Les’ new book Academic Diary chronicles his 25 years in higher education in the form of a journal spanning the academic year. He tells us about the writing process and his bond to the south-east London university where he’s served as both student and professor.
What was the starting point for Academic Diary?
Several years ago, I was asked to write a monthly column for the Association of University Teachers’ magazine. It meant I had to write something routinely and I stumbled upon a method that worked: taking something small that had happened during the course of a working week and trying to connect that small thing to a larger issue.
I spent a couple of years writing the column, and after a while I had the idea of writing a book about the university and the value of learning. I took the idea to lots of academic publishers, who were generally positive but it didn’t fit into the formats they operated in: it wasn’t a textbook, a monograph or a study of the university. I felt a bit defeated until I met a wonderful young scholar named Kat Jungnickel. She took the pieces I’d written and designed a digital mockup of the diary format, which went online in 2011. Caedmon Mullins, an excellent web designer, helped me with the analytics and I could see the diary was being read by many people all around the world – as many as 200,000 people. For an academic text, that would be a phenomenal number. A few years later, Goldsmiths Press was founded at the college and the people running it asked me if I wanted to do a book-form version. I jumped at the chance.
How does writing fit in with your role as professor?
The nature of academic work has changed massively over the 25 years I’ve been doing it. Writing is almost compulsory now and we have to find ways to make the balancing act work. I’ve always found writing incredibly hard, but also massively rewarding. It’s almost part of my daily routine now.
Writing the monthly column helped me learn how to produce work to a deadline. And writing journalism throughout my career forced me out of the conventions and shorthand of academic writing. We’re taught to write badly in academia: we reproduce conventions through emulation, which inhibits our capacity to communicate the value of what we really hold dear. I had to think: how can I convey the things I think are important to a non-academic readership? It made me aspire to make my writing a bit more artful.
How has being a Goldsmiths alumnus informed your career as a professor at the university?
My friends often ask me ‘don’t you ever get bored of being in the same place year after year?’ The truth is: you can be exasperated, frustrated, driven to your wit’s end, but you can never be bored at Goldsmiths.
People who have spent their life working at a university can easily forget what it’s like to be a student. Being a student now is different to how it was 25 years ago. But I think having studied at Goldsmiths helps bridge the experience between myself and the students. I do sometimes find myself being haunted by the ghost of my younger self, usually because of something a student says.
I suppose I’m a curiosity in that Goldsmiths is the closest university to where I lived as a young person. The college is situated within the social and cultural quality of this part of London, and in some ways, my connection to this college is also my connection to this place – my home and the landscape of my imagination. Richard Hoggart, who was the warden of the university when I studied here, said the task of the university was to intellectualise the neighbourhood. I definitely subscribe to that view.
Photo by Stephanie Back
How important are your relationships with students?
They’re the most important thing. It’s my belief that if you don’t like students and you don’t like teaching, you shouldn’t be working in a university. That’s an opinion that doesn’t always make me popular with my colleagues.
Higher education is a rollercoaster – it certainly was for me. Lots of our students can’t decide if university is the best or worst thing that’s ever happened to them. It’s rewarding to be around young people while they’re trying to figure out what’s important to them and what they think about those important things. In a way, I think teaching is a resource for us to try and be reminded of what’s magical and what’s valuable.
Are there defining characteristics of Goldsmiths students?
It is quite an extraordinary list of people. I think they have in common a kind of restless creativity, an edginess and a pushing of boundaries. Alex James [Blur bassist and former Goldsmiths student] writes in his biography that Goldsmiths is ‘more screaming tyres than dreaming spires’. The college has a deep connection to, or even collision with, the world outside of the academy. It offers intense, up-close, sometimes enchanting, transformative encounters with urban life.
Do you think young students are given enough support to make informed decisions regarding higher education?
I don’t think young people are given enough time and space to really make an informed decision about their future. So many stumble into life-changing decisions without really thinking it through – and I include myself in that. I often find myself on the other side of the fence with my own children, who are all at or approaching university age. We go to open days together and I’m frequently shocked at how higher education is presented. Young people are told not to worry about the debt. But if you’re 17 and someone says you don’t have to start paying back your loan until you earn £25,000 or more a year, for a 17-year-old earning £25,000 is like being a millionaire.
I often visit schools to talk to students about higher education and do off-campus learning experiments. But it’s not because I want to be a nice guy – I learn a tremendous amount. To hear what a 16-year-old sociology student is interested in learning is incredibly useful. It’s important to be in the room and go out to where the students are.
Academic Diary is available from Goldsmiths Press.