There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic blogging. It’s a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

Furthermore, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it.

There’s a lovely reflection in Les Back’s Academic Diary, released soon by Goldsmiths Press, concerning the role of Twitter in academic life. He suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”.

This is a useful reminder of the value that Twitter can hold for those already using the platforms. But it’s also wise guidance for those who have just started and find the whole thing baffling. No idea what to post? Share what you’re looking at, what you’re reading, what’s gripping you and why. Share the ‘hunches and tips’ which animate you and respond to others when they do the same. These exchanges are the value of Twitter for academics and they’re no different in kind from those which take place within universities each and every day.

In this lovely dialogue hosted on the Goldsmiths website, thanks to Dave Beer for flagging it up, Bev Skeggs discusses the contemporary sociological imagination with Les Back. To begin they discuss discomfort and dislocation as an integral aspect of the sociological imagination, engendering an inability to take the familiarity of things for granted, instead prompting a search for the patterns underlying it:

Les: It can be about discomfort. I think sometimes often people come to sociology with an incredible sense of discomfort or dislocation. I have something within myself, you know, a discomfort, a disquiet sense of not quite fitting in place or being out of place, or even being confined or suffocated by the place in the world that one occupies, you know.

Bev: So it’s about a complete lack of ontological security?

Les: It can be–, sometimes students are absolutely suffocated by that lack of ontology. Of a sense of, you know, ‘I just don’t fit in this world’…

Bev: Or know how to? On a tangent, this is very interesting in terms of Bourdieu’s habitus, because he had the model of subjectivity, which is about fitting dispositions to positions, and I’ve always thought it was highly problematic because I think most people just do not fit the fields into which they are positioned. It’s a theory of adaption that does not work for me.

Les: And in a sense he was betrayed in his own biography. It is a sense of being displaced; being displaced not only from the world he enters in the Ecole Normale and all that whole world that he described in Homo Academicus, but he also doesn’t fit in the world in which he identifies so strongly

I found the critique of Bourdieu here particularly interesting. As Bev Skeggs puts it, “he is trying to understand that lack of fit, but then he comes to a theory of fit.” This prompts a lovely exchange about ‘crampedness’ and its relationship to the sociological imagination.

Bev: And you’re saying that you think the politics–, and let’s be clear, it’s the politics of the sociological imagination, is understanding the lack of fit?

Les: A lack of fit or I think a sense of kind of suffocation often people feel in their place in the world.

Bev: Crampedness?

Les: Crampedness, being hemmed in, there’s something very powerful in Mills’ formulation when he says–, although I’m not sure it holds true now, but he  says, people experience themselves as if they’re spectators in their own lives.

You know, and I think there’s something about that that is very powerful as a formulation, as an invitation. And I suppose what the politics of the sociological imagination and I’ll just put to one side the question of what you do with sociological imagination as a practice, but part of the politics I think is to have an enlarged sense of an understanding of one’s place in the world.

The whole thing can and should be read in full here. There’s one additional section I can’t resist quoting (and not only because it offers such an eloquent formulation of why the Wire is sociologically fascinating):

Bev: So you’re saying what’s happened is that the technologies of sociology, say, the methods of empirical understanding, be it measurement or ethnography, are detached from a very particular form of sociological attention, a detachment from critical political understandings of power relations, and it’s that detachment that has enabled the spread of the sociological imagination but only in its limited technical forms

Les: I think sometimes it’s reduced to those bare technical forms and other times it’s really fantastically alive, at its most imaginative. And that’s part of the–, of the difficulty in summing up exactly that thing about where sociological imagination has moved to, because partly, you know, I think in some ways the
sociological imagination is much more alive in The Wire than it is in most seminars about urban ethnography.

Bev: And that I would want to argue, is because The Wire pays attention to big explanations whilst locating those big explanations, which are institutional, they’re economic, in characters. So it comes back to what you were saying about how the characters’ crampedness carries the precarious conditions of the global in which they creatively struggle to survive. So it’s not about positioning them as passive or victims, it’s about looking at how people are struggling within those incredibly cramped conditions, paying attention to that intensity of struggle and the reasons for it.

