The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber

Book of the week: Academics need to hit the brakes and work to change the system they’re in, says Emma Rees

May 26, 2016
Painting of woman reading letter

George Harrison wrote the Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun holed up at Eric Clapton’s house, skiving a meeting with the executives at Apple Records. Despite its optimism, the song always sounds deeply melancholic to me because I can’t hear it without whooshing back through time to a Sunday evening years ago: I’m in my childhood home, in my flannelette nightie, freshly bathed, homework done and school shoes ready, watching the closing credits – at that time set to Harrison’s song – of the Holiday programme on the BBC. Despite all its wistful jingling and catchiness, that one song signalled the inescapable, stifling fact that the weekend was Over. To become an academic is to submit oneself to that Sunday evening feeling, seemingly in perpetuity.

The mental health of academics and administrators is at risk as never before. We might, on any given term-time Sunday evening (or, indeed, on any weekday night), prefer to be a skiver, like Harrison, but we find that the pressures of what my students term “adulting” are simply too great to hide from. The authors of The Slow Professor surely know that Sunday sensation too, and their plea is that, in the interests of self-care, we should all slow down and shift “our thinking from ‘what is wrong with us?’ to ‘what is wrong with the academic system?’”.

The Slow Food movement was initiated more than two decades ago by the activist Carlo Petrini. Local producers were celebrated over supermarket conglomerates, the detrimental effects of fast food on local communities were exposed, and a healthy kind of individuality thumbed its mindful nose at cultural homogeneity. Petrini’s work gained traction – sedately, of course – and in 2011 the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman published his best-seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, urging us to live “deliberate, effortful, and orderly” lives. Once it’s understood, the logic of the Slow Movement is irresistible. What Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber are doing in The Slow Professor is protesting against the “corporatization of the contemporary university”, and reminding us of a kind of “good” selfishness; theirs is a self-help book that recognises the fact that an institution can only ever be as healthy as the sum of its parts.

In their endeavour to “foster greater openness about the ways in which the corporate university affects our professional practice and well-being”, Berg and Seeber openly echo the tone and agenda of Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For?. And “well-being” ought to be a top priority for what the authors portray as a culture that “dismisses turning inwards and disavows emotion in pursuit of hyper-rational and economic goals”. Just last month, Times Higher Education ran a remarkable first-hand account of one academic’s experiences with mental illness. “In my own case,” wrote that anonymous contributor, “I know how vulnerable I am to feeling alone and unable to cope as I drown beneath a seemingly endless avalanche of work.”

This book is an intervention into precisely that “avalanche”; a mountain-rescue effort for the knackered academic. Its “Slow Professor manifesto” has three aims: “to alleviate work stress, preserve humanistic education, and resist the corporate university”. But it’s definitely not a joyless philosophy that the authors share: “We see our book as uncovering the secret life of the academic,” they write, “revealing not only her pains but also her pleasures.” They offer solutions, too, in addition to identifying what’s broken (they are writing from the perspective of members of the Canadian academy, which, as they present it, seems virtually indistinguishable from the British one). In critiquing those guides to time management that favour speeding through a punitive checklist over sitting in meaningful contemplation, they get it absolutely right: “It is not so much a matter of managing our time as it is of sustaining our focus in a culture that threatens it.”

The Slow Professor is a welcome corrective to texts such as Gregory Colón Semenza’s frankly obnoxious Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century (2005), a text that the authors cite. Semenza reassures us that “if on a Thursday I realize that I’ll need to read two books and grade ten papers by Monday, I’ll tackle the papers on Friday afternoon since I can more easily sneak in reading at various times and places over the weekend”. How did we reach this point of feeling the need to “sneak in” work when we could be spending time with our families, with our pets or with Tyrion Lannister? (Asking for a friend.) We shouldn’t punish ourselves for working for a living, but we should ask more questions of a university culture that seems to require us to live wholly for our work. The authors’ solutions aren’t groundbreaking (“We need to do less”), but there is something oddly comforting about seeing them articulated in such an engagingly open way.

Berg and Seeber came in for some pretty unkind pre-publication criticism. Some bloggers and reviewers responded angrily to what they perceived as the authors’ privilege: it’s far easier to reflect on life in a university, and, indeed, to slow down, when your contract of employment is secure, and you know for certain that you can make the rent. But the authors do acknowledge their privilege: “Those of us in tenured positions, given the protection that we enjoy, have an obligation to try to improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us.” I liked this tone of advocacy; it’s really hard to have to tell an enthusiastic grad student that she may never get the academic job she dreams of – but it’s not half as hard as it is to be the one on the receiving end of that unpalatable truth.

And it’s important to remember that Berg and Seeber are agitating (if one can “agitate” in a slow and unstressed way) for a complete cultural shift. This, I fear, is impossible in the UK, where colleagues still speak of “elite” universities, and organisations such as the Bullingdon Club persist. Indeed, the Green Paper and the looming spectre of the teaching excellence framework will further consolidate the divisions that already exist between higher education institutions, and hopes for anything like a universal implementation of a philosophy of slowness will certainly get trampled in the unseemly clown-car scramble in which we’ll soon see UK universities participating. But I admire the authors’ optimism in expressing even the possibility of something better than the status quo. The Slow Professor, as Berg and Seeber themselves put it, is both “idealistic in nature”, and “a call to action”.

Finally, this is a very short book. And that’s no bad thing: I’m really busy and I’m really tired and reading for pleasure sometimes drops off my radar. But writing book reviews is, I believe, a valuable act that can provide extra ballast for the already flimsy barricades that so many of us are trying to erect against the juggernaut of the neoliberal agenda. David Beer, reader in sociology at the University of York, recently argued this case quite brilliantly in these pages. And if you’re still sceptical about what big things a little book like this might do, I leave you with this perfect gem from the manifesto: “Talking about professors’ stress is not self-indulgent; not talking about it plays into the corporate model”. If I had the time, I’d stitch those words into a sampler and hang it over my desk.

