So, how has your summer been so far? I have been pretty good about taking it easy and refreshing myself. While I have only very recently started back on working out and getting back in shape (only a month behind my resolved schedule), I just wrapped up a fun family vacation to Branson, Missouri — a few days of amusement park-ing, tacky-tastic touristing, and time in the pool with my kids and on the town with my best girl.
I haven’t been all lay-about idle (as my summer school prep and recent relaunching of this blog attest)… but I have been slowing down, and feelin’ groovy.
Alas, the incursions of the real world inevitably intrude as they will — time-sensitive e-mails about administrative matters from colleagues and students, and the realization that summer school will start all to soon, meaning summer school prep Must. Be. Finished. Soon. I want to feel groovier more consistently, but sometimes going slower makes me feel anxious and guilty — not very groovy at all. Sound familiar?
[A potentially useful response for all of us after the jump!]
This post serves as a reminder that the Teaching Prof in Progress Book Club inaugural Summer Read event — a discussion of Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016, University of Toronto Press) on the Goodreads social media site — kicks off in just eight days on July 1, 2016!
Participation will be easy. I will post discussion questions on the Book Club’s page, and we’re off! You can respond, post your own discussion questions, and engage one another throughout the month of July until August 8 as your summer schedule allows — flexibly, on your own time.
This site isn’t about spoilers — I still haven’t caught up on House of Cards and Game of Thrones yet, for goodness’ sake! talk about not feeling groovy — but here are some points from reviews of and responses to the book that might wet your whistle for the read:
“’While slowness has been celebrated in architecture, urban life and personal relations, it has not yet found its way into education,’ reads Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (University of Toronto Press). ‘Yet, if there is one sector of society which should be cultivating deep thought, it is academic teachers. Corporatization has compromised academic life and sped up the clock. The administrative university is concerned above all with efficiency, resulting in a time crunch and making those of us subjected to it feel powerless.’
“In a corporate university, argues Slow Professor, ‘power is transferred from faculty to managers, economic justifications dominate, and the familiar ‘bottom line’ eclipses pedagogical and intellectual concerns.’ But slow professors nevertheless ‘advocate deliberation over acceleration’ because they ‘need time to think, and so do our students. Time for reflection and open-ended inquiry is not a luxury but is crucial to what we do.’”
So what do they mean by a “slow” professor? Some context from a review by Emma Rees in Times Higher Education:
The Slow Food movement was initiated more than two decades ago by the activist Carlo Petrini. Local producers were celebrated over supermarket conglomerates, the detrimental effects of fast food on local communities were exposed, and a healthy kind of individuality thumbed its mindful nose at cultural homogeneity. Petrini’s work gained traction – sedately, of course – and in 2011 the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman published his best-seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, urging us to live “deliberate, effortful, and orderly” lives. Once it’s understood, the logic of the Slow Movement is irresistible. What Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber are doing in The Slow Professor is protesting against the “corporatization of the contemporary university”, and reminding us of a kind of “good” selfishness; theirs is a self-help book that recognises the fact that an institution can only ever be as healthy as the sum of its parts.
What does this mean for higher ed faculty, then? The authors of the book on why (and how) they came to write this book, from an interview by Moira Farr in University Affairs:
Maggie Berg: Over the years, Barbara and I were regularly calling one another, in need of support, as we coped with the demands of our jobs. I would be feeling guilty about not answering an email fast enough, or ashamed to admit that I find it stressful switching to a new learning management system, or regretting how I handled a situation in the classroom. We’re always so rushed. We had each done some independent reading on the “slow” movement, books such as Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slow. We were talking to each other about how we could change our sense of time, and bring more pleasure to our academic lives. We were starting to ask not “What is wrong with us?” but rather “What is wrong with the system?” At some point in one of our conversations, I think I said, “We should write this down,” and Barbara said, “We should write this down.”
. . . . .
Barbara Seeber: We’re trying to create some kind of counter-discourse to remind ourselves of why we went into teaching, and what it is we love about scholarship. We’re starting a conversation. I had been reading the literature on the corporatization of higher education, and there are some incredibly useful, insightful analyses that place the issue in its larger context. Martha Nussbaum (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, 2010) and Benjamin Ginsberg (The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, 2011) have written brilliant books. But many of us do not take the time to read them. We didn’t want our book to be a big tome you lug around, yet another burden to make you feel guilty.
Maggie Berg: One of our favourite authors is Stefan Collini (English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture, 1999), who is very funny as well as analytical. We thought we would love to write a book like that.
. . . . .
Barbara Seeber: Both Maggie and I have thought that it’s one of the ironies of books on the corporatization of the academy that they invoke the discourse of crisis, and that can make people feel overwhelmed. The crisis model isn’t really that helpful. Yes, we do need to respond to the pressures we face, but the language of crisis only sets up more pressure. We wanted to offer something more hopeful than “it’s over.” If we thought is was over, we wouldn’t have written the book!
. . . . .
