Book Review: “Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy”

Pocket Watch Balance Wheel

BY AARON BARLOW

One of my favorite songs by the novelist/songwriter Richard Fariña (whose life was cut tragically short by a motorcycle accident) is called “Mainline Prosperity Blues.” It ends with this: “They say I could be productive/But I think I’ll just recline right here instead.” The irony, of course, is that Fariña, in his 29 years, was wonderfully productive, producing a novel (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me), recording a number of LPs (with his wife Mimi), and writing dozens of songs that still sound fresh and invigorating. His was an active and productive life, but he also knew the value of slowing it down:

Well, society is rolling
Got to drive above a certain speed
Population’s exploding
Gonna get you in a wild stampede
Well, companion, you’ll forgive me
If I seem unwilling to succeed.

“Seem” is the operant word, here: Fariña was certainly interested in success, but not only. His ambivalent attitude toward ambition pops up often (and not just in his songs, in the novel, too). In “Morgan the Pirate,” about his sometime friend Bob Dylan, he wrote:

Well so long brother let me say it’s been a ball
But as long as you’re still climbing I resign
You have been an inspiration to your image’s creation
So I think I’ll step outside and pass the time.

The rat race made so famous in the fifties and rejected (by some) in the sixties has become the centerpiece of American life this century. No longer does dropping out of it seem an option. Even academia, once the image of the careful, even paced, considered life, has entered into the hectic, jostling world exemplified by corporate-style competition. Today’s scholars hustle for grants and the recognition money brings rather than attentively studying and reviewing, hoping to add to the knowledge in their fields, outside attention notwithstanding.

Contemporary attitudes within academia, imported from the corporate world, are eroding the very value of our institutions of higher education. We need to slow down and reflect on the value of older attitudes—and step aside from profit-driven models.

In a new book, Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber present what they call “The Slow Professor Manifesto.” They write:

In the corporate university, power is transferred from faculty to managers, economic justifications dominate, and the familiar “bottom line” eclipses pedagogical and intellectual concerns. Slow Professors advocate deliberation over acceleration. We need time to think, and so do our students. Time for reflection and open-ended inquiry is not a luxury but is crucial to what we do.

Embracing their Slow Professor movement should be easy for all of us whose lives are crowded, more and more, by the corporate ‘make work’ of the modern university. Our annual reviews, now measured by the quantity of activity, need to be pared back to essentials, to the things we are slowly, but consistently, building. The impact of our classes, rather than measured by quivering ‘outcomes,’ should be envisioned in the lives of our students a decade down the road. Our scholarship, now evaluated through numbers of books and articles, needs to be seen as part of larger and on-going discussions (not individual production), many of which will not see results for years.

As one who took a long break from academia, I was shocked by what I found on my return, little more than a decade ago. At the start of my second semester on the tenure track, I received a phone call from a deputy chair, nine in the evening on Saturday before the start of classes. She told me she was assigning me to handle section changes for a certain period on Monday morning. I responded that it was inappropriate to call me on the weekend for school business or, on such short notice, to add duties. She hung up on me.

What, to me, was a large overstepping of boundaries was, to everyone else, simply normal procedure. My reaction was the anomaly, and it threated my retention.

Things had changed while I’d been away.

Berg and Seeber begin their book in a similar vein, commenting that:

Academic work is by its nature never done; while flexibility of hours is one of the privileges of our work, it can easily translate into working all the time or feeling that one should.

There are people (gasp!!) in our institutions who take advantage of that.

After examining the advice and assumptions of various Time Management gurus, Berg and Seeber conclude that:

Time management does not take into full account the changes to the university system: rather, it focuses on the individual, often in a punitive manner (my habits need to be pushed into shape). The real time issues are the increasing workloads, the sped-up pace, and the instrumentalism that pervades the corporate university.

Most of us on the faculty will immediately recognize exactly what they are saying.

Berg and Seeber don’t simply complain about it: In the first chapter, they list five ways of countering it in our personal professional lives. They write:

Timelessness is clearly desirable not only for our work but also for our professional and personal satisfaction. But it is pushed to the margins by more immediate and pressing demands. Research days ideally are spent writing and poking in the library, but instead we catch up with emails and record-keeping while trying to master the latest technological application because we have been told, in an email from above, that the university has purchased this system and it is now in use (and then there are those of us who admit that they spent yet another research day burnt out and unproductive).

In the second chapter, the authors argue for slowing down the classroom. They claim that “it may be the case that pleasure—experienced by the instructor and the students—is the most important predictor of ‘learning outcomes.’” I agree. This year, I’ve deliberately changed my classroom behavior, often ignoring, for example, the benchmarks of the syllabus. I don’t try to ‘get things done’ but work to engage my students—and I do that by making things as personal as I can (using my own experiences as a starting point) and by making use of distractions. All of my classrooms are “smart,” so I use the internet to explore things I have mentioned, even off-hand, showing film clips, playing songs, bringing up essays—who would have thought that George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” could become an impromptu part of a lesson simply because of a student question about metaphor? In the past, it would merely have been mentioned, or scheduled in at a later time with text and seriousness distributed. Now, I don’t rush anything; as long as the students smile and engage, commencing the art of learning, I have achieved my purpose.

Reading chapter two, then, entailed a palpable release of pressure: I am not alone, not struggling in the wilderness. The authors write, “Our experiences convince Barbara and me that our own and our students’ intelligence depends on the context and is particularly susceptible to the emotions generated by the group.” I’ve kicked away any sense of grading on a curve: If one student starts to do well, others do, too. In this chapter, also, is a list of suggestions for slowing things down to increase impact.

Like the first two, the third chapter contains suggestions. These are on research and scholarship and, for me, are much harder to follow. Though the manuscript I just turned in to my publisher completes an idea I had twenty-five years ago and includes research begun at that time, most of my work takes place at a frenetic pace. I need to, as Berg and Seeber advise, just wait—much more often than I do. The sixth and eighth ones, however, “just read it” and “follow your heart,” have become something of my mantras. I get more from seemingly random reading for my research than I do from the targeted exploration I was trained to fashion—and I let my heart lead me to each new project, not the logic of my career.

The fourth chapter deals with faculty community within a milieu where:

Academics are encouraged to take an entrepreneurial approach to their work, to be ready to leverage their assets, and to be as upwardly mobile as possible rather than “tied” to a specific campus.

Even in our campuses, we are expected to compete—with each other and with other colleges and universities, constantly trying to better our positions. This results in a loss of collegiality and an increasing sense of isolation. The practical advice here should be seen as common sense, but it is rarely common: “If we don’t vent, we will begin to whine,” for example, and “Don’t give up hope.”

We should all  listen.

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