The Impossibility of a Slow Professor (Part 1)

I really enjoyed reading Maggie Berg’s and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor (Toronto 2016) this weekend. It was a lovely book, and a nice essay length introduction to the slow movement as a possible foundation for resistance to the accelerating pace of academic expectations and, more broadly, as an accessible interpretative position for critiquing the modern world. 

The slow movement initially emerged as a critique of agribusiness and the globalization of food. Slow food emphasized locally produced and prepared produce and cultivated an interest in local styles of cooking and dining. On the one hand, this approach to consumption is a luxury available to hyper-affluent and increasingly post-industrial western society. On the other hand, advocates of slow food argue that a move to more sustainable agricultural and consumer practices offer benefits to more than just refined western palates, but to the increasingly unviable global economy and environment. From these positions, individuals have applied concepts borrowed from the slow movement to critique the accelerating pace of modern life. Here the popular concept of slow intersects with more thoughtful critiques of speed developed by philosophers like Paul Virilio and Hartmut Rosa and perhaps most powerfully in the Marxist critiques of David Harvey. Reader of this blog know that I’ve applied the concept to the influence of technology on archaeological field work and co-edited a volume of North Dakota Quarterly on the topic.   

The Slow Professor applied the concept of slow to academia. They argue that the permanent state of crisis has helped fuel an increased service workloads, research expectations, and teaching pressures. Most of this pressure on faculty, as Berg and Seeber see it, derives from the rise of the corporate university which has promoted a kind of audit culture that to assign quantifiable outcomes to all aspects of higher education. Whatever the validity of this approach to higher education, for Berk and Seeber, it has put a massive premium on time and led to a dramatic increase in stress among faculty. This stress has made faculty less able to teach and research effectively. 

A few years ago, I documented what I did every day for about 2 months to get a sense for how I spent my time. I discovered that I worked just over 75 hours per week and about 40 hours per week are dedicated to research, reading, and writing. 3-4 hours per day relates to teaching or service (or about 30 hours per week), and about 5 hours a day (or 35 hours per week) is leisure ranging from about 1:45 minutes eating, an hour a day watching TV, a couple of hours exercising. I suspect that my life reflects, more or less, the average academic workload. In other words, my world is more or less symptomatic of what Berg and Seeber see as problematic in academia. To be a moderately productive scholar takes a serious commitment of time.

Berg and Seeber look at ways to slow down our busy academic lives from taking time to savor and enjoy the experience of teaching to respecting the irregular schedule of research and writing, building time and space for collegiality, and the genuine joys of collaboration. In general, they stop short of giving direct advice for how to slow down our hectic pace, but do a nice job of arguing that we should take more time during our day to step back from our immediate pressures and use this space to let our minds settle into less structured, but perhaps more productive rhythms. This is good advice and most harried faculty will appreciate the message that sometimes less is more.

The problem with this book, however, is that they critique the corporate university without really offering a meaningful alternative. In some ways, the absence of an alternative to an academic world dominated by a concern for outcomes undermined the subversive message of the book. If taking the time to enjoy teaching made us better teachers, if working to cultivate collaboration and collegiality makes us better researchers, and if embracing the often circuitous route of research makes our work more engaged and engaging, then the slow movement doesn’t necessarily offer an explicit way our of the academic grind. If being good teachers, good researchers, and good colleagues remain priorities, they offer little in the book that connects a slow approach with any kind of recognizable outcome. Their book insists that embracing a slow approach to academia will help us do our jobs better, but they don’t make entirely clear what better really means.

They also seem to accept that academic work as professional work. For example, part of their goal for advocating a slow approach to being an academic is finding the right “work/life balance.” Unfortunately, the slow movement is decidedly more ambivalent about the modern distinction between work and life. The professional professor is someone who has, to some extent, bought into a model of the modern, corporate university. In fact, the professionalization of the disciplines was a contributing factor to the emergence of an outcome driven university. The professional disciplines required measurable standards in order to ensure that they contributed to the university and, more importantly, society. After all, if your law school graduates can’t pass the bar exam or your accountants can balance the books, it’s hard to advocate for the utility of professional, academic training.

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.

I’d contend that many of these many aspects of the modern university run counter to the basic ideas embodied in the slow movement. Whether its the expectation that higher education have a degree of uniformity, our concern about some form of measurable “standards” (grades, assessment, accreditation, et c.) or our view that professors have formal credentials (the Ph.D. is a professional degree), 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. 

One Comment

  1. Some excellent thoughts here on the changing nature of the professoriate. We want the time to be the mythical professors of old, who could be absorbed by their work. But we also want “work/life” balance where we don’t have to think about those issues after 7PM. I think perhaps, those of use in fieldwork heavy disciplines have a different (and superior!) perspective, because we frequently have periods where work and life have to merge, and we are okay with that. Not fully formed thoughts, but you’ve got me thinking . . . .


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