IT was decades ago that some colleagues first lamented the lost pleasures of reading and writing. That sentiment resurfaced in recent times. And this time, we celebrate The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, published in 2016 by the University of Toronto Press and reprinted last year.
Of significance in the Foreword is a pertinent comment on productivity — the main obstacle to genuine intellectual productivity in contemporary academia is that most scholars publish too much. Intellectual historian Stefan Collini noted: “I do not say that they write too much: but ‘write more and publish less’ is a valuable injunction. Encouraging us to explore our thinking more, and only to publish when we are sure we have something worth saying.”
Academics in the humanities, or those who are intellectually-oriented towards the domain, largely think by writing. Writing is a process of discovering and rediscovering. It is perhaps like doing a laboratory experiment in the dark.
And it might not turn out or represent the original idea, or the thinking of that person. Much re-writing needs to be done, not so much buffing up an already polished prose, but coming to think a little more clearly and precisely. Collini reminded us that it all takes time.
Authors Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber have made some timely recommendations in The Slow Professor. They recognised that life in contemporary universities has become so hurried and harried. This is because the processes that generated the frenzy of ostentatious busyness now threatened to frustrate the purposes for which such institutions exist. We hear that professors and academics spend time applying for grants (what I call a grant-seeking culture) to do research rather than actually doing research themselves and spending time reporting on the outcome of a course, and thinking about how to teach the course.
Collini described our familiarity with the narrowed, instrumental focus that comes with the efficiency mode — letters of reference, revisions of reading lists, synopses of lectures, reports to publishers and internal memos. Then there is the daily Sisyphean struggle of clearing our in-boxes — a task, he said, which, in its combination of disagreeableness and meritoriousness, is like the electronic equivalent of scrubbing the kitchen floor.
The Canadian authors extended the principle of the Slow Movement in academia, originating in the Slow Food movement. In the Preface, they outlined The Slow Professor Manifesto. The Slow Movement challenges the frantic pace and standardisation of contemporary culture. While slowness has been celebrated in architecture, urban life and personal relations, it has not yet found its way into education. Yet, if there is one sector of society which should be cultivating deep thought, it is academic teachers. Corporatisation has compromised academic life and sped up the clock.
The authors felt that not talking (and writing) about the feeling of powerlessness and disempowerment, only plays into the corporate model. According to Berg and Seeber, in the corporate university, power is transferred from faculty to managers, economic justifications dominate, and the familiar “bottom line” eclipses pedagogical and intellectual concerns. Slow professors advocate deliberation over acceleration. There is a need for time to think and time to reflect. Open-ended inquiry is not a luxury, but is crucial to what professors do.
Academic work is always a work in progress. A professor’s task is never done. There is no such thing as the termination of a research project, or the completion of a journal paper. Any research endeavour or paper is a work in progress — a lifetime of indulgence and obsession. It is not so much the application for grants within certain stipulated periods of time. It is the process and continuity of the research over a vocation. And things have become more artificialised with the vocabulary that we call “Graduate on Time” (GOT). It tends to create a chore out of reading a thesis. This is not to advocate for the slow reading of theses at the expense of students’ graduation. This is to denounce the objective of GOT and why a thesis must be consumed appropriately by the supervisor and examiners. The incentive is in the vocation itself.
Professors tend to pursue their vocation (not career or profession) for idealistic, rather than pragmatic reasons. This is not to deny that idealism cannot lead to stress and overwork. Some live a “25-hour” day to the fullest. Multitasking may always be the case. The flow of work may have to be slow. And the experience of “flow” is slow and elusive and that it can only be captured retroactively. It is related to timelessness. In a tautology, timelessness is defined as “the experience of transcending time and one’s self by becoming immersed in a captivating present-moment activity or event”. Scholars and poets have suggested over the years that the timeless intensity of the present moment is a gateway to creativity and joy (the authors citing Charalampos Mainemelis from When the Muse Takes it All: A Model for the Experience of Timelessness in Organizations, The Academy of Management Review 26.4 (2001)).
In other words, when we (academics, scholars, professors) experience timelessness, we are creative, and creativity is experienced as timelessness. There is no need to congratulate ourselves if we are seen to or develop a false consciousness of managing our time. The present sense and pace of time is distracted, audit-crazed and grant-chasing. According to the authors, the Slow Movement can get us back in touch with what it means to carry out scholarly work. The pleasure in teaching is pertinent to the context of scholarship.
Slow opens up ways of thinking about research that challenge the dominant ethos. And using the language of Slow connects us to a larger political and social movement, asserts the power of contemplation, connectedness and complexity. It thrives on conversation, dialogue and writing. Things do not happen if we do not talk. As the authors concluded in envisioning their manifesto, Slow professors act with purpose, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience. Go slow.
A Murad Merican is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org