Slow Reconsidered

This week, for various reasons, I’ve started to re-think my position on “slow.” As readers of this blog know, I started to use appeals to the slow movement as an endearing and popular hook for some of my ideas about archaeological field practice, technology, and even teaching in the last few years. I co-edited a volume of the public humanities journal North Dakota Quarterly on slow and have published a pair of articles on “slow archaeology.”

At the same time, I’ve thought a good bit about speed and teaching and recently enjoyed Michael Serres book, Thumbelina which argues that millennials have profoundly different ways of engaging the world and that we should embrace and celebrate this. Serres views runs counter to folks who see “slow teaching” as an antidote to the quickening pace of every day because it sees the pace and connectivity of the world something that a problem that teachers need to solve, rather than an opportunity that we should embrace. At its most insistent, the need for slow teaching blurs with calls for reform in academia more broadly. Margie Berg and Barbara Seeber offer a flawed, but well-meaning treatment of academia as a blurred space of slowness (and I review this book here and here). 

A very recent article by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine prompted me to revisit these ideas. Sullivan was one of the first new media superstars and this thoughtful article reflected on the toll that his immersion in the 24-hour news cycle and the hyper-connected online world took on his mental, physical, and spiritual health. It makes a compelling case for us to slow down. At the same time that I am making final revisions on an article on slow archaeology slated to appear in this book. My own arguments for a slow archaeology and my immediate (non-slow!) appreciation of Sullivan’s article feel like they contradict my desire for fast teaching and enthusiasm for Serres’s view of the millennial generation. While I have some tolerance for contradiction in my thought, I took a walk yesterday convinced that this contradiction could and should be resolved.

Here’s what I thought:

First, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate slow archaeology as less of an issue of archaeological practice and more of an ethical issue. In other words, digital practices will continue to influence how we do archaeology in the field, but our entanglement with digital tools and a vastly complex ecosystem of commercial products is no less challenging that the legacy of colonialism, sexism, and economic inequality that shaped archaeological practices for the last century. Just as archaeologists have critically engaged  these complicated legacies in an effort to create a more ethnic and responsible discipline, we should also engage critically our approach to technology. These are lessons about digital tools in our discipline and the structure of our discipline more broadly that I’ve learned from Eric KansaÖmür Harmanşah, and Richard Rothaus. I’m not sure that I understood this aspect of my argument very well in the last two things that I’ve published on slow archaeology, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m getting it now. The spread of digital technology into our field and publication practices is not just about how we document material culture and produce archaeological knowledge, but also how we engage a commercial ecosystem that has values which often run explicitly counter to those associated with our discipline.

Second, critical resistance to technology is not the only way forward, of course. Our students, for example, have grown up immersed in this technology and thrive in a connected, accelerated, and global world. While there is nothing wrong about asking students to put down their phones, close their laptops, and unplug, we should be aware that our students life with technology is fundamentally different from our own. Sullivan observes as much when deeply immersed in a meditation retreat, he reconnects with a childhood full of emotional trauma and largely devoid of technology. As a result, Sullivan sees a world of bird songs, tree bark, and mottled sunlight as “real.” Our students today largely grew up with technology and just as crowded neighborhood eateries, well-worn woodland trails, and freshly-mown suburban lawns represent the real world to my generation, a digitally-mediated existence reflects the reality for our students. The pace of a digital world that makes those of us who worked to normalize the pre-digital “life of the mind” feel disoriented and overwhelmed, may not influence our students in the same way.

Finally, the idea that we need to slow down to be critical of how we engage the world is something that archaeologists and teachers should attend to. The pace of digital life makes the siren call of efficiency and speed in archaeology unavoidable. As archaeology is always the work of translation and mediation between material traces of the past and the present, our view of the past is shaped not only by the tools that we use, but our fundamental view of the world. As digital technology has become implicit in how we see the world – particularly the millennial generation who have grown up without whatever idyllic conceits we reserve for “reality” – it is inevitable that our archaeology will become more digital. At the same time, maintaining critical awareness of these changes will preserve an awareness of our disciplinary lens without invalidating the experience of the next generation of scholars. 

This is not a situation that leads to a simple resolution. Rejecting slow teaching runs the risk of putting “pre-digital” faculty in an uncomfortable and inauthentic position, alienating a generation of students who are already prone to resist our pedagogy, and forfeiting a critical opportunity to understand how technology shapes our world. Rejecting slow archaeology, carries fewer practical problems (as the tradition of slow archaeology (pre-digital and otherwise) persists throughout the world) and more ethical challenges as it risks normalizing efficiency, speed, and precision as crucial considerations for archaeological knowledge production.

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