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Published onJul 09, 2019

There is always a pause between the final copy editing of a new book and its assembly as a glued and bound physical thing that will travel and hopefully be read.  For authors it is often a nerve-racking time. In the days before the appearance of Academic Diary: Why Higher Education Still Matters in April, 2016, I had one of those moments and a crisis of nerve. The book, as the subtitle suggests, is an argument for why the university is still a precious and valuable place to think, talk and learn. The case made for Higher Education is not made in a grand thesis style but rather through documenting small everyday experiences from an academic life both on and off campus over a period of more than thirty years.  My crisis of confidence was more amplified than usual. I had experienced this kind of thing before, but the reason for the prepublication nerves this time was my gut feeling that the conversation about Higher Education had moved somewhere else by spring of 2016. The looming threats of more accelerated market-driven education, burgeoning student debt, the obsession with new performance metrics like the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) and the pending deliberations of the Stern Committee added to the nagging sense that perhaps I’d got the tone of the writing wrong.

Thankfully this fear was unfounded and the response to the book was nothing short of astonishing. It has been read widely across the campus social structure including students, early career academics, seasoned professors, academic administrators, receptionists and even heads of university human resources and finance departments. It has also found a readership beyond the humanities and social sciences and has been reviewed by chemists, mathematicians and appeared in The Lancet and the Journal of General Practitioners.  

In this Preface to the PubPub edition I want to just make a few comments on the things that have struck me about the book’s reception. One reader emailed me to say that what they liked about the book is that it captured ‘things many of us were thinking but not saying.’ Working with Goldsmiths Press and MIT Press was a very different experience of academic publishing in that I felt very much part of a discussion about production values and form. For this edition, I thought it would be interesting to comment on the book’s reception and what this revealed about the digital environment and how this has changed the way we write, work and think.

Almost immediately following its publication in early summer 2016 the book was being commented upon on social media. These Twitter commentaries offered fleeting peeks into how and where the book was being read. Photographs were tweeted of it in bookshops or being held in the hands of readers. Sometimes it was open face down on a bedside table next to a cup of tea or in the buffet car of a train being carried along as holiday reading for a camping trip. These free-range portraits of reading were often beautiful, funny and surprising. On 7th June Amber Davis [@_AJDavis] tweeted a portrait of a pastoral holiday on the banks of the river Loire in France with an otter in the background swimming past on cue.  Graham Gaskell [@grahamagaskell] tweeted the book from the table of a restaurant on the last night of his holiday in Oia, Santorini as ‘desert reading.’ The book’s irreverent tone and lightheartedness seemed to have encouraged playfulness amongst readers. 

Some of these images just made me smile, like a picture of the book under the chin of a beloved pet dog or the paperback propped up against the heavenly, wooden body of a Fender Telecaster electric guitar. Other photographs were more poignant like Hannah Mahoney [@HanMadecardiff] who tweeted a portrait of her new born baby with a copy of the book on the cot pillow with the message ‘perfect #breastfeeding reading thanks’. I wanted to write this argument for academic life in an affecting way that would move readers, and also hoped the book would befriend them.  

Some regard this kind of academic trending – to use social media parlance – with suspicion. I remember showing these tweets at a seminar on the book and someone in the audience complained that they smacked of a kind of ‘academic display’ or ‘neoliberal individualism’ where tweeting stands in for the real politics of going to union meetings and activism. I think the tweets and emails that I received at the time were much more than academic flummery. I often think you can’t fake sincerity. Beneath the playfulness of the tweets something about the book, it’s style and sentiment had resonated.         

I received a lot of immediate feedback via email from readers who said it had been a ‘joy to read.’ I remember once going to Goldsmiths cafeteria and a woman, probably in her fifties, approached me. She said, ‘You don’t know who I am but I know who you are.’ I didn’t know quite what to say. It felt like this could be either an opening to an angry rant or warm appreciation. Then she said that she bought Academic Diary for her husband who was in Media Studies in another university. He had enjoyed the book and found it ‘heartening to read about someone else’s struggle with all this crap’. Someone said that they’d read an entry in bed before sleep and found its tone ‘reassuring’ and ‘comforting’.   

Others wrote saying that they had started reading and then couldn’t stop – perhaps the highest possible compliment. As Ros Gill noted in her review, the book is paced like a novel with emotional ups and downs, with contrasting shades of lightness and seriousness. The book is against the metric-obsessed aspects of academic culture and argues that these measures are unable to tell the story of what matters in the university today.  

By the time the book was completed, my own children had grown up and I no longer had the pressure of the manic balancing act of the school run. One female colleague said that the ‘portraits of you sitting in coffee shops scribbling notes is nothing like my mad morning rush to get the kids to school’. I never intended to speak for anyone other than myself, but I did want the book to encourage readers to see themselves in it, either in terms of things that were recognizable or points of disagreement or contrast.

While Academic Diary started off as an online blog, as a physical book it also had a second immaterial lease of life on the internet. Paragraphs and single pages of the book have been photographed by readers on their mobile phones and shared. As they are tweeted and re-tweeted it is astonishing to watch them blow through academic social media like torn out pages on the wind. It is more substantial than superficial citation or Twitter decorations. Dr Liz Oakley-Brown, Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster, documented on Twitter her reading of Academic Diary between 18th October and 26th November, 2016. She shared over twenty tweets containing photographed passages and comments on them. The tweets showed how the words were being shared but also Liz’s attention and what resonated with her as a reader. In a way this showed how words on paper and screen are combined within the new hybrid informational environment in which reading now takes place.  

All this has been a source of surprise and wonder, and the experience of publishing Academic Diary has been unlike any other. Two years on from its publication, I feel it was worth the risk of trying something new in terms of the form that academic writing can take. The book fosters a sensibility and way of being an academic, albeit it from the point of view of a middle aged white man with a bit of a checkered past, while at the same time trying to understand what is happening to the university. It certainly does not count within the arithmetic of importance imposed through academic metrics. However, from the response of readers it is probably the most valued book I’ve written. My sense is still that the things we count mathematically are not the most important things. 

Written in a singular voice, I hope Academic Diary is against individualism in all its forms. Scholarly life is conceived in it, by contrast, as a collective shared craft in which generosity is a survival strategy. It seems to me that neoliberal academia makes it appear that selfishness is the only way to survive. Ultimately, the book argues that the narrowing of our vocation is bad for thinking, bad for scholarship and bad for education itself.  The UK’s University and College Union pensions strike of 2018, and the collective effervescence of picket lines across the country, was a reminder that another university is possible. So many people reported that they’d met more colleagues during the strike than they had in the years they’d worked at their university. The liveliness of the ‘teach outs’ as well as the difficult conversations that were also had on the picket line felt to many of us like the university at its best. It served as a reminder that education can be fun, impassioned, difficult but also lively and vital. I wanted this book to try and convey all those qualities too because this is why – despite everything – I think Higher Education still matters.


Les Back

August, 2018.

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