Sociologists often see what the rest of us miss.
Les Back is a professor of sociology at Goldsmith’s, University of London. A prolific scholar, he is known for his work on race, popular culture, and urban life. Back is witty and funny. He is an active presence in popular media. In The Art of Listening, he wrote about sociology’s ability to make sense of our daily lives. In his recently published, Academic Diary, Or Why Higher Education Still Matters, Back uses his ethnographic skills to make sense of his work as a teacher, scholar, mentor and colleague at an urban public institution. It is an accessible book, easy to read and humorous, and sprinkled with sharp critical observations.
Academic Diary is not a “real” diary. Back selectively uses more than three decades of life in higher education to flesh out the autumn, spring and summer terms. While the calendar and terms are somewhat different in England, everything here should be recognizable to an American who has spent time in academia.
Back avoids war stories. Nor has he written a self-congratulatory work about helping students or making an impact with research. Instead, Back focused his trained eye on an academic’s world, using the cadence of a school year to explore the good, the bad, and the absurd. The passage of time illuminates what has remained the same – such as the influence of a good academic advisor – and what has changed – such as the cost and fees. Academic Diary references many other works, but it is without footnotes. Instead, Back provides guides for follow-up reading. It is a personal book, but also one that is scaffolded with scholarship and the work of others.
Diaries unfold over time. While individual entries may appear to be unconnected, when looked at from a distance, patterns and relations emerge. Back facilitates thinking about broader themes without losing the personal qualities that make for an engaging strong diary. He emphasizes the many ways that he and his colleagues and students are engaged in a collective activity. He cares about knowledge, about learning, about how people learn, and the environment that supports it and makes it possible. Back argues that this work is valuable and meaningful for all concerned. He is a thoughtful and eloquent spokesperson for what higher education does and can do. He is also, I would wager, a great colleague and friend.