Frankly, too much time has elapsed since the last entry in this blog. Pulled into all directions by competing demands on my time and a resultant ‘poverty of time’, I could not help but think about the effects of the modern university on scholarship and teaching.
So, over the weekend I read the short book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber The Slow Professor (insightfully reviewed by Emma Rees in the THES), advocating for changes to the working practices of scholars in Canadian universities. The university system in the UK is similar enough to that in Canada to transfer the analysis to Britain. Taking Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? as a starting point, The Slow Professor offers a good few home truths about the current academy in this book, and it made for both challenging and affirming reading. Many times I found myself exclaiming in recognition of the analysis of the transformation of the scholarly profession in the past few decades.
The premise of the Slow Professor is simple: as universities have changed from institutions of learning, essential to the well-being of society, to corporations which sell ‘products’ (degrees) to ‘customers’ (students), they have come to abide by the market forces of late capitalism. Universities, politically frequently branded as ‘luxuries’, now need to prove their worth to society (the elusive ‘taxpayer’) by producing quality ‘outputs’, measured in publications and graduates (and their grades); knowledge is a commodity which can be marketed, sold and bought, and scholars are in service to the economic goals of the institution. The book examines effects of this ‘corporatisation’ of the university on lecturers and students, and advocates for a subtle gear-change in the behaviour of (tenured, Berg and Seeber are well aware of the privilege afforded to those of us who enjoy tenure) academic staff along the principles developed by the ‘slow’ (food) movement.
Applying the principles of the slow movement, Berg and Seeber draw on the ability of faculty to subvert aspects of the university system with values which transcend the short-term ‘productivity’ focus of the university as a corporation in which everything can be measured in monetary terms. The main purpose is to regain a sense of agency (both of faculty and students) in the face of the corporation, and to rediscover the pleasure of the processes of academic work. In small steps the book advocates for the possibility of overcoming, or at least continually challenging, the reality of the time-poor, overburdened lecturer scrambling madly to keep on top of an ever-expanding to-do list (and failing) by setting small, achievable, and valuable ways of engaging positively within the academy. Revolution would be too strong a word, but resistance captures well the attempt to challenge the current academic climate of economic competition which endangers education by curtailing creativity, insight, collegiality, and pedagogy.
Refocusing our pedagogic practice on classroom interaction between real people who read, think, and grow in engagement with complicated texts (in the widest sense) and contexts, encourages taking the whole life of class participants into the learning context and promotes a refocusing on the process of thinking and learning together, rather than merely concentrating on the ‘output’, that is the achievement of learning outcomes as reflected in grades.
Similarly, by us insisting on taking the time research needs to mature, by us purposefully seeking out and making time for engagement with our colleagues, by prioritising our intellectual and creative work, we can set a signal in our workplaces which re-humanises and re-directs our energies towards the creation of an environment conducive to exploration, scholarship, and intellectual creativity.
This may read like small beer, but cumulatively, in daily practice and with keeping an eye out for the vision of a university as a place of learning and discovery essential to the well-being of society (and far from a luxury which can be sacrificed to the ‘god of the corporate economy’), the ‘slow professor movement’ may be able to do for the academy what the slow food movement has done for local communities.
Along the way and with purpose, we may also be able to set a sign that the goals promoted by the ‘equality & diversity agenda’ will hardly be achieved in the corporate university. They require an environment which takes seriously the whole person in their creative work, rather than value them only by ‘outputs’ generated in a specific amount of time. Implicitly, if not explicitly, the market-driven model of education and research works against the goals of e&d, promoting a traditionally male approach to ‘productivity’ which devalues the contributions of those do not (for many good reasons) devote 24/7 all year round to the service of the never-ceasing appetite of the corporation. No workload allocation model which seeks to capture all our activities, allocate a specific time for each, and cost it all up, is going to satisfy the appetite of the corporation. Indeed, it would be impossible to do so as our work as scholars, by its very definition, will never be done. Rather, we need to turn to ask what constitutes scholarship and create the conditions in which the fascinating, all-consuming, and time-consuming (in the most positive sense) activity can thrive and leave us stimulated, satisfied, and creative, communicating with colleagues and students, and thus contributing to our mutual growth as people and as scholars.
With that in mind, I turn back to my research files and the pleasure of discovery these afford, relishing the time this takes, and losing myself in their content. And I look forward to picking up my children from their place of play and learning to hear about their day.