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Les1Attempts to measure the value of academic writing in formal assessments have been profoundly damaging both to thought and academic literature, argues Les Back. The value of academic writing is in how it encourages thinking and dialogue with largely anonymous interlocutors and any attempt to audit and rank this process is fated to misguided guesswork.

Academic DiarySome writers’ names become associated with whole ways of knowing. Their designation makes the conversion from an individual noun to a system of thought, even if that system is not always very systematic. “This is why,” writes Clifford Geertz, “we tend to discard their first names after a while and adjectvise their last ones” – Foucauldian, Freudian, Marxist, Kleinian and so on. Really big names are transmuted to eponyms. They become what Barthes referred to as ‘author priests’. By contrast the rest of us academic artisans are little more than clerks or at best apostles. The implication is that academic authors fall into either the rare breed of intellectual giants or mere typists transcribing the obscure trivialities of life and translating them into terms that are already set.

The cumulative effect is that attempts to write seem doomed or compromised to merely adding a few footnotes when compared to the high priests of theory. In Britain, academics are judged on a geographical scale of acclaim: to write ‘world class’ publications is the ultimate aspiration and the very least an academic should possess is a ‘national profile’. The audits, whether the Research Assessment Exercise or the Research Excellence Framework, aim to rank departments and distribute funds… excellently.

The consequences have been profoundly damaging both to thought and academic literature. Timidity, conservatism and hyper-specialisation reign. It comes through in the way academics speak of their expertise – ‘I couldn’t form an opinion because it is outside my area.’ That subject area might be a mile deep as Paul Gilroy has commented, but it is only an inch wide. We have become inured to this absurd and obscene system that measures and ranks intellectual value in a crass equivalent of a ‘hit parade’ of books and journal articles. Could any scholar go along her/his bookshelves and rank numerically the works of great philosophers and visionary thinkers in this way? What grade would Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks receive as compared to Arendt’s Life of the Mind? Who would be number one? It would be incongruous to even try and the effort would cheapen us intellectually as this pernicious system has the whole UK university sector. Indeed, the victories produced through the Research Assessment Exercise are as hollow as the defeats.

Regardless of the injunction to assess and measure, the process of auditing intellectual value is always partisan and fated to guesswork. It is like trying to weigh handfuls of water against each other as the liquid slips through the fingers. Can we even know the value of our own work? I think not and moreover it is a mistake to even try to measure it. There are rare moments when that elusive worth is revealed. It is certainly not when the deliberations of the research assessment panels are announced.

A few years ago I gave a lecture in Dublin. I had finished a new book and embarked on a series of talks to tell people about it in the hope that it might stand an outside chance of being read. To my surprise at the end of the lecture a dozen or so people stayed behind to get their copies signed. One woman waited until all the others had left. She approached very timidly and then said, “I really enjoyed your lecture but I just wanted to say ‘thank you’.” I looked back a little confused and said that it was nothing and that I’d really appreciated the questions people had asked. She shook her head – she wasn’t referring to this evening. “I read one of your essays when I was really stuck with my own work. I just couldn’t find a way to get beyond this sense of being stuck. Then someone recommended your work and it somehow helped me find a way out and a way to move on.”

She told me about her ethnographic study of young working-class boys’ experience of schooling in a part of Dublin inspired by Paul Willis’ classic Learning to Labour. There was such sincerity in her voice, something that cannot be simulated for effect or advantage. It wasn’t a networking opportunity, I never knew her name and we never met again and she never told me which piece of my writing had been of help. Her sense of being stuck was as much about the discomforts of authorship as it was with the technical challenges of written argument. “I felt like, who was I to say anything? Your essay – which was about your own biography and work – just helped me carry on, helped me finish.”

More than any other measure the value of what writers do, even academic ones, is to provide companionship for further thought. Writing here is less an achievement that is measured extrinsically but an invitation to imagine beyond its own terms of reference. Books and essays here befriend and encourage thinking with interlocutors that remain – except on rare occasions like this one – anonymous. This value cannot be audited or cheapened through the mechanisms that aim to judge, measure and distribute repute and ultimately money.

This originally appeared in Les Back’s Academic Diary and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.  

About the Author

Les Back has been teaching in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London since 1993. My main areas of academic interest are the sociology of racism, multiculture, popular culture, music and sound studies and city life. The idea for the Academic Diary emerged out of a wider interest in trying to find different kinds of modes of writing but also in the opportunities offered by digital culture.

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