The paradox is that we academic scribes are not always very sociable. We cling to the library like bookish limpets that, like Kierkegaard, find real human beings too heavy to embrace. We speak a lot about society but all too often listen to the world within limited frequencies. I am proposing an approach to listening that goes beyond this, where listening is not assumed to be a self-evident faculty that needs no training. Somehow the grey books written on sociological method do not help much with this kind of fine tuning. The lacklustre prose of methodological textbooks often turns the life in the research encounter into a corpse fit only for autopsy.

Les Back, The Art of Listening, Pg 163

I think there’s more to this than can be fairly ascribed to the limitations of ‘traditional’ scholarly communication. But I think these nonetheless play a significant role in contributing to the ‘unsociability’ of sociology. In part, it’s a matter of audience, with marginality arising from a turning inwards towards others like ourselves. If we’re communicating with a technical audience, it creates a tendency to drift towards ever more technical language. In doing so, norms surrounding ‘proper’ communication will themselves tend towards the obtuse and, with this, the starting point from which we drift becomes ever more mired in professionalised marginality.

When I say ‘technical language’ I mean specialised vocabulary in the broadest sense, those networks of terms and concepts which emerge in relation to specialised practices, deriving their meaning and purpose from connection to such skilled activity. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with technical language in this sense. It shouldn’t be avoided entirely nor could it be. But to use Les Back’s lovely expression, “we have to insist on having both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we write”. We should be relentlessly critical of our tendency to slide into jargon while nonetheless recognising the role that jargon can serve. Rather than seeing clarity and complexity as antipathetic, such that we struggle to distinguish between the accessibly simplified and the simplistically accessible, we should focus on the ways that technical vocabulary (complex) can be used to express precise claims succinctly (clarity) in a way which would otherwise be impossible.

What role does it serve beyond this? I can’t see that it serves any intellectual role and, as prone as I am to slipping into it myself, I’m determined to train myself out of the habits that 7 years of postgraduate education have inculcated in me*. It clearly serves a personal role though, as C Wright Mills makes clear in one of my favourite passages from his work**:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

In this sense I think we can see ‘academic writing’ as a dispositional complex which has been reinforced in three ways: status anxiety at the level of the person, restrictive norms about ‘proper’ writing at the level of academic culture and a narrow range of available media** at the level of academic institutions. These constraining factors will act in different ways and at different times but their emergent power over time mitigates against the possibility of forms of writing which aim “to document and understand social life without assassinating it”. This is on page 164 of the Art of Listening. There’s an even nicer formulation of this in an interview with Les Back here: “ways of writing about the social world that don’t assassinate the life that’s in it”. I think this expression is an example of precisely the virtues it advocates. It’s a phrase I’m simply not going to forget and it conveys its main claim with an immediacy which would be difficult to accomplish with a less literary mode of expression. 

In my paper about online writing I’m trying to think through the possibilities offered by blogging in terms of this diagnosis. I think there’s a real risk of academic blogging being ‘captured’ by professionalisation in a way which undermines the potentially transformative role it can play in relation to personal practice. But the possibilities for experimentation are hugely significant nonetheless. In an important sense, it’s a uniquely malleable medium, at least compared to monographs, edited books and journal articles etc. I need to figure out more precisely what I mean by ‘malleability’ here. I’m also including ‘micro-blogging’ within this scope, despite it being a term I’ve always hated. Partly to expand the scope of what I’ve been invited to write but also because considering Twitter could help flesh out my overarching argument. I’m very interested in the aesthetics of Nein Quarterly as an example of the innovative modes of expression that the radical brevity of Twitter can help give rise to.

*Including the habit of writing sentences, such as this one and many in the main body of the text, which I believe are called compound-complex sentences. Quite why I feel so compelled to do this, with the strangely undulating character it entails for my prose, continues to elude me but I’d like to know nonetheless.

**I don’t think this can be straight-forwardly applied to our present situation but the main thrust of the argument is still valid.

***Which are themselves narrow in terms of the expression they permit.

This presentation by Nick Hopwood seems to have circulated quite widely this morning. It’s a satirical presentation attached to this post, visually illustrating all the presentational mistakes he observes in the attached article. It makes a lot of useful points in a very effective way, though given Nick is presumably vaguely aiming this at PhDs and ECRs, it could perhaps have been framed a little more sympathetically given the anxieties which are often attached to presenting your work.

What I thought was a more substantive omission was the lack of any reflection on presenting without powerpoint. I don’t like slides. I never have. I struggle to synchronise myself with them, I’m bad at designing them and they completely preclude any extemporaneity on my part. I started to experiment with not using slides after reading a strange and thought-provoking plea for improvisation in academic life by Steve Fuller in this book. However I’ve recently started to feel less confident about not using slides, as I’ve become aware of quite how dramatically the quality of my resulting presentation varies. If I’m in the right mood for it, it goes brilliantly and the notes I have with me are something I use to remind myself of a vague structure (points I want to make and in what order) rather than my ‘content’ as such. But if I’m not then I struggle to get into ‘flow’ (i.e. lose myself in the process) and sometimes end up coming awfully close to just reading the bullet point notes I have on my iPad, which is the worst of both worlds really.

I want to persist without using slides unless there is a specific reason for me to actually use them. When it goes well I really enjoy presenting in this way to an extent I simply don’t if I have powerpoint slides on the wall. But I’m going to try and think more creatively about how to use slides as visual aides to accompany a presentation rather than display my argument. I saw Les Back do this really effectively earlier in the week, using images on slides to set the scene while nonetheless sustaining a genuinely conversational style of precisely the sort I aspire to – public speaking as a peculiarly asymmetric form of dialogue rather than monologuing at the audience: a strange style of conversation where the people you are talking to are nice enough to give you 20 mins or more for you to make your point. It’s an extension of those really wonderful kinds of discussions & debates where each is genuinely listening to the other and giving them time to articulate themselves, rather than simply waiting for the other to finish speaking.

However I’m a bit sceptical that I can learn to synchronise well enough to make this work for me and that the process of matching background images to particular aspects of my talk will cause me to over-think it and preclude the kind of ‘flow’ without which I struggle to relax when public speaking. It can’t hurt to try though.

Incidentally Steve Fuller offered some great advice about speaking in the blog post linked to below. One thing I particularly liked was his suggestion that you need to “integrate your academic message with your normal mode of being”. I’m not sure how to actively cultivate this but when I think back on talks I’ve done which have gone really well, this seems like a really apt description of what the experience felt like at the time.

If the audience is to get any value-added from an academic talk, then the academic should speak not read the talk. Reading the talk, at best, is good karaoke. To me it always suggests that the academic hasn’t mastered his/her material sufficiently to navigate without training wheels. Ditto for powerpoint presentations, unless one really needs to point to something for added epistemic power. A good academic talk should be more like a jazz improvisation – i.e. the speaker provides some novel riffs on themes familiar from his/her texts that allow the audience to join in, sometimes contributing some novelty of their own.

We live in economically stretched times. Why invite famous drones, whose appreciation you could more cheaply acknowledge by buying their books or citing their articles? Anyone who is in charge of a speaker schedule – be it a seminar series or international conference – should always bear in mind that, in the first instance, it is the speaker – not you – who most obviously benefits from an invitation. It is not unreasonable to request something more adventurous than boilerplate from the speaker. You might even – God forbid! – ask them to address a topic somewhat outside their comfort zone. (Youtube is beginning to provide a resource to make informed judgements about who you should (not) invite.)

The increasing specialisation of academic life is way too often used to condone a multitude of sins that hover around the concept of ‘competence’. I never ceased to be amazed how often academics are willing to speak to only a rather narrow sense of ‘what they have already prepared’, or how easily flummoxed they get when they’re told they have 20 instead of 30 (or 10 instead of 20) minutes to present. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of conveying ideas not displaying powers of recitation.

In this podcast I talk to Les Back from Goldsmiths about his Academic Diary project.

So what is the Academic Diary? 

How did the idea for the project come about? 

What did the process of crafting it entail? 

Was the experience of producing it different to that of a more traditional publication?

Les Back’s talk ‘sociology’s promise’ from the C Wright Mills session I organised at the BSA conference in Leeds. Will go up on Sociological Imagination once I’ve finished editing the session and gathering the related material I want to post up with it.

There are two books Les mentions in the talk which are fantastic. I’ve been meaning to write reviews of them for quite a while actually:

(edit to add: for some reason the embedding isn’t working. that’s a bit irritating)