I love ongoing scholarly conversations that take place in the public sphere. I recently read Les Back’s (2016) delightful Academic Diary: Or why higher education still matters which chronicles the seasonal temporalities of thirty years of academic life (with thanks to Tai Peseta for the recommendation). No doubt I will have more posts inspired by the ideas in the book — generosity as a strategy for survival, what it means to live a good academic life, the value of notebooks, the vulnerabilities of doctoral supervision — but for now an excerpt that sums up what the book offered:
More than any other measure the value of what writers do, even academic ones, is to provide companionship for further thought. Writing here is less an achievement that is measured extrinsically than an invitation to imagine beyond its own terms of reference. Books and essays here befriend and encourage thinking .. This value cannot be audited or cheapened through the mechanisms that aim to judge, measure and distribute repute and ultimately money.
I subsequently read Rosalind Gill’s review What would Les Back do? If generosity could save us (and I highly recommend reading her chapter — all the way to the post-script — on the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia). Gill’s review of Academic Diary covers quantified academia, slowness, listening, and I was heartened that these are all things I have been thinking about on this blog. Describing herself as a party pooper, she asks an important question:
But where, I wondered, amidst this elegiac portrait, is the pain of contemporary academic life? No one, and last of all me, wants to exaggerate this suffering or to engage in some narcissistic project of self-indulgence when there is true agony in the world … But nevertheless there is significant suffering in academia … people … pushed to breaking point by impossible workloads; people perpetually on the edge of total collapse: people whose existence is defined by an excoriating anxiety, who dread every new research assessment or teaching feedback, who feel themselves to be hanging by a thread or clinging on by their fingernails.
Not afraid of tricky questions or bad affects (more on this in a future post), Les Back responded to Gill’s review thoughtfully and emotively. His responses resonate this week in Australia, which saw the publication of the damning National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities. Here, I want to highlight Back’s list of what he tries to do:
I talk to students honestly about the challenges we face and how the pressures and institutional changes are a feature of what we do together. Support the union even when I disagree with it. Hold onto my enthusiasm for learning and books in teaching and the capacity to be surprised by ideas. Listen to the complaints of colleagues even if I do not agree with them. Notice a colleague who is struggling. Do not look away from abuses of academic privilege and have the courage to report them. Acknowledge the people who support the university and make it work from the front desk to the department administrator. Take time to report things that go wrong—like technological failures in teaching rooms—but also remember to praise them when they go right. Only make criticisms I am willing to put my name to or say to the face of the person concerned. If I cannot judge without prejudice a piece of writing or a grant application for funding I send it back. Participate in fostering the creation of a community of scholars and thinkers. Do not leave it to someone else carry my workload. Offer to give a colleague a break from her/his teaching if I can. Take time off. Have a life outside of the university and encourage others to. Get out as much as possible and talk to audiences who are interested in ideas wherever they are. Take and give hope.
Individually, these are small acts. They could be described as examples of Barbara Grant’s STARS or what Thwaites and Pressland (2017) call ‘micro-activisms’ that work alongside greater acts of resistance and change. Collectively, these kindnesses have the potential to change academia from a place marked by undercare to one that nurtures us when we are not stable, functional, powerful and unimpaired. More on this next week.
In the meantime, before I rush to my next meeting, I take a moment to enjoy the view from my office window: