on form and function – and Les Back’s Academic Diary

So you want to write a book which examines everyday life in the contemporary university. You want to show the ways in which academic work is constrained, but also what freedoms are still possible. You want to communicate the reasons why some of us choose to enter the academy, and stay in it. You want to convey the small pleasures that sit amid a deep and ongoing commitment to – and love of – scholarship.

So how to do this? You could write an extended essay about policy, highlighting the continuities and changes in higher education. Mmmm. Perhaps a bit depressing, and anyway isn’t there already a lot of that kind of writing out there? So, alternatively, maybe you could write an essay about the positives of academic life. But it’s hard to do this without seeming Pollyanna-ish, worst still, saccharine and disconnected from reality – and it could end up sounding more like marketing than anything else. So how to write about academic life now? 

And how to write about academic life from an anthropological/sociological perspective that honours small events, patterns, rhythms, conversations and relationships? How to show the lived reality of higher education? How to bring this political commitment to ‘telling it as it is’ into text? How to make the very personal something social and not just idiosyncratic or solipsistic? How might this writing speak not only to other academics, but also speak past the stereotypes, media hype and league tables, in order to reach interested others?

I imagine that these are the kinds of questions that Les Back asked himself as he started on his Academic Diary project.

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The choice of diary genre was crucial. 

The diary is a textual form that matches an interest in every-day life. It is a genre which readers expect to unfold before them – there is no meta commentary at the start, no signposting to signal to the reader what they can expect. And it is The Genre which readers expect to be connected to a calendar, to offer a record of quotidian experience. The diary is episodic, and thus amenable to multiple small narratives which add up to something more than their parts. It is stretched out in time, so is able to convey a year, terms and weeks punctuated by regular and irregular events. It is individual, a story told by a particular person, so it is able to bring together the idiosyncratic and emotional detail that dominant genres of intellectual sociological commentary render invisible.

How better to convey everyday academic life than through the diary genre, a text that rolls out day after day?

 Academic Diary uses/needs/relies on the characteristics of the diary. It tangles form and purpose into one indivisible union. The structure of the diary is the genre/structure that made tangible Back’s reason for writing – or so I am guessing. 

Of course, choosing the right form/structure is not enough. The diary would not have worked if the entries themselves could not stand up to reading. Each one had to be carefully crafted.

On the one hand, diary entries are a little like blog posts. They contain a single idea. They often work with an introductory narrative written in the first person. This might be an encounter, a piece of dialogue, a recount of a meeting or an event. The reader is invited to imagine themselves experiencing the same encounter, conversation, event as the writer – just as they are in fictional or in semi fictional accounts. The narrative then morphs into a more general discussion, so that the implications of the story become clearer. The point of the narrative is made even more explicit as the instalment concludes. However, there is much less ‘telling’ in a blog post than in conventional social science writing, and much more ‘showing’ through the narrative. So too with the diary entry.

On the other hand, the diary entry is not like a blog post. A blog is a series of isolated and discrete writings. But a diary, a diary in the form of a book, must have narrative structure and there must be discrete threads that hold the separate pieces together, that pull the reader through each entry. The diary is intended to provide a cumulate experience – its effect, meaning and impact is derived from montage, from seriality.

Back did not start out with a book form diary.  His first Academic Diary was online. It was/is a step away from a conventional blog with stand-alone posts, but wasn’t yet the unified text of the book. Back’s online diary has much more carefully crafted entries than your average blog post, many of which are dashed off rather quickly (something I can see when I go back to look at my old posts!) This slapdashery isn’t the case with Back’s online entries  where each piece shows clear evidence of careful crafting. 

However, I happen to know that the book version of the diary required even more writerly attention, with much more revision, revision and revision. Each entry was honed to the point where it could both stand alone and also serve a particular purpose in the chain of instalments.

This writerly attention to the minutiae of each entry and to the whole – seeing both at the same time – is what all good writers are able to do, no matter what genre they work in. I don’t know if Back had an overall book plot before he started, or if it evolved as he went along – with the online diary perhaps providing the road map for the book, a structure which could be modified and adapted. There are multiple ways to achieve the doubled writer’s vision of detail and the overall. Each of us eventually finds a way to do the big and the small that works for us. But find it we must, if we are to produce a text which draws the reader onto the next instalment, be it diary entry or thesis chapter. Back obviously found the way that worked for him – and for us.

I admire the work that Back has done in Academic Diary. I appreciate the authoring craft that has gone into its making, as well as finding enjoyment and some solace in its  substantive contents. You might of course have expected me to comment more on the book’s contents – the way that Back discusses Powerpoint, the library, the viva for instance. Well, other reviews of the book do that. And I agree with their praise. But I always read for the writing, as well as for the substance, and I did find this book a particularly generative and stimulating read on both counts. 

Academic Diary is an interesting lesson for those of us who think about how to break the stranglehold of default social science writing. I wanted to write on the writing in particular because the book’s mission and its form are indivisible. For this reason, Academic Diary is a book I’ll be suggesting that people read to see both what it says about the academy and to see what is possible outside of the straitjacket of the conventional journal formula and monograph. 

And it’s affordable too!!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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2 Responses to on form and function – and Les Back’s Academic Diary

  1. Pingback: Week in Review – 24 July « Freya Gowrley

  2. Pingback: on form and function – and Les Back’s Academic Diary | patter | stream

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