Last year two Canadian English professors published a mini-manifesto: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. The book took aim at both accelerating administrative demands and the internalized expectation of measurable productivity that they assert have eroded the quality of academic life for faculty and students alike. Borrowing the metaphor of the slow food movement as well as a more generally mindful approach to intellectual labor, co-authors Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber encourage “Slow professors” to “act with purpose, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience to the effects of the corporatization of higher education.” The purposely slim volume (fewer than 100 pages of text) builds on a raft of literature examining troubling trends in higher education, from Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities to Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins, and rejects academic advice manuals promoting ever greater efficiencies through time management. Extending their less-is-more approach even to promoting their book, last summer Berg and Seeber declined my request for an interview for the Scholarly Kitchen, telling me they were already full up on review and interview requests and committed not to overdoing.
Reactions to the book have been generally positive, with reviewers finding much food for thought in Berg and Seeber’s diagnosis and prescription. Writing for NPR, Anthropologist Barbara King explained how, in the corporatized university, the “non-dollar-generating, non-product-oriented approaches to learning in the humanities and social sciences may be devalued.” (For the record, King is my colleague at William & Mary, a public university that in my view does a good job of protecting the core values of teaching, learning, and research.) Reviewers connected with the picture Berg and Seeber sketched of an enterprise in which the production of research publications is sped up, so they can be counted, and citations intensified — so they can be counted. It seems as if the act of accounting has degraded the very things we are counting. Though familiar with their own discipline and the humanities more broadly, the authors referenced as fellow travelers the Slow Science Academy (“bear with us while we think”). “No one should be “too busy to slow down.” Another reviewer echoed this sentiment and called for reading the book deliberately; understanding slow as a matter of intention rather than speed means “not racing the machine, but thinking outside of its logic altogether.”
But. The anecdotal, individual nature of some of the authors’ conclusions and their assertion that individuals within the academy can create change for themselves have struck some as blinkered by privilege. Plenty of working people struggle in more stressful circumstances, and plenty of people working in the academy face more struggles than senior, tenured professors. “The detrimental effects of time poverty” are highly situational. As one blog post noted “to be a slow professor is a privilege….available only to those already at the summit of the academic career structure.” Also, the implicit invocation of a bygone era in which a mythical tweed-clad professoriate was free to think deeply and thus productively, unhampered by ever-elaborating administrative and assessment structures, also calls to mind a homogenous academy with households and children minded by wives.
The academy has certainly become more diverse, though with much more progress needed. And some of the structural changes that many commentators have studied, and that Berg and Seeber connect to the increasing pressure on faculty, are real. But the notion that time urgency is new, or even new to the academy, will bait any historian. Read a little about the time and motion studies of the early twentieth century and you can see not the origins of our current mode, but an embrace of time urgency distinctive to that one. Growing up with a ringside seat to the development of academic Computer Science, I can tell you that the pace was frantic; pace doesn’t always have the same driver.
What might “slowness” have to offer for the diverse and complex enterprise that is the knowledge economy?
Still, both the recent science and the emerging zeitgeist around mindfulness has struck many as having a promising application to intellectual work. What might “slowness” have to offer for the diverse and complex enterprise that is, although Berg and Seeber identify the term as one an artifact of the unfortunate corporatization of intellectual endeavors, the knowledge economy? While Berg and Seeber focus only on higher education faculty, if we look to issues of primary importance to Scholarly Kitchen readers, we might see other opportunities for positive slowness. We could start with the knowledge that research happens in a wide array of places and occupations outside of the academy, and that the full research cycle including publication, dissemination and digestion includes a wide array of professionals doing intellectual labor.
Perhaps in all of these professional circumstances there is also a need for intentional reflection on the relationship of accountability practices both to the quality of the work and the health and vitality of the worker. I think it’s worth considering just how ramping up publishing production that is decried by some like Berg and Seeber is affecting publishing professionals. Are there ways that the metrical evaluations, for example, that scholarly publishing has helped to create is also having unintended consequences for publishers?
Is there any place for a change of pace in scholarly publishing? Believe me, especially in a discipline like mine, with long-form narrative scholarship that often takes a long time to fully develop and publish, the irony of advocating for what is the caricature of scholarly publishing – slow — isn’t lost on me. Granting that individuals have different modes of work and different preferences and experiences, are there ways that scholarly publishing can facilitate a sense of necessary time and space for thinking work? Are there ways to encourage professional development practices of not only time management but what Berg and Seeber describe as intentional “timelessness?” They discuss timelessness not only as a way of stepping out of the “time management” framework but of making space in our schedules (offline, they argue) for doing less. Google’s famous (elusive?) 20% time was designed to let employees work on independent, compelling projects that might – or might not — ultimately benefit the company’s bottom line. The argument is one that favors these “time-outs” from the regular and ever-increasing expectations of work as a contributor to more satisfying and maybe even better work. Perhaps encouraging some slowness may be beneficial to us all.