The first time I attempted to read The Slow Professor, by Canadian professors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, I found it very tough going. As a mathematician, I felt myself adrift in unfamiliar and undefined terms such as neoliberalism, affective dimensions, instrumentalism, and agency. Nevertheless, I sensed that there was more to their message than doing less, slowly, so I persisted. What follows is my attempt to distill some of their ideas in the context of my own experiences and beliefs.
What is slow?
Slowness is interpreted as cultivating quality, understanding, and community.
Slow does not mean lazy. Slow refers to work that is “meaningful, sustainable, thoughtful, and pleasurable.” Slow means acting in ways “that promote both our own and others’ well-being” and resisting exploitive behavior.
Slow means breaking taboos about self-sufficient individualism.
Slow means creating the conditions required for scholarly and creative work.
Act with purpose. Reduce distractedness and fragmentation. Take time for reflection. Think long-term.
Why the corporatization of higher education can be harmful:
The corporatization of higher education prioritizes some research areas over others. It tends to favor research that is quantifiable, applied, and marketable. Emphasis is placed on productivity and efficiency. More nebulous values such as intellectual development, ethics, and citizenship may be neglected. Power is transferred from faculty to managers. Economic concerns dominate. Increasing workloads threaten the time needed to think, reflect, and discuss.
Why we should try to change:
Tenured faculty members have an obligation to improve working conditions for all. We should aim to reduce work stress, improve education, and cultivate deep thought.
Sources of stress and effects of stress:
The authors cite evidence for high levels of stress in academia in comparison to the general population, contrary to popular perceptions of professors as a leisured class. Many of the top stresses are related to time. Increasing workloads, short deadlines, a rapidly changing work environment, and constant pressure for efficiency all contribute to stress. Meetings, frequent interruptions, and the expectation of rapid response to emails fragment the working day. New technology, budgets, and assessments take away from the core work of teaching and research. Many faculty members feel it is impossible to do everything in their job description, no matter how hard they work.
Faculty stress in turn can affect student learning.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness:
The authors assert the right of faculty members to health, a private life, and personal activities. The slow movement supports the right to limit total working time to allow for these activities.
Emotional aspects of teaching and learning:
Slow means considering the emotional aspects of teaching and learning. Positive emotions improve attention and problem-solving. Devoting time and attention to the atmosphere of the classroom is as important as preparing content. The enjoyment of the teacher contributes to student enjoyment and learning. Student opinion forms show the influence of emotions in the classroom: students want classes that are inspiring, stimulating, and engaging, and teachers who are caring. It is important for teachers to find meaning in the ordinary events of every day and even in the difficulties. We should strive to give students the feeling of fulfillment of solving a difficult problem or understanding a difficult concept. Assignments, quizzes, and tests should not just be tools for evaluation but also useful and enjoyable for the students.
Too much stress contributes to cynicism. Overwork can cause teachers to dislike their students (and vice versa). Self-care is not selfish, but is vital to our ability to be kind to others.
Listen to student concerns, and notice students as human beings. Show positive regard, whether or not a student is successful.
Conditions for creativity and deep work:
In order to improve conditions for creativity and deep work, we need to change our relationship to time. Try to focus attention, resources, and energy on one activity at a time. Get offline, away from email, and instant messaging. Eliminate as much as possible from the schedule to make time for important high quality work. Fragmentation of time and energy reduces productivity. Regular blocks of time are needed to become immersed in a problem. The state of “flow” not only increases productivity, but also contributes to happiness. Stress is a major obstacle to flow.
Some specific additional suggestions are:
– Reserve your research day for research, not email, record-keeping, and administration.
– Use a transition or ritual to help focus, reduce anxiety, and create an atmosphere conducive to creativity.
– Silence the “inner bully.” Have the courage to explore new ideas.
– Time for rest is not wasted. We need pauses in the workday. Vacations are important.
Emotions, ethical issues and obligations to others:
We need to think about the consequences of our work for the world at large. We need to think about scholarship as community, not competition. The authors describe caring for oneself as an ethical issue. Being machinelike does not encourage compassion for others.
Time for self and time for others are related. Allowing time for others is an ethical choice. The distractedness of fast life can lead us to neglect others. Sometimes being ethical may mean being inefficient. We have an obligation to others. Psychological wellness is necessary for those in the helping professions. We need to structure our lives to prevent burnout.
Long-term view of development as a scholar:
We need to think of development as a scholar and human being, instead of just measuring ourselves by lines on a CV. Shifting the focus from product to development of understanding can help ease some of the pressure. We need to take time for unnecessary reading and following curiosity. It is important to think about our professions as a whole, including their implicit biases and assumptions.
The importance of language:
We are changed by the language we use. The language of corporatization can be demoralizing and contribute to unrealistic self-expectations. The authors suggest ways to alter the internal dialogue about academic work. They remind us that quality matters, thoughts take time, and more is not always better.
The role of community:
A sense of community is one of the most important antidotes to stress. Work pressures can make people feel that they are too busy for social interaction. Email and telework increase isolation. The corporate academic climate takes a toll on human relationships, even as work relationships become more important, due to increased working hours. A department can be a supportive community, not just a collection of people.
We need to be able to talk openly and honestly about our work, including professional challenges and difficulties. We should not discard face-to-face interactions as a defensive response to the culture of busyness. We need to help one another generously and avoid the “instrumental” view of colleagues. We should not let the corporate view of academia blind us to the role of emotions and human relationships. It is important to find pleasure in our scholarship and in our academic communities. We need to listen to understand, rather than to find weakness. The authors conclude on an optimistic note – despite the difficulties of academic life, we should not give up hope. We can create our own subcultures of mutual support and trust.