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

Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017

Every now and then, one comes across a book that is so out of touch with reality, it could only have been written by an academic. When the reality that the author is out of touch with happens to be academia itself, one might be tempted to guess that the author is not an academic. But The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy reveals that sometimes the limits of academic aloofness know no bounds. Authors Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber attempt in their book to apply the lessons of the slow food movement and other slow philosophies to higher education. They argue that the academy has been taken over by a corporate model of governing, forcing professors to work in rushed and efficiency-driven ways that undermine the very nature of academic work, which requires thoughtfulness, pleasure, and time. They outline three areas of academia – teaching, research, and collegiality – where tenured professors feel a pervasive sense of stress and time pressure and suggest strategies for overcoming such obstacles in order to retrieve a sensible intellectual life.

It is difficult to disagree with many of the conclusions that Berg and Seeber put forward. Of course professors need time to think and write. Of course professors should enjoy teaching and should avoid spending too much time online. Even the advice that is trivial and banal (“Follow your heart.” “Don’t give up hope.”) is perhaps not wrong. I suspect that these innocuous recommendations are part of the explanation for the positive praise the book has received.

But conclusions are different from an argument, and the argument of the book continually falters. The central argument attempts to link the corporatization of the university with the need for a slow philosophy in higher education. The idea that the modern university is increasingly run more like a business is certainly true and the serious problems with such a model have been well documented by others. Certainly, one such problem is the extent to which professors have more tedious bureaucratic responsibilities to perform. Nevertheless, the idea that the corporatization of the university is single-handedly or fundamentally responsible at least for tenured professors feeling busy and stressed is something of an exaggeration.

The busyness, lack of time, and the mountains of work of academic life are not imposed principally from a business or managerial perspective that has hijacked college administrators, though they may well add to it. Instead, it stems from the (technological, economic) culture at large and the nature of academic work itself. If a professor compulsively pokes around in the library and spends more time on email than he wants to, there is no immediate reason to think that he is trying to please his college’s administration. Our cell phones and our social media accounts make us busier and stressed even before the pressures imposed by deans and provosts come into the picture. Moreover, as Berg and Seeber point out more than once, academic work by its nature is never done. So the fact that professors are always extremely busy cannot necessarily be put down as a singular function of a nevertheless expanding corporate model of education.

Almost all of the evidence presented in this book is anecdotal. For example, the claim that it is more and more difficult for professors to find social support is merely a view expressed by two of Berg and Seeber’s colleagues. A narrative or an observation about empty hallways on college campuses seems appropriate for a trade magazine, but not a peer-reviewed book published by a reputable academic press. But even if such evidence were convincing and accurate, the further claim that such lack of social support is caused by the corporatization of the university requires more than a hunch about a “climate of accounting,” even if academic management in many places were modeling itself after Wells Fargo.

Berg and Seeber’s book would approach a strong argument if it had emphasized the steady and significant decline of tenure-track faculty, which certainly is an important effect of the corporate model of university governance and one that contributes to the culture of speed in the academy. Instead, the authors apply their observations exclusively to full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty, ignoring the way in which the university culture, by and large, has resisted demanding that its full-time faculty do work quickly and “efficiently.” We see this especially in several features that (still) structure the university, such as tenure, the academic calendar, and the sabbatical, features that Berg and Seeber rarely, if ever, mention. Tenure virtually guarantees that a professor will not be fired—or indeed in anyway penalized—for failing to “produce”. Tenured and tenure-track faculty as a percentage of teachers in higher education, however, have dropped precipitously. In 1969, about 78% of faculty were tenured or tenure-track. Forty years later, that figure dropped to about 33%.[1] While this decline is deeply troubling, Berg and Seeber pay virtually no attention to it and in the process overlook the slow benefits that tenure offers. Full-time professors who remain in academia are generally committed to teaching at most four courses a semester, leaving unstructured time in the summer or between semesters to work on research. And while a high teaching load makes publishing more difficult, it commonly corresponds with less pressure to publish in the first place (although perhaps the primary motive for entering the profession by most faculty is to do meaningful research). Sabbaticals are under some pressure as a cost-saving measure, but even at small colleges they remain fairly common. Or at least, if one wanted to show that business concerns in the academy were eliminating room for intellectual rumination, one should show that sabbaticals are seriously endangered; but Berg and Seeber do not even mention them. If tenured professors are not honest about the privileges we few still enjoy, we risk alienating even more the contingent faculty who enjoy almost none. At one point, Berg and Seeber describe one busy professor’s admission that it took him more than 10 years to write his book as an “act of everyday rebellion.” But this is simply the normal course of things in academia.

