The Slow Food movement, founded in 1989 with the aim of restoring a healthy relationship between people and food, embraces a celebration of local, environmentally responsible food cultures. The movement's snail logo reminds us to slow our pace and take time to savor as we grow or purchase, prepare and eat our food.
A snail also graces the cover of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, a new book by Canadian humanities professors and literary critics Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, who shine the light of slow food principles onto academic culture. In 90 thrilling pages of text, Berg and Seeber describe the current corporatization of the college campus and urge professors to resist it with all they've got.
"Thrilling" isn't a word I often apply to books about higher education, but these pages galvanized me. Last December, I concluded 27 years of college teaching and, for now, I still feel a part of campus culture. I'm in contact with colleagues (locally, nationally and internationally) who feel burned by this corporate model. They work long hours yet have little time to read or write for work, or just to think — the faculty activities that Berg and Seeber say a university should prize most and that may benefit its students the most.
What exactly is the corporatization of the academy? Here's a powerful descriptive passage from The Slow Professor:
"The corporate university's language of new findings, technology transfer, knowledge economy, grant generation, frontier research, efficiency, and accountability dominates how academic scholarship is now framed both within the institution and outside it."
The buzzwords in this quote describe activities that might sound good but in fact often aren't, because emphasis on them leaches away the joy and the humanity from the teaching-learning process. "Frontier research" is an example: It sounds good, right? But when the plum prize is considered by university power structures to be external funding from governments and corporations, money that underwrites applied research, then non-dollar-generating, non-product-oriented approaches to learning in the humanities and social sciences may be devalued.
(Applied science research plays a vital role in the life of the university, in fact in all our lives. I hope this goes without saying. It's a matter of balance.)
Working at corporate universities, professors often become "beleaguered, managed, frantic, stressed, and demoralized," Berg and Seeber say. It's as if there can never be enough product generated (grants, jargon-laden documents about students' learning outcomes, committee white papers) in the hours available.
Does anyone still think that college professors have it easy? That they teach two or three classes a week, meet students for another hour or two, attend a faculty meeting, and then are free to go home — with summers off? The Slow Professor lacerates that notion and, along with it, well-meaning but misguided advice that all will turn out just fine if only professors could manage their time better.
Some of this advice as reported by Berg and Seeber is funny, sad and appalling all at once: Save Saturdays for research and slate 12 hours each Sunday for marking papers and preparing the week's classes to come! Wake at 4 a.m. during the week to write!
Berg and Seeber aren't having it; the fault isn't with professors' time management skills. "The real time issues," they write, "are the increasing workload, the sped-up pace, and the instrumentalism that pervades the corporate university."
Professors, Berg and Seeber say, need to take back the intellectual life of the university.
How to do this? Professors can say no without guilt to endless university committee assignments; refuse to buy into the ethic of overwork; talk 1:1 with colleagues in the hall instead of going online to connect; recognize that shared positive emotion, emerging from thoughtful engaged discussion in the classroom, boosts learning.
Most important of all, college teachers should insist, unapologetically, that reflective inquiry is the heart and soul of the university.
And reflective inquiry can't be done in a distracted rush, without uninterrupted time to focus.
Berg and Seeber acknowledge that "being an academic has privileges not enjoyed by the majority of the workforce." College teachers have more flexible hours than many other workers. Tenured professors may enjoy an unusual degree of job security, too. (The stresses felt by part-time faculty are massive — but that's another topic.)
Teaching at the corporate university is no paradise, even for faculty with tenure. I admire Berg and Seeber for asserting this fact clearly, explaining why it's true and insisting that change through resistance is possible — even as they also convey just how joyful college teaching and scholarship can be.
I hope that college teachers will take time to savor The Slow Professor and talk about it with each other at faculty reading groups. With slow food served as refreshments, of course.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.