notebook). One can find lots of practical tips throughout these entries (eg: the use and abuse of Twitter; the special section on “leads and follow up” at the end of the book or the index entries to the book available online).
My favorite chapter is probably the one telling the story of the “Library Angel”. We all have met him when we ventured in the library to fetch a book whose classmark we have duly written down, but we actually found the book under the shelf below far more appropriate and inspiring for our research exploration. When did it happen to you last?
Although the entries relate to the life experience of a professor in sociology, they strongly echo my own experience of the tensions between the ideals of an intellectual endeavor and the reality of modern higher education in the UK. In seeking to provide the best teaching we can to our fee-paying students, we come to question our ability to do so. In seeking to unpack the social dimensions and potential impact of our research, we are also striving for personal recognition and to be “remembered”.
I truly enjoyed reading this book, so much so that it played a key role in emboldening me to discuss the setting up of this blog. Researching and writing are fascinating enriching processes that we need to nurture and share. They can help provide the intellectual space for others – students, colleagues, citizens – to develop their own mapping of the contemporary social challenges. We are very privileged to be in such a position.
Yseult Marique, Senior Lecturer, Essex School of Law