How much Berg and Seeber understand about the slow movement they are trying to apply is not clear. The slow philosophy is not merely a matter of challenging the frantic pace of contemporary culture. It is about recovering an older way of doing things that prioritizes quality over quantity, that reconnects ends and means, mind and body, when these things have been divorced in a technocapitalist culture of endless consumption. Consider the paradigmatic slow movement: food. The idea of slow food is to reclaim eating in such a way that we know where our food is coming from and how it is prepared. Fast food treats nourishment (if it can still be called that) as a commodity, without any understanding or concern for how nourishment is produced. Slow food, by contrast, reminds us that the activity of eating has standards of excellence, that it can engage us fully, that we can be involved in both production and consumption and can enjoy both. Hence, the slow philosophy appropriately applies to activities that are fundamentally embodied: eating, gardening, sex, medicine, playing music, and so on.

Berg and Seeber realize the significance of embodiment when it comes to teaching, as they effectively argue against digital mediation as a second-rate substitute for genuine teaching and learning. However, they fail to retain this significance in the remaining parts of the book, as the argument devolves into a laundry list of complaints about the pressures academics face more generally.

A less significant failure than the book’s argument is its writing, but this is also worth mentioning because it illuminates the more significant failure. First, the “Slow Professor Manifesto” that Berg and Seeber provide in the preface suffers from a surprising dearth of normative statements. Their approach, recall, is narrative and testimony, which apparently doesn’t lend itself well to constructing manifestos. Second, The Slow Professor comes in at fewer than 100 pages of text. The authors claim that this was a “careful choice” because they did not want to write something that their colleagues were too busy to read. In other words, they wanted to enable their colleagues to continue in their hurried and harried professional choices. Third, the authors’ voices are lost in a sea of name-dropping and quotations. At one point, the first and last names of six different scholars are mentioned in the course of two sentences. The significance of mentioning these authors and their precise words is rarely made clear. Is it really necessary to quote an author who said “thoughts take time”? Is the quotation “you can’t put a good conversation on your vita” so important that it needed to be provided twice? The authors appear more interested in fulfilling a recently-imposed scholarly standard of having sufficient citations of their colleagues’ work (a standard that tends to be concerned more with quantity than quality) rather than doing the hard, slow work of exploring the nature, purpose, and development of the university and how it requires leisure to achieve its aims.

One suspects in the end that the authors are merely writing a defensive screed against a perspective that is rather popular outside the university: that professors are lazy free-riders. Aside from this perspective being occasionally true, those of us to whom it does not apply almost never consider or worry about it. Berg and Seeber suggest that perhaps we should and that is as far as the worthiness of the book goes. The outside perspective is underdescribed and unaddressed. Many people not only think that professors are lazy, but also that whatever work professors actually do (particularly scholarship in the humanities) is pretty worthless. Unfortunately, The Slow Professor, concerned only with the travails of the ‘chosen few’ tenured faculty, fails to undermine that suspicion.

Notes

[1] Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey, The Changing Academic Workforce,” Trusteeship Magazine May/June 2013. Accessed at https://www.agb.org/trusteeship/2013/5/changing-academic-workforce

Philip Reed is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. His research is in ethics, applied ethics, and moral psychology.