Food for thought

On my recent travels, I read Les Back‘s Academic Diary – a book I wish I’d written. You can browse the beautifully presented online version, but I recommend getting hold of a hard copy, as it’s full of nuggets of insight and amusement. The set of short essays reflecting on different aspects of life in academia is organised into three sections following the terms at Goldsmiths, where Back works. The essays contain Back’s personal reflections on everything from stationery fetishes and academics’ use of Twitter, to more personal anecdotes about characters  he’s met or places he’s visited.

Several chapters address issues that have also come up in the Academics’ Writing project, but one essay in particular, called The Value in Academic Writing struck a chord with me, perhaps because I was giving a lecture the same week I read it, on the impact of ‘research excellence’ measures on academics’ writing practices.

Back describes the UK’s system of evaluating research quality as “absurd” and likens auditing intellectual value to, “trying to weigh handfuls of water against each other.” The project team has been thinking a lot about academic writing and its role in knowledge creation. What is valuable about academic writing? How do we know if it makes a contribution to knowledge, or what its impact might be? These are not easy questions to answer, but Les Back may have hit the nail on the head when he says, “The value of what writers do, even academic ones, is to provide companionship for further thought.” (p. 64). It’s hard to see how thought can be captured by metrics such as star-ratings and h-indices.