Everyday life in the academy with Professor Les Back: Making space for support and resistance

By Amanda Ptolomey

In this blog I will reflect on a workshop facilitated by Professor Les Back. I will suggest that spaces for sharing experiences in academia can create valuable opportunities for support and resistance.

I first engaged in depth with Professor Back’s work when teaching Level 1 Sociology to first year undergraduate students as a (very nervous) first time Graduate Teaching Assistant. I can’t think of a more engaging introduction to sociology than Back’s exploration of community and class through the medium of Christmas tree lights (Back 2015). Against the backdrop of the working-class Croydon estate of Back’s youth, complex sociological concepts are animated through a vibrant sociology of everyday life.

Significantly, Back ‘writes himself in’ to his work, sharing details of his background and conveying aspects of his personality. Reading these insights, alongside the work of other working-class academics (for example Diane Reay, 1997) as a first generation academic from a working-class background myself, helped make the academy seem like a more welcoming place. Chasing away my ‘imposter syndrome’, these scholars show me a way to make the academy my home too, without having to give up my convictions or change my identity.

Professor Back was visiting the University of Glasgow to deliver the annual Frisby Memorial Lecture, named in honour of Professor David Frisby, and also giving up his time to facilitate a workshop for postgraduate and early career researchers in sociology. Each participant was asked to bring along a piece of reflective writing to discuss, enabling us to reflect on the connections between our own experiences and the social worlds in which we live, what sociologists would call using our ‘sociological imagination’ (Mills, 2000).

To begin, Professor Back read to us an excerpt from his recent book ‘Academic Diary’, also sharing with us some of the background to its publication. Of huge value to those of us early in our academic careers, Back shared the messiness and serendipity involved in the book’s journey: from idea to publication. The content of ‘Academic Diary’ itself includes reflections on the everyday challenges and victories, both large and small, that constitute an academic life. Of particular value are ruminations on issues which are all too often hidden from those starting out their academic career. For example, the anxieties experiences by academic supervisors, not just their supervisees!

Each participant in the workshop shared a piece of reflective writing. I shared some of the ’50 things I’ve learned 50% of the way through the PhD:  from a working class feminist academic’ from a zine I’d written for International Women’s Day. Including: number 3 buy great stationery, and number 17 ‘prioritise peeing’ (sometimes I still have to remind myself that I don’t work in a call centre anymore and that my toilet breaks are not timed in line with targets). The wee zine has been an unexpected source of connection since I shared a photograph of it on twitter.

Image description: Amanda holds five copies of her zine, a small green booklet. On the cover it says ’50 things I’ve learned 50% of the way through the PhD from a working class feminist academic. Also on the cover are line drawings of a pencil, a watch and some round spectacles. Photograph Amanda Ptolomey.

Following each of our individual reflections, of no surprise to those working in or around academia, much of our conversation could be directly or indirectly connected to our agency as individuals within the structure of the  ‘neoliberal university’. That is, the university as a corporatized space. An organisation where learners are transformed into consumers, staff are increasingly employed on precarious contracts, and research is undertaken within a target-driven culture (some excellent critiques of the neoliberal university can be found in Connell 2019; Gill 2009; Res-sisters 2017). How can any of us forge ‘successful’ academic careers while maintaining the values and practices important to our work in addressing inequalities? There were no easy answers in the workshop. There was however collective encouragement and a genuine dedication to resistance. I left the workshop feeling restored with energy to build authentic and meaningful connections.

Image description: photograph of Professor Les Back. He is sitting in a classroom with a whiteboard visible in the background. Holding two red paperback books he is dressed in muted colours, wearing rectangular glasses and smiling. Photograph Amanda Ptolomey.

In academia (and in my practice background) we are often challenged to ask ourselves, the ‘so what?’ question. In other words, what difference does any of this this make to anyone?  Having time to reflect is undoubtedly a privilege in and of itself, but it is what we do with this space is what matters. There is evidence that this workshop created a cite of resistance against ‘the neoliberal academy’, from which we have already taken action. For example, some of the participants have shared, and others made offers to share, successful grant applications with one another. We have also kept in contact with each another and continued to share our experiences. It may seem like a small thing, but I believe through small acts like these we can catalyse powerful rejections of competitive and individualistic pathways to achievement.

Thanks to my fellow workshop participants Carli Ria Rowell @CarliRiaRowell, Kumud Rana @kumpah, Jessica Penney @JessicaPenney_ and Smina Akhtar @SminaAkhtar. Without your stimulating contributions my reflections on the workshop wouldn’t have been possible. Thank you to Dr Andy Smith for organising the workshop,  and finally to Professor Les Back @AcademicDiary for your generosity and kindness.

References

Back, L., 2015. Why everyday life matters: Class, community and making life livable. Sociology, 49(5), pp.820-836.

Back, L., 2016. Academic diary: Or why higher education still matters. Goldsmiths Press.

Connell, R., 2019. The good university: what universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. ZED Books.

Gill, R 2009. Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge

Mills, C.W., 2000. The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press.

Reay, D., 1997. The double-bind of the’working class’ feminist academic: the success of failure or the failure of success. Class Matters:’working class’ women’s perspectives on social class.

Res-Sisters, 2017. ‘I’m an Early Career Feminist Academic: Get Me Out of Here?’ Encountering and Resisting the Neoliberal Academy. Being an Early Career Feminist Academic: Global Perspectives, Experiences and Challenges, pp.267-284.

 

Amanda Ptolomey is a doctoral researcher based in the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research, University of Glasgow. Amanda’s research aims to illuminate new sociological understandings about disabled and neurodiverse girls’ lives using zine-making as research method. Amanda’s background is in leading community development projects in Scotland and internationally. Her previous work has focussed on social justice issues including peacebuilding, sectarianism, prejudice and hate crime, loneliness, and refugees and migrants. She can be found on twitter @amandasays.

This post was published on the 08th of April 2019.