Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The pleasures of being an academic

Джон Гарвард
New World: established 1636, compare founded 1755
Comment www.thelancet.com Vol 387 June 25, 2016 

Offline: The pleasures of being an academic 


The case against modern university life has never been stronger. In his new book, Les Back, a Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, describes the predicaments of surviving within today’s “neoliberal university”. Academic Diary (Goldsmiths Press, 2016) is his report from the front lines of higher education in Britain. He uses the terms of the academic year to uncover the vicious cruelties and small beauties of university life. He anatomises the audit culture, its individualised quantification of performance and value, together with its professionalisation, overspecialisation, managerialism, overproduction, selfish ness, hollow vanity, and even racism. He describes the way students have been turned into customers and consumers. Universities have become places of commercial exchange, selling knowledge as a commodity whose only purpose is to be traded in the world of work. The university has changed from being an independent retreat for learning into little more than “cheap degree shops” and instruments for immigration control. The financial constraints on higher education, the ever greater pressure for efficiency (cramming as many students as one can into a lecture theatre {и тут театр}), and the diminution of teaching in the university’s mission are examples of a gradual corrosion of academic purpose.
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But amid these reflections on decline, something quite remarkable emerges. Back is not telling a story of failure at all. He is writing a manifesto for why the university matters so much. His book is a magnificent tract of resistance. It is not a survival or self-help guide, but a treatise on the remoralisation of the university. He writes about the “resurrection of hopes”. The sense each day that another kind of university is possible, one where students and faculty think together, exhibit ideas, and foster “a critical imagination that is truly global and cosmopolitan in reach”. Teaching matters. The enchantment of ideas provides so much more than a degree to be sold in the workplace. The culture of the university is about understanding life itself. Back does not lecture. But he does distil. He uses his own experience of struggle (and even error) to convey lessons he has learned, sometimes painfully—slow one’s thinking down, take risks, be a communicator of ideas, and consider what you do to be an intellectual vocation. For his fellow faculty, he invites them to convey their passion in their subject, and to be interested in their students’ interests too. He displays an appreciation for the whole life of the university, paying attention to the hidden (and often unrecognised) contribution made by non-academic staff —those who “actually get things done and make universities work”. His words are filled with the humanity of an academic life.
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Academic Diary is a compendium of stories, each one offering insights into the potential and possibility of a university life. Back’s stories—a lost notebook, a mislaid pen, a moving but ultimately devastating visit to the home of his hero, Primo Levi—reveal the kindness of scholarship and learning. He rejects the usual backbiting criticism so common in academic writing. He prefers instead to praise and applaud. He names those he admires (Richard Hoggart, John Berger, and Stuart Hall). He describes the pleasures of academia’s rituals—welcome week (“a time of beginnings”), the lecture (“a listening workout”), supervision (“intellectual excitement”), invigilation (a space for thought), reading (“the most important thing that any student does”), writing (“an invitation to imagine”), the PhD viva (its curious social etiquette), graduation (the university’s New Year’s Eve), the open day (prioritising the student), and the opportunity for renewed flourishing provided by retirement. He gives short soliloquies on “stationery fetishism”, the writer’s desk, the untimely death of a student, the inherent unfairness of publishing, and the (still high) importance of the library (a place of refuge and serendipity). And there are moments of serene and compassionate writing too: “thinking can suture and balm lives that feel as if they are falling apart, where we have the right to ask to be more than what we already are”. He challenges the “miserliness in academic life”. His ultimate message is one of generosity. Understanding the world is difficult. The academic’s task—indeed, privilege—is to develop and impart “an ethics of thinking”. Whether you are a sceptical student or a cynical professor, Academic Diary will remind you of why a life of intellectual endeavour truly matters.



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