Sunday, 14 May 2017

book review: The Slow Professor

Maggie Berg, Barbara K. Seeber.
The Slow Professor: challenging the culture of speed in the academy.
University of Toronto Press. 2016

There is an external view of academics as ivory tower effete dilettantes who spend all their time swanning around, thinking big thoughts, or just kicking back during the long vacations. There’s no real work involved, is there?

Then there is the reality: ever increasing bureaucracy, more scrabbling for more students, more worrying about “student feedback”, more scrabbling for ever reducing (per capita) research funding, more pressure to publish. I spent nearly two decades in industry, and have spent over a decade in academia: I can say with conviction that academia is much harder work and longer hours.

Bosses will say, but that’s because academia is vocational: you work so hard because you enjoy it. Well, we enjoy some of it, maybe even most of it, which is more than many people can say. But also if we don’t work so hard, we fall behind harder working peers, we don’t get promoted, we don’t get the research funding, we get in a death spiral. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons. And when we claim we are stressed because we have too much work to do, we are sent on time management courses (which we have no time for), rather than having workload reduced.

This thought-provoking little book (a mere 90 pages of text, to be digestible by the hurried academic, yet sufficiently dense with references to be academically rigorous), analyses the problem, and advocates slowing down, and savouring, the academic life. This is by explicit analogy with Slow Food and as a part of the Slow Movement in general. There are chapters on teaching, and research, and, crucial for academic learning, on collegiality. The call is for individual researchers to regain a sense of agency in the face of overpowering bureaucracy.

The authors write from the perspective of social scientists, but the findings and comments are equally applicable to other disciplines. The book documents much evidence of the problems, and suggests some approaches to mitigate these:
[p59] What does “time for the self” mean in the context of scholarship? For me, it means a shift from the dominant view of time as linear and quantifiable to time as a process of becoming. That is, rather than thinking of time as an accumulation of “lines on the CV” …, I am trying to think of time as an unfolding of who I am as a thinking being. Broadly speaking, I am trying to shift the focus from the product (the book, the article, the presentation) to the process of developing my understanding. This is not to say that books and articles and presentations don’t get written (although there may be fewer of them), but my experience of writing them changes in the sense that shifting my focus in this way eases some of the time pressure. I can keep at the back of my mind Readings’s question, which applies to our students as much as it does to us: “How long does it take to become educated?” … We tend to think of time as spent and gone. However, thinking of time as “constitutive, a becoming of what has not been before” … connects us to the scholarship that we do and goes against the corporate model.
How well this will go down with that “overpowering bureaucracy” remains to be seen. The issue with bureaucrats is they focus on those outputs, on those products, (presumably) because those are easy to measure, to count, to quantify. Students are to be assessed against learning outcomes: have they learned X, Y, Z? Yet students should grow and learn and change, through a process of becoming educated to think, and gaining meta-skills that can be adapted in a changing world. Research is to be assessed by publication and impact: how many journal papers and books? Yet researchers should grow and learn and change, through a process of reflection, and thinking, and experimenting. With much of academia, both teaching and research, most of the value lies in this process of becoming, hard to measure, even invisible in some cases. How much work are you really doing when reading a book, or staring at a screen, or just staring into space, thinking? Where’s the output, the result, the evidence of your work?

Learning and discovering and critiquing and thinking, like the rest of life, is a verb, not a noun.

I must read more about this Slow Movement. If I can find the time.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

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