Slow Academia and the Summer

I found Dimitri Nakassis’s recent blog post in response to Mary Beard’s recent column in the TLS pretty interesting, and it seems to have generated a bit of social media buzz as well. Go read it. 

[For those of you who read my blog regularly, you can probably skip this post!]

To summarize Dimitri and Prof. Beard briefly: they let folks know that academics work all summer despite the tendency to see our profession as primarily involved in teaching undergraduates and getting “summers off.” As readers of my blog might suspect, both Prof. Beard and Dimitri are really busy over the summer doing research, prepping classes, and even doing professional service to their disciplines and their universities. For most academics, this is hardly a surprise. We have the luxury of working when we want and sometimes even where we want for part of every year and most of us embrace these times not as an opportunity to turn our back on our professions, but to actually do things that enrich and expand our professional lives. As some of the comments on social media suggest, academics even define leisure activities like vacations or (in my case) bike rides or long walks as professionally productive time. 

I’ll return to these ideas, but first, it’s important to acknowledge the context context for their post. Both Beard and Dimitri work at publicly funded schools and these posts have a real value inasmuch as they remind the public that despite many of us not teaching in the summer, we, in fact, still work. They might have added that technically many of us are not even under contract in the summer months (although I am not sure about Dimitri and Prof. Beard). So those of us who continue to do our jobs – read drafts of theses, do research, respond to emails, revise classes, and the like – are doing so without being paid a salary. At the same time, most American universities do treat tenured and tenure track faculty as employees even when we’re not being paid, providing lab and office space, library access as well as health insurance during the summer months. In other words, American (and I assume most) universities provide their tenured and tenure track faculty with the basic tools to do their jobs even when they’re not drawing a salary. 

That being said, both posts also address one of the most interesting conflicts in the life of academics: the tension between our lives in the industrial world of education and the pre-industrial world of research. Research, especially in the humanities, frequently follows a pre-industrial model and ebbs and flows in fits and starts. We race toward deadlines and, at times, work settles into prolonged lulls. We work on weekends, over the summer, and on holidays, but we might also find ourselves taking weeks off from research as teaching, service, or other obligations take priority. Teaching and service, in contrast, tend to follow an industrial pattern with regimented flow of classes and semesters shaping our work rhythms.

This tension between industrial and pre-industrial work contributes significantly to the confused discourse of work/life balance in academia as I noted in my two part review of the Slow Professor, and I think it also creates some confusion when I discuss slow archaeology and the like. There is a tendency to see pre-industrial work rhythms as less efficient and positioned to benefit from any number timesaving tools designed to streamline workflow from research to publication. There’s also a tendency for industrial expectations to influence preindustrial work rhythms. This isn’t necessarily always bad. For example, the division between work and life is a product of industrial modes of production, and it allows for academic lives fit more easily into a world shaped by middle class expectations. Dimitri and Prof. Beard advertised the work that most of us do in the summer when either not on contract or at least not engaged in the regular work rhythms associated with teaching, continues to align rather closely with regular industrial practices. In other words, we don’t have time off in the summer; we work then too, just like normal working janes and joes. 

On the other hand, among academics, there is tendency to see our preindustrial lives as particular pernicious because until the industrial routine centered on punching the clock and performing tasks on time and on clearly defined specifications, preindustrial work is not circumscribed by such tidy expectations. We work when we need to, how we want to, and to deadlines and specifications that are largely (if not always) of our own devising. For some, this leads to malaise as our structured training in academia gives way to the unstructured preindustrial world of research. In other cases, the lack of structured expectations can give way to pervasive anxiety about work or a drive to re-compartmentalize work and life. 

This is where a slow approach to academia has merits. Putting aside the tangled and unconvincing arguments in The Slow Professor which try and fail to accommodate the tension between industrial and preindustrial practices, I think embracing slow aspects to research offers one way to remind researchers that we don’t need to accommodate industrial work rhythms in all of our productive work. Slow practices allow for such disparate and seemingly inefficient practices as a vacation, a field season, a weekend reading, or a frustrating night writing to all be regarded as valuable and productive time. In this sense, slow has less to do with the speed at which once accomplished a goal and more to do with an approach that rejects tools or work rhythms that promote efficiency or speed at the expense of effectiveness. Slow practices draw a line between time defined by structures designed to promote the goals of the industrial academy and those designed to ensure the most effective contribution to our scholarly communities. There will always be a need to generate equivalencies between the slow aspects of our professional lives and those set apart by industrial expectation – as Dimitri and Prof. Beard have shown – but it remains particularly important that we not internalize these expectations.

(And I’ll leave this post for now, but I’d like to think more about communities of practice and the role of slow practices in the academy and archaeology in shaping the expectations of these communities…)

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