Barbara Seeber: We all have our ways of making a difference. We really wanted to avoid prescriptive advice. Individual professors need to decide where to put their energies. Pushing back against a system that wants to quantify everything we do will look different to different people. There are a number of ways to respond. Getting offline more often, making time to do “nothing,” not rushing your research, fighting against the pressure to submit work before it’s ready. Talking to Maggie always reminds me to walk the talk. Being a “slow professor” is about making considered choices about what we do, not simply doing less. I have come to question the idea that more is better. There may be fewer lines on my CV now – but I’m okay with that.
Sounds good so far, right? Not so fast (heh heh…)! The provocative book has been met with provocative critiques as well. For instance, Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal respond to the authors’ interview in Times Higher Education with two primary objections. The first: the book’s primary argument, based on anecdotal observation rather than robust research, reifies the “truth” of overstressed faculty that may well not be true for many of us:
We are aware that the notion of slowness is attractive and even seductive for academics but, at the same time, we think that personal individual stories (and inferences made thereupon) – with all due respect to their seriousness – from academia often give an incorrect impression that academia is flooded with stress, despair and misery and that other corners of society are not (or not so seriously). It is also very much the case that the perceived acceleration of academic life is massively socially differentiated and often reflects power relations and hierarchies within the academy. This we think should be something of a start, perhaps a “working hypothesis” to be explored, rather than more or less bold conclusions indicating that academia is taken by unprecedented speed and frenzy upon which one may be declaring the desperate necessity of slowness.
Their second primary critique is one that has been voiced often on the interwebs since the book’s release: that Berg and Seeber’s argument comes from a place of privilege — specifically, the privilege of the tenured who have less to lose:
One of the key components of such a hypothesis is thus this one: to be a slow professor is a privilege. It’s a privilege available only to those already at the summit of the academic career structure. Indeed, it is likely only available to some of them, certainly excluding the assistant and perhaps associate professors who are ambiguously subsumed under the catch-all term “professor.” In reducing the temporal regimes of academic life to a matter of lifestyle choice, regarding it as a matter of learning to be ok with having fewer lines on your CV the authors not only fail to recognise their own privilege but actively mystify the institutional hierarchy within which they enjoy a security being systematically denied to ever greater swathes of their younger colleagues. We would suggest, in the spirit of well-meaning critique, “slow professorship” only makes sense when such decelerating professors can take it for granted that junior associates will accelerate to pick up the slack.
And, of course, as Bill Caraher reminds us on his blog, there is the very real possibility that we as faculty have been complicit in the rise of the corporate university (and the acceleration of our work lives) because we want to be recognized and respected (and rightly so) as professionals.
As part of this professionalization process, practitioners of disciplinary knowledge – whether in the humanities and social sciences or in more professional fields – increasingly shifted from avocational, “gentleman scholars” to working members of the middle class. If we as professors provided vital training for the functioning of the university and the society (typically construed as the nation), then we wanted to be recognized as professionals ourselves and our disciplines increasingly took on the trappings of professional organizations. The idea that being a professional historian or a English professor or whatever is our jobs and work, is something that paralleled the rise of the university as a vital cog in the “military-industrial complex.” As part of the rise of the modern university, we set standards for ourselves, our disciplines, and our work and defined what we did in our offices, in research, and in the classroom as separate from our “lives.” As a result, it is impossible to separate issues of work/life balance from the rise of the corporate, modern university.
. . . . .
[Thus,] we run counter to a slow movement that frequently sees these regularized aspects of modern society as the kinds of traps push people to have less authentic encounters with their world. A tomato harvested from a backyard garden doesn’t have standards, doesn’t meet codes, and requires only the barest level of mediation for us to enjoy it fully and completely. Once we embrace the idea that work and life should be separate and “in balance,” we partition off the authentic experiences of living from what we do to make money. Our professional, economic self is not our “living” self.
While I recognize that our work as university educators and researchers often forces us to blur the distinction between “life” and work. In fact, I’m writing this post in my home office and fretting about a raft of paperwork and an unfinished conference paper. My university’s budget cuts that will be announced later today will impact my quality of life because they will invariably reduce opportunities for public cultural events in our community, spread anxiety through local businesses, colleagues, and students, and undermine good will. These are “life” issues that are not separate from “work” issues even if I know that my salary and position is relatively secure. My reading of a slow life recognizes the deep interpenetration of living and working and undermines distinctions like the dreaded (and largely meaningless) “work/life balance” as well as the very underpinnings of the modern, professionalization project.
This stuff is fodder for our serious discussion, as both the evolving institutional character of colleges and universities and the pursuit of the ever-elusive “work – life balance” impact our professional and personal lives… even during the summer. So, in the spirit of the authors’ call for a “conversation,” as well as the critics call for “exploration of a working hypothesis,” let’s talk about this book! So, join the TPP Book Club and Summer Read event, and pass along Teaching Prof in Progress to your friends, colleagues and students who may not follow the blog, Facebook page and/or Twitter account yet.