An academic diary provides the time frame of university life: it also gives it a storyline. Early September marks the beginning of another year. Jay Parini says that academic life is renewed with the fall of autumn leaves, ‘shredding the previous year’s failures and tossing them out of the window like so much confetti’. It is a time to plan the year ahead. The academic diary is also a navigation device, a compass ensuring – as a far as possible – that we are in the right place (meetings, lectures, seminars) at the right time.
Written in the form of a chronicle, this book comprises a series of short essays that take the form of diary entries. Each reflects the seasons of faculty existence located within what Elaine Showalter calls ‘academic time’. It isn’t a specific year but rather the accumulation of twenty years of reflection on the university and scholarship as both student and teacher, presented as a single year. Organized into three main seasons – autumn, spring and summer – the book tries to chronicle a sense of passing but repeated time in a life of learning.
Why write a book in the form of an academic diary? Isn’t it a bit old fashioned in the age of the iPad to bother with a diary? Maybe so. But in a way, the diary symbolizes something ancient and profound about the rhythm and content of an intellectual vocation. As I assembled these stories written over two decades, clear seasonal patterns started to emerge. The diary form became a device to signal the tasks we fill up our diaries with as well as the tempo of academic life ranging from frantic busyness to quiet reflection. To the outsider, the cloistered world of the university can seem full of eccentricity and intrigue. For the uninitiated newcomer, campus life seems governed by absurd invisible protocols and mysterious unwritten rules. The diary aims to demystify them.
Our tale starts in September with graduation – the New Year’s Eve of academic life – a time when the fruits of university education are brought to life through the successes of our students. For a university teacher, the period before teaching starts is a period of anxious expectation. For faculty, before the beginning of teaching there is real academic excitement but also a tight-chested dread. They know the intensity of the teaching term is exhausting and by the eighth week they will be saying to their colleagues ‘just holding on for the end of term’. As the promises of September wane and the hopefulness of graduation fades, entries segue into the wintery seriousness of topics focused on the autumn term. Each entry addresses an important issue, ranging from teaching and advice to new students to widening participation initiatives and the professional ethics of anonymous peer reviewing.
Spring is a time when changes are afoot and when academic plots are hatched. As Richard Russo writes, ‘April is the month of heightened paranoia for academics … Whatever dirt will be done to us is always planned in April.’ For this reason the entries in this section focus on the intrigues of academic life from issues such as intellectual recognition, peer reviewing and the auditing of academic value. The spring is when the serious work of teaching is done and when students have to complete assessments. It’s also a time when students can run into difficulties as the serious business of revision, dissertation completion and the summer exams starts to loom on the horizon. Easter is also ‘conference season’ and when papers are given its possible to meet one’s intellectual heroes and adversaries. All these issues are treated in entries for this period.
Summer is the denouement of the academic year. This section of the diary covers exams, invigilation, the stresses of marking and the annual exam board. It is also the period when PhDs have to be completed and vivas planned. By mid-July the academic cycle enters the languid pursuits of late summer when books are authored, articles written and holidays taken.
I also hope that the reflections offered in the pages that follow are useful as a way of orienting the reader in relation to the values of higher education as a place to think together. It does not aspire to the dreary instrumentalism of a ‘how to succeed in academia’ self-help book. Entries aim to entertain but also to explore intellectual craft, from techniques in lecturing, how to supervise PhD students, the challenges of developing one’s own writing style, balancing campus responsibilities with engaged research, dealing with the colleagues who constantly ‘name drop’ or exploring what happens when you meet writers you admire. At the same time, the diary offers a commentary on the quality of higher education and its relationship to the wider world and how it is being disfigured by cultures of audit and commercialization. In these small tales of campus life a larger argument is made for the value of thinking and why university education still matters.
So to begin and our story opens with graduation. It might seem strange to start here, at the end of the student’s journey. I have always felt that graduation is really the start of something, the beginning of a new chapter in the student’s life but also a moment of renewal for the university and its staff.