Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.
I've been too stressed and too frantic and too busy to submit this book review on time. Let me rephrase that. I've been too stressed and too frantic and too busy with professional commitments, whilst on sabbatical leave, to meet my Esc book review deadline. I've been a slow professor. But not in the sense that Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber would want me to adopt this term. Influenced by the Slow movement, their book avowedly "extends Slow principles to academia" (vii), rightly claiming to be the first to do so. The main objective: to effectively adopt the Slow practices of simply slowing down and connecting to others, ourselves, and our environment into our academic lives and practices. The second and related objective is "to alleviate work stress, preserve humanistic education, and resist the corporate university" (ix). If you are at all involved in humanities education and research, the argument will most likely be familiar enough. It may even stress you out. Yet the need for Slow, as Berg and Seeber manage to convincingly illustrate, is no joking matter.
The authors begin by identifying the ubiquitous discourse of crisis, as well as its call for urgent action and the sense of powerlessness it entails, as one of the culprits of the university's current "corporate ethos of speed" (11). Exposing the false values that we associate to busyness and multitasking in our professional lives, they set out to critique studies and guides on time management to defend instead the merits of "timelessness." The latter notion they equate with the escape from time or at least managed time, to allow ourselves to think, absorb, and digest or to read, teach, and write more meaningfully--to resist feeling trapped between "corporate time and the time conducive to academic work" (25). Get off line; do less; embrace timelessness; set time aside to do nothing; change the way we talk about time: these are the author's suggestions and strategies of resistance that close the first chapter. They are backed by carefully cited research that explains, without crowding the text, their necessity and effectiveness. The advice also exemplifies what the authors mean by rendering their book both an analytical study and a practical self-help guide for academics.
If Slow research is the topic of chapter 1, Slow teaching is taken up in chapter 2, along with the beneficial dimensions of the live class as an embodied space for the circulation of emotions. Authored in the first person by Maggie Berg and alive with bits of humour and personal experience, the chapter does a fine job of using Teresa Brennan's theory of the transmission and residue of affect and considering their implications both for pleasurable teaching and for effective learning. Strategies to alleviate negative emotions such as nervousness, anxiety, and distress draw from Berg's own preparatory and classroom practices and direct engagement with her students over the years.
Barbara Seeber follows with her own chapter about the detrimental consequences of the corporate university on scholarship. The value invested in quantifiable knowledge and its so-called transferability, particularly by funding structures in Canada, harks back to the race for fast results and thus the issue of time raised in the first chapter. Resisting "the corporate clock," a risk to be sure in the current environment of annual reports and meritocracies, requires rethinking "our perception of time and the expectations of productivity" (55), argues Seeber, who proceeds to show how she works to adopt and internalize Slow language instead. It's good to see this part of the book consider graduate students and how particularly vulnerable they are to the expectations of cv-citable productivity and rushed professionalization, although Seeber doesn't address the mounting and oft unreasonable pressure put on graduate students to speed up their programs.
The fourth chapter on increased collegiality, thankfully, does not call for mandatory retreats or more departmental speaking series, that is to say, for increased time imposed on faculty when the problem is the very lack of it in the first place. Rather, it encourages academic communities to learn how to acknowledge head-on the feelings of isolation, discontent, and lack of connection that many feel in the academy at the moment, again due to the corporate university's instrumental view of the productive, competitive individual. The authors seek to shift current understanding of collegiality as a structural concept or problem to recognize it instead as an affective form of dialogue, care of self and others, and emotional support.
To return to my introduction, I was, of course, only (half) joking. I'm not feeling that frantic on sabbatical leave, and I consider such leaves as one of the best as well as most deserved perks of my profession. I write this, of course, as a full-time faculty member who doesn't have to worry about the precariousness of contract work pertaining to stability and survival--a topic that Berg and Seeber fail to raise in any substantial way. Since the corporate university rests upon the labour of part-time and contract instructors, its exclusion from the discussion is conspicuous indeed.
Apart from calling it "a legitimate goal" (88), The Slow Professor oddly excludes another subject from its discussion, and that is the work-life balance issue so pervasive in mainstream and journalistic discourse. Personally, the argument in favour of work-life balance as a contemporary chicken soup for the soul has always worried and frankly annoyed me. I wish Berg and Seeber had addressed and debunked this myth in order to explicitly differentiate their understanding of Slow for a healthier academic and personal life. It's not that I don't want balance in my life, or that I don't enjoy time out with my dog, my friends, my family. But writing from home--and not writing papers in my head as I scrub my teenagers' disgusting bathroom--actually sitting down to write, at home, is an activity I have come to claim, if imperfectly and perhaps too sporadically, for myself. In Adrienne Rich's words, it is a feminist practice of "responsibility to [my] self" which entails, for Rich, to "insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. [...] not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work." Putting into practice this responsibility in fact consists of one of those pleasures of academic life that the authors encourage their readers to uncover through Slow, not to mention the complex intersections of academic and personal selves. To be fair, I don't think Berg and Seeber, feminist scholars in their own right, would want us to give up Rich's notion of responsibility to oneself. Yet tailgating the Slow movement is a privileged, middle-class discourse that the work-life balance ideology also contains, only to put more pressure, especially on women, to have it all according to what is ultimately a neo-liberal dream of the good life at once provided and fulfilled by the promise of economic security.
It's difficult to imagine a full-time academic faculty member not enjoying this book. It is polished, well written, thoroughly researched but never thickset, and it offers an accessible, intelligent perspective on the culture of speed in the academy. It's difficult to imagine disagreement with the authors' persuasive arguments and relatable examples concerning why and how it is important to resist this culture and empower ourselves as university researchers and teachers. Although I do my fair share of administrative work as the director of a research centre, I do wonder, however, how my colleagues in the higher ranks of university chairs, deanships, or provost offices might respond to, and perhaps even be compelled to dismiss, this book. Will our universities ever not be tied to the corporate entities that define its major sources of public and private funding? What would the alternative be? Certainly not the "remasculinized university" that The Slow Professor admonishes, the private, white, old boys' club model that excluded so many of us in the past from ascending the proverbial ivory tower. Are timelessness, Slow teaching, Slow knowledge, and affective community enough not only to intervene in the corporate university--the authors have persuaded me that it might well be--but to actually transform it?
Because of what this book does not, and perhaps cannot, address--the structural problem of contract teaching, the neoliberal pressures of work-life balance, or the strategies that administrators themselves might adopt to resist the culture of speed--one might feel left hanging. Despite the deeper thinking this book solicits, its silence on these questions risks duplicating the sense of passivity and powerlessness that result from succumbing to the neo-liberalism currently in place. Yet the overall appeal of The Slow Professor does rest in the attribution, to university researchers and teachers themselves, of agency and resistance as well as the right and benefits of uncovering the pleasurable affects of intellectual work and academic community. There are lofty words in this last sentence. But such attribution is also an important reminder that the academy can be, first and foremost, us and our students, who must work to shape it not merely through the lip service of university vision documents but the daily and experiential practice of our scholarly and pedagogical passions.
University of Alberta
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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