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.


The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy
By Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber
University of Toronto Press, 128pp, £15.99
ISBN 9781442645561 and 663107 (e-book)
Published 20 May 2016


The authors

Authors Maggie Berg and Barbara SeeberMaggie Berg, professor of English at Queen’s University, Kingston, was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, and raised on Hayling Island. My dad had a heart attack at the age of 43 and left my mum with five young children (I was the oldest). Although she had left school at 16 to become a hairdresser, Mum got herself a job with the Portsmouth Evening News and we kids helped to bring up each other. We were what is now called underprivileged. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and if it hadn’t been for the grants system at the time I would not have done so. Because of this background, I have never fitted comfortably in academia; it has left me with an awkward combination of gratitude and scepticism. However, I believe it has also made me a better teacher.”

She now lives in Kingston Ontario, “with Scott Wallis – who is a brilliant visual artist and a preparator in Queen’s University gallery – for 30 years. We are very different: I get up at 6am and go for a run; he stays at home smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. It works. Neither of us drives and we will never own a car. Our daughter Rebecca used to be annoyed by this, but now she is 26 she herself drives. Rebecca, who is the loveliest human being I could ever have imagined, is pursuing an MA in Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia. I asked her one day whether she would practice couples counselling on me and her dad; she was horrified and flatly refused.”

What is the wisest book she has read of late? “I have passed on, and sometimes made my students read, Tom Chatfield’s How to Thrive in the Digital Age, Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, and Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle. I realise just now that they have something in common: they urge us to consider that the very technologies that enhance our lives also, in the words of Chatfield, ‘have the potential to denude us of what it means to thrive as human beings’.”

Asked whether she believes that academics are complicit in their own oppression, she replies: “Barbara and I would certainly not argue that academics are ‘oppressed’: we are privileged to have worthwhile jobs that we love, and that have flexible work hours; some of us are protected by tenure. The corporate university’s exploitation of casual labour impoverishes the climate for all of us, making it full of fear and resentment. We do argue that academics are prone to overwork for a variety of reasons: we have excessively high self-expectations; we are engaged in work which by its very nature is never done; and, above all, we are subject to guilt as a result of what Stephan Collini (in What Are Universities For?) calls the mythical taxpayer.

“In an effort not to seem either hopelessly outdated or privileged, academics struggle to meet the raised expectations imposed by the corporate university: to teach larger classes and to find innovative ways to do so, to adapt to new learning technologies, and to cope with the downloading of administrative tasks. In addition, we don’t have time to read works on the profession, which would give us a much-needed critical perspective.”

What gives her hope? “ My students and my colleagues. My students because they crave real human connection and intellectual discussion; they want to be far more than ‘clients’. My colleagues because they are trying to resist, in their own ways, the dehumanising and anti-intellectual effects of the number-crunching corporate university.”

Her co-author, Barbara Seeber, professor of English at Brock University, St Catharines, Ontario, was born in Innsbruck in Austria, and lived there until she was 13, when her family moved to the West Coast of Canada.

“The slow food movement started in Italy but its principles are also cherished in Austria, so I grew up in a culture that insists on everyday pleasures and the conviviality of sharing a meal and conversation. I think that the immigrant experience has shaped me in some fundamental ways. It undoubtedly has enriched my perspective, but it also has led to feeling that I don’t quite fit in (both in Canada and in Europe).

“In terms of my work as a professor of English literature, being an immigrant also has had both positive and negative consequences: many academics suffer from the ‘imposter syndrome’, and working in your second language certainly intensifies that. But it also has given me the freedom that can come with approaching topics from the outside. For example, my primary area of research is Jane Austen and because I didn’t grow up hearing about Aunt Jane, I didn’t have preconceived ideas about her work.”

Seeber lives in St. Catharines, “a small city in the Niagara Peninsula (famed for its wine and its falls) near Toronto, Ontario. I am fortunate to share my house with two lovely companions: Georgie, a Shih Tzu, and Frida, a Chantilly cat, who are best friends. Before them, I lived with a very special cat named Darcy, named after the hero in Pride and Prejudice.

If she could change one thing about the Canadian university sector, what would it be? “I wish that higher education would be tuition free. Higher education, like healthcare, is a public good.”

Asked whether she feels that academics too easy to take advantage of and too slow to stand up for themselves, Seeber replies: “Absolutely not. We do not blame individual academics for letting the corporatisation of higher education happen. There are many academics who are actively resisting it.

“However, we do think that the academic system militates against resistance in a number of ways. Academics are taught to blame themselves (most of us think that if we are not keeping up, then we are the problem). Academic culture is highly competitive and discourages frankness about struggle. And the reality is that increasing workloads, accountability measures, casualisation of labour and scarcer resources make it difficult to take the time for reflection and counter action. Most of us are just trying to keep up with whatever seems most urgent. Time poverty is one of the consequences of corporatisation and it also facilitates corporate values taking hold.”

What gives her hope? “Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? gives me a lot of hope because his argument is so compelling and because he makes me laugh. Laughter is always a good thing because it lets you find a place of strength in the middle of stress and anxiety and powerlessness. I am very heartened by the positive responses Maggie and I have been getting to our work from colleagues and students. That means people want change.

“In terms of my personal life, I find hope in books that suggest that transformation is possible, such as texts on neuroplasticity like Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (and I am not afraid to admit that I have a healthy collection of self-help books of all stripes). And, finally, observing and reading about interspecies friendship makes me feel joyful and gives me hope for a better future.”

Karen Shook

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Print headline: Manifesto for the life of the mind

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