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Les Back: Scholarly Life and the University in Ruins

les back

At the 2015 Autumn Postgraduate forum event on The Making of the Sociological Researcher, Les Back gave this thought provoking keynote. He has kindly agreed to share the text in full in addition to the podcast of his talk which can be found below.


Ros Gill has argued that the neo-liberal university, with its individualisation of performance and value, results in a peculiarly toxic environment that is suffered secretly and silently. “Neoliberalism found fertile ground in academics whose predispositions to ‘work hard’ and ‘do well’ meshed perfectly with its demands for autonomous, self- motivating, responsibilised subjects,” she argues. Here worthy characteristics like scholarly dedication and the ambition to do good work merge seamlessly with neo-liberal imperatives based on egotism and selfishness. The overwhelming experience of ‘fast academia’ is pressure, self-exploitation (which can mean putting off or sacrificing the personal fulfilment of having children, particularly for women), vituperative meanness and toxic shame. Our most deeply held values of engaged work, careful thought and creativity become cruel promises, but the conditions to realise them are no longer possible. If the university is in ruins, as Bill Readings has suggested, how is it possible to carry on with an intellectual vocation?

The quick pessimistic answer is to say it isn’t possible: the forms of auditing, professionalisation and managerialism have dealt the university a fatal blow. I think we have to find a way to resist these shifts, loosen the grip of self-regulation and act differently.

I realise now that writing the Academic Diary was a way to address these issues.  I realize my own answers are hidden in the detail of each of the entries.  So, I think fundamentally my position is that our values are communicated – not in keynote lectures or political postures – but in the choices we make everyday. This means drawing on the best examples of others.  Earlier this week prominent African-American scholar Jerry Watts passed away at just 62. 

By all accounts he was a really wonderful teacher.  He wrote an Open Letter to his graduate studies that has being circulated via twitter in the wake of this sad news.  It bears reading again. I want to draw just a few points out of it.

In the letter jerry Watts is exacting in his expectations of his students many of whom he admonished for “drifting” and going through the motions of becoming too comfortably professionalized. He accused his young colleagues of being “caught in psychological / intellectual cruise control in which you are passively and routinely going through the motions of graduate study.” He appeals to the value scholarly discipline and work. 


He was equally if not more condemning of professorial abuses.  “Suppose the professor is an undiluted ass,” he writes irreverently.  The temptation is to remain connected to an abusive academic relationship because of potential academic advantage.  He calls this the “battered students syndrome” recalling connections with other forms of abusive behaviour.  He continues “That is, the less supportive, more abusive the professor becomes, the more you try anything and everything to please him or her just to quiet the abuse.“ 

This isn’t the only form of inter-generation academic mistreatment.   This passage I want to quote at length:

It is also abuse when the professor steals your research and publishes it under his or her name. More frequently, they “co-author” work that you alone researched. Then they have the audacity to list you as second author. Amazingly, they can do this and utterly believe that you should feel honoured to have your name listed beneath theirs. I repeat, no professor has the right to exploit you; steal your research; or psychologically undermine your intellectual self-confidence.  Should you find yourself in an abusive relationship with a faculty mentor, etc. please respect yourself enough to drop that person from your life and/or removing that person from any position of authority over you. Easier said than done!  Hopefully, we have graduate school peers and friends who will not turn a blind eye to our abusive relationship and help us to see a way out of it. 

I think it is incumbent on us all to call out this behaviour when we witness it. To professors who have indulged in this academic vice and are listening in on the conversation through the magic of podcasts, I hope your ears are on fire.     

Watts warns us also not to confuse abusive behaviour with academic foibles.  We sociologists are not always very sociable.  Another passage:

Always keep in mind that professors are as flawed, crazy, neurotic, petty, generous, supportive and sane as anyone else. Professors might be (and I think we are) more socially inept than most professionals for many of us spent large parts of our lives relating better to books than people. Being socially awkward if not frequently abrupt and rude is not synonymous with being abusive. Be careful not to confuse the two. 

One of Watts’ students at CUNY, Michael Busch gave his teachers perhaps the most supreme accolade when he wrote this week: “Jerry made academia a place you wanted to be.”   

I think my own generation of scholars needs to renew that commitment.  I guess I have come to the point now where I have been asking myself what does all this add up to, what kind of academic vocation is advocated in the way I am trying to talk about what we do.?

I want to try and formulate an answer through proposing a series of key principles. The first of these is to slow thinking down – be it theoretical or practical – and to value the time it takes. It entails the cultivation of the capacity for judicious speech and crafted attentiveness.

The overwhelming bureaucratic impulse to speed up academic production, and make academics into tacticians preoccupied with the game of professional standing results in a concern with short-term gains. As a result the books and articles we write are destined to have a short shelf life. To combat this I think it is important to try and resist the temptation to think too fast and write too much too quickly. It doesn’t mean encouraging PhD students to languish for decades without completing their PhDs or sitting on manuscripts that will never be read. A balance needs to be struck between the progression of a piece of research or a book and taking time to think and write, so that what we produce has a lasting quality.

Secondly, we need to take risks in order to expand not only what can be thought but also what counts as academic writing and communication. It means also aspiring to be a communicator of ideas not just on campus or within the pages of academic journals but in a wide variety of public and educational arenas. Thirdly, we need to see that what we do is not just a job but an intellectual vocation or craft. I think that is what Jerry Watts’ lesson if you followed the line and moral force of his argument.  Specialisation and professionalisation institutionalises narrowness and results paradoxically in anti-intellectualism. Being a slave to specialism is self-confinement: “I can only talk about ‘my own area of expertise.'” It promotes individualism in that we academics become conservative with our time and shut ourselves away in our offices or become campus absentees. Perhaps lessening the hold of the imperious specialist on the university might result in cutting academic vanity and self-importance down to size. My fourth principle is to value teaching and to see the university primarily as a place of learning.

It is absurd in a way that we have arrived at a point where such an argument is even necessary. A university without students is a contradiction in terms. One of the privileges of being an academic is that we have the power to frame what happens in the classroom and the intellectual values we communicate as we perform this role. The investments and care taken in the context of teaching – from the first year introductory lecture or a PhD supervision session – involve developing both an ethics of thinking and what Max Weber called “the tools and training for thought”. Teaching a course creates a community of thought and a space for dialogue and reflection. Here students struggle to understand not only the ‘learning outcomes’ but where they are in the mix of history and the world around them and how to form their own judgments in a society saturated with information.

My final point is to think of intellectual generosity as a coping strategy. There are colleagues who view being too positive about the work of other academic writers as Panglossian.  As Harvey Molotch once pointed out: “Sociologists like to eat each other…  critics by disposition and occupation [they] freely take issue with each other, often ungenerously.” This is because we are valued not for our generosity but for the sharpness of our intellect, for the unflinching nature of our academic judgments.   These qualities can be rewarded – for example – by being invited to serve as a judge on panels like those who determine the outcomes of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).  Critical edge becomes a badge of excellence, while generosity shows suspicious signs of intellectual feebleness.

In this kind of climate I have come to think that valuing the work of others becomes a way to strike a small blow of munificence against miserliness in academic life.   This is not just a matter of being ‘nice’ to others.  Some times there are profound divisions and intellectual fault-lines that are important to fight over.  A university without criticism and argument is no kind of university at all.  No, I am thinking more about the pleasure that can be taken in admiring the work of others that you feel animates something important. 

Machiavelli was of course right to advise in The Prince to be wary of flatterers and sycophants.  Praise can be manipulative, a way of courting favour:  the heart of even the most cold hearted professional can be melted with a few obsequious words. I am not advocating Toadyism but rather generosity in the service of what Russell would have called educated self-interested. 

  One way of coping with life in the university today is – in part – to trade envy for admiration.  It is a lesson that I have learned from some of my feminist colleagues. Intellectual generosity can be a survival strategy and prophylactic against the corrosive aspects of intellectual cruelty that have been institutionalized by the audit culture.  I know many of the people in this room act precisely in this way (it’s maybe why they are willing to be here on a Saturday afternoon in November to be part of this conversation). They might never get asked to serve on an assessment panel pronouncing on your intellectual merits but I bet they feel better about academic life from being part of this important and difficult conversation. I know I do.

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