We’re coming up on summer, so it’s time to think about what to read at the cottage. Here’s some advice on higher ed books:
Good campus novels are kind of thin on the grounds these days. My all-time favourite is David Lodge’s Small World (which has survived a little bit better than his other two campus novels, Nice Work and Changing Places), though Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim is still probably the genre-defining work.
One that came out last year to some modest acclaim was Something for Nothing by Michael Klein. It is notable because of Klein’s background: he’s an economist. Not all campus novels are written by academics – Tom Wolfe, for instance, managed to brilliantly nail Duke University in his frankly awesome I am Charlotte Simmons without needing tenure – but those that are, tend to come from Literature specialists.
Unfortunately, while Klein’s outsider status makes for the occasional plot gem (I kind of dig novels which turn on the minutiae of econometric estimation techniques), he’s not much of a stylist. The prose is didactic, most of the characters uni-dimensional, and page 86 contains one of the worst sex scenes since Tony Blair described what happened the night John Smith died in his autobiography A Journey. Re-reading Lodge is probably more rewarding.
What about non-fiction? Well, one good book I read this year was In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by “Professor X”. It’s seriously refreshing because it’s written by a sessional professor who works at two fairly down-market colleges, rather than one of the usual higher ed suspects. I’m generally unimpressed by the economic arguments about higher education being “a bubble”, but Professor X gives an excellent, from-the-trenches view of why higher education might have expanded too far. Thought-provoking but not dense, short without being insubstantial, it’s a good one to pack for the beach.
On innovation, two books worth a glance are Phillip Auerswald’s The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs are Transforming the Global Economy and Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine (e-book only). It’s kind of interesting how all of a sudden the wonk crowd isn’t viewing academic research as a particularly important driver of future innovation and prosperity. Read these to understand why. Pay attention to this shift: it could be a really big deal for universities.
Finally, let me recommend again David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. Simply brilliant.