At 50: Slow at 50

I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about being Not Full at 50 and today I turn my attention to my always developing thoughts on slow. 

Over the last decade, I’ve been thinking a good bit about ideas relating to the slow movement. I produced an edited volume of a literary journal dedicated to “slow” and published a little gaggle of articles that consider “slow archaeology.” This work, as any reader of this blog probably knows, tends to focus on the idea that slow, focused, and often embodied work, while often inefficient by contemporary standards, produces substantively different outcomes than work that privileges efficiency. These conclusions lean on scholarship that unpacks the distinctive character of certain kinds of slow work from hand drawing to walking the countryside, long form descriptions, and excavating.  

Recently, I’ve been talking with a few graduate students about work load expectations in graduate school and these conversations align neatly with recent debates about faculty work load. There is no doubt that many faculty members and students are feeling overwork and the last two-years of pandemic-inflected work has exacerbated this feeling. A few students have told me that it is hard to find the time to engage in the slow processes that are necessary for their creative work and argued that their workload is making it impossible to find a healthy work/life balance.

I don’t disagree with their assessment and worry a good bit that student workloads at the undergraduate and graduate levels are no longer reasonable in light of changing students responsibilities both in school and outside of school. In one of the more thoughtful critiques of “slow,” Shawn Graham reminded me that working slowly is often a privilege that relies, at worse, on other people scrambling to pick up the slack, or, at best, is a luxury afforded those who have a certain amount of material and professional security. This assessment however tends to see “slow” as less productive or efficient than “fast” work rather than substantively different.

Recently, I’ve started to realize that my work habits are very slow indeed. However, they don’t really involve the kind of deliberate, contemplative practices that we so often associate with slow work. Instead, I tend to work on a number of projects simultaneously. I flit from one project to another over the course of a week and often spend time simultaneously writing, reading, doing email, and surfing the web. I am, of course, familiar with the literature that has argued that these work habits are bad for our brains and our ability to concentrate and focus, and suspect that there is real truth to these claims. At the same time, I rarely find that I prefer to work and particularly write in a distracted way. I find taking a dozen small breaks over the course of an hour consistent with how my brain works. In fact, I find forcing my brain to remain locked onto a single task incredibly exhausting and unpleasant. Sometimes, when proofreading or revising a sustained argument this kind of concentration is necessary, but even then it’s rarely pleasant.

This got me wondering whether the effort to normalize this kind of focused concentration has more to do with expectations of efficiency than more expansive views of how our brain and our lives work. I’ve started to think that my version of slow work, then, reflects my own distracted approach to my work as a scholar and teacher. Instead of focusing on producing predictable outcomes, I’m becoming more and more interested in figuring out sustained and sustaining practices, and for me this involves leaving myself open to distractions and putting aside well-meaning, but often misguided arguments for working and life.

So as I turn 50, I’m trying to embrace my own slow workflows and recognize my unique work habits as sustainable and healthy. Rather than seeking some kind of work/life balance or seeing time (or hours) as a measure of how much work I do. Instead, I’m trying to embrace my own slow habits as an antidote to certain expectations of efficiency. My hope is that these approaches will help me develop more sustainable habits that not only allow me a sense of satisfaction with my daily life, but also keep me productive in my career and as a good collaborator, contributor, and colleague to my various communities.  

One Comment

  1. Happy Birthday, and thanks for all the thoughtful and thought-provoking blogging.

    Reply

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