Tomorrow's Academic Careers
The posting below is a review by Vanessa Osborne * of the book The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. University of Toronto Press, 2016. The review is from Currents in Teaching and Learning, Vol.9, No. 1, March 2017. Currents in Teaching and Learning is a peer-reviewed electronic journal that fosters exchanges among reflective teacher-scholars across the disciplines. It is a publication of the Center for Teaching and Learning of Worcester State University, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Copyright © 2017 WSU, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA 01602. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
*Vanessa Osborne is a Lecturer in The Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
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Tomorrow’s Academic Careers
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The Slow Professor (Review)
The Slow Professor, a short and accessible volume, offers pragmatic and empowering strategies to resist the effect of university corporatization on teaching, learning, research, and collegiality. The volume explicitly counters the conventional crisis discourse that the authors see as instilling a kind of defeatism and passivity. Blending the conventions of self-help manuals and critiques of the corporate university, Berg and Seeber find inspiration in an unlikely place—the Slow Food Movement. This worldwide movement, begun in 1989 in Italy as a resistance to fast food’s standardized and globalized offerings and its effects on agricultural, dining, and labor practices, emphasizes pleasure, passion, and mindfulness. The authors imagine that professional practices guided by the Slow Food manifesto can, to use a popular corporate buzzword, “disrupt” the corporate ethos of efficiency, productivity, and speed (p. 11). Through their focus on politics joined with pleasure, the authors offer tangible strategies for resistance in chapters dedicated to time management, teaching, research, and collegiality.
The Slow Professor’s first chapter examines time management schemes and identifies increasing work obligations as a significant stressor, undermining the intellectual work required of teaching and research. Berg and Seeber acknowledge the many privileges of the academic lifestyle—most notably, flexible schedules and working on projects that captivate us. But they point out that the idealism that motivates academics can also be manipulated and lead to overwork. In response the authors evaluate popular time management schemes and find them universally lacking, preoccupied with fragmentation, regimentation, and a guilt-inducing obsession with maximizing productivity. They deduce that the core conflict that faces professors is not poor time management but rather the challenge of trying to negotiate two disparate and contradictory temporalities—corporate time and the “timeless time” required for academic work (p. 25). The authors enumerate how timeless time enables us to think creatively and critically and, paradoxically, increases output quantity and quality. The last few pages of the chapter offer manageable steps to protect a time and place for timeless time not as an indulgence but as a necessity for intellectual work (p. 28). These recommendations include some practical steps such as getting off line, finding time to do nothing, or acknowledging how long a task will realistically take (pp. 30-31). Other items on the list—silencing the inner critic in particular—are not as easily accomplished as an item on a list of suggestions implies.
The chapter on teaching, “Pedagogy and Pleasure,” resoundingly advocates for live lectures during a time when the trend toward streaming lectures and online classes are a corporate university’s answer to being more “student-centered.” Berg and Seeber perhaps too quickly dispatch the concerns over remote learning, focusing instead on how the “proximity of bodies and the transmission of emotions” yield the enthusiasm, enjoyment, and pleasure that best enable student learning (p. 34). Much of Berg and Seeber’s discussion of pedagogical effectiveness focuses on the embodied nature of classroom teaching. Supported by research, they contend that intelligence is embodied—shaped by context and by emotions. Citing student evaluations, the authors propose that students link their emotions to their assessment of a course, suggesting that how students feel is integral to how they learn (p. 36). In discussing the ways that emotions contribute to the learning experience, the authors ascertain that much more than an exchange of facts or ideas happens in a live classroom. A community of affect, shared positive feelings, emerges, one that motivates students to rise to academic challenges and emphasizes their belonging to a broader academic collective (pp. 38-39).
