At first glance you might be tempted to assume that Les Back’s Academic Diary is yet another title in the homespun wisdom genre inhabited by the likes of James Herriot. However, closer inspection reveals that it is not just another set of heart-warming tales of everyday academic folk, but an eloquently written exposition of what it means to be a teacher. Its subtitle, Or Why Higher Education Still Matters, should alert you to the stance taken by Back that the ethos of the modern university has changed dramatically over our lifetime, and the changes have not always been for the better for scholars or students. The author is obviously an academic contemporary of mine, and I find his descriptions of his undergraduate and postgraduate experiences in the 1980s familiar and very evocative. They match very closely with my memories, although we have never met, went to entirely different institutions and had quite different research interests.
The book is nicely organised in short chapters, which genuinely have the feel of a diary of events throughout the academic year. To emphasise this, the diary starts at the beginning of the academic calendar, in September, and proceeds to cover high and low points of the academic year, with some slight detours for character sketches of people who have featured prominently in the author’s academic career. These are well done, and for people working in that particular field, these are valuable viewpoints, although for the general reader they will be more of a side issue. These days many scholars write this type of prose in a blog, and this book has the general feel of one, although it is considerably more polished.
Where Academic Diary really starts to sing is when Back describes some of the dilemmas a university teacher faces, and how the teacher tackles them. I was particularly struck by his description of whether or not to fail a student who had turned in a poor piece of work. His initial inclination, to give her a bare pass, was argued down by a colleague as not being in the best interests of the student. Having failed, the student had to resubmit the work, which was improved out of all recognition, and so although the final grade was still in essence the same, after penalties for having to resubmit were applied, the net result was a gain for the student. This cuts to the heart of being a teacher. When is failure by a student acceptable, and when is it necessary to fail a student to spur intellectual growth? All of us who teach have faced, or will face, this situation. In the modern university, this process is squeezed by the relentless demands of administrators to keep the pass rate high and by the expectations of students who, having paid for tuition, believe they should pass.
There are also some extremely funny and perceptive entries, such as “Death by PowerPoint”, which manages to convey not only the perils of teaching with technology but also some of the ways that it can be harnessed to improve teaching and learning. (But don’t let your children play with screen savers, as the author finds out to his cost.) As with all teaching, it is always possible to make a fool of yourself, and any technology in the classroom magnifies and expands these possibilities immensely.
There are a few areas of minor self-indulgence here, with some philosophy in-jokes (which I had to research to understand that they were jokes) and the very occasional lapse into somewhat arcane academic jargon; but for the most part, Academic Diary is an extremely good read. It is also an easy read, thanks to its short chapters, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who thinks about teaching, about how we do it, and how we can continue to do it while in the throes of academic turmoil. The university, as an institution, is many centuries old. It coped with the Industrial Revolution, but it seems to be losing its way as we move into a post-industrial society. I wonder whether, a century from now, the scholars of the future will read this book and shake their heads at the half-century where academia forgot what it was all about. Or will the scholars of the future, in their credentialing and workplace preparation institution, be amazed at the quaint notion of education for the public good rather than as a financial transaction? I’m with Back in hoping that the best traditions of scholarship and teaching will not have been forgotten. Academic Diary will help to preserve and cherish that ideal.
Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters
By Les Back
Goldsmiths Press, 272pp, £9.95
Published 29 April 2016