In order to facilitate the emergence of this connected community linked by positive emotions, the authors propose that teaching should be enjoyable, not as a Pollyannaish pervasive cheerfulness but as a way to generate positive meaning even “within diversity” (p. 40). To manifest this enjoyment Berg and Seeber offer advice and list spaces for self-examination in terms of one’s presentation and approach as a teacher. These recommendations, linked to specific moments—entering class, sustaining class, preparing for class, and marking—attend to the embodied nature of classroom teaching. Selections on “laughing,” “listening,” and “marking” propose that we shift the energy in the classroom away from the teacher and toward the students, encouraging laughter by not taking ourselves so seriously, taking time to really hear students’ concerns, or focusing on creating assignments that go beyond evaluation to consider what is useful and enjoyable for students. While many of these ideas are quite useful, Berg and Seeber’s advice seems less appropriate for a novice teacher or someone who may struggle with “imposter syndrome.” While casting aside the “authority, control, and encyclopedic knowledge” that could “distance” students might be possible for a veteran teacher, for those whose authority may be questioned due to age, gender, appearance, experience, or ethnicity, shedding conventions of authority may not happen so easily or uncomplicatedly (p. 42).
Chapter three identifies how the corporatized university affects research, often its most visible and quantifiable marker of success and achievement. Berg and Seeber contend that the pressure to generate knowledge that directly responds to practical community needs narrows the scope of research, privileging some kinds of work over others to the detriment of expanding the field of knowledge (p. 53). In order to resist this kind of thinking, the authors propose that we prioritize understanding, shifting away from focusing on product or results to recognizing the value of process. To begin this shift, the volume enumerates ways to challenge the corporate understanding of research. Many of these steps are simple shifts in thinking but one suggestion, creating a shadow CV of rejections, “detours, delays, and abandoned projects” carries within it a way to push against the “culture of excellence” that suffuses academic life (p. 65). While The Slow Professor does not mention it, this idea gained traction in the popular academic discourse after Devoney Looser published “Me and My Shadow CV” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Creating a publicly-disseminated shadow CV, particularly for those who are esteemed in their fields, could help shape the conversation about the ways in which research projects do not follow a quick linear trajectory from idea to publication.
Chapter four and the volume’s conclusion turn toward collegiality’s decline in the corporate university, arguing that connectivity and networking have supplanted the kind of conviviality and collegiality that can sustain a community. Not only has our current university structure instrumentalized time and research, it encourages us to think of our colleagues as resources to be leveraged— to engage with one another solely in ways that can be accounted for on a CV. Berg and Seeber suggest that we alter our approach to our colleagues, thinking of how we can actively build community as a means to creating a mutually supportive work environment. The conclusion offers a manifestation of these ideas whereby the two authors explain how they see the collaborative process of writing this volume, the “conviviality of thinking together” as resistance to the atomization that characterizes labor in the contemporary university (p. 89).
On the whole the volume offers solid generalized advice for how to resist the effect of the increasing corporatization of the university by invoking the useful conceit of the Slow Food Movement. But, as the volume goes on the connection to the politics and purpose of Slow Food winnows away, and one is left wondering if mapping a movement based on food production, practices, and consumption is useful or even necessary for a book on university labor practices. Most of the advice, focusing on “timeless time” and corporality could be accurately listed under the increasingly trendy concept of “mindfulness.” “Mindfulness,” however, lacks the political, activist bent of Slow Food, so perhaps does not quite captures the authors’ intentions.
Another critique stems from the way this book, as a sort of manifesto, speaks to a generalized professoriate and, thus, tends to gloss over the ways in which academic labor operates differently depending on one’s gender and race. With respect to gender in particular, the volume frequently links the corporate university to patriarchal alignment of university of the past. Despite repeating this concept, the book undertheorizes the gender dynamics of academic labor. A book about embracing affect, bringing corporeality into the classroom, listening to students, creating collaborative work opportunities, and balancing career and personal time obligation calls out for a nuanced theorization of the ways in which gender and race play into these behaviors and conditions. For example, the book’s suggestions of bringing one’s emotional self into the classroom or setting aside the trappings of conventional academic authority are likely to elicit a different response from students if the professor is a young, black woman or a middle-aged white man. In their attempt to articulate generalized and tangible strategies for instructors across the university, the authors problematically overlook both institutional inequalities and the distinct ways that cultural assumptions shape one’s self-presentation and interactions.
Nevertheless, this volume approaches a dire situation with an empowering enthusiasm and practicality that much of the academic discourse on the corporate university lacks. The Slow Professor offers a compelling salvo in the fight against the corporate university, one that will perhaps inspire others to respond with more specific and individualized strategies of resistance.