The literature, scholarly and popular, about the nature of the modern American university, especially critiquing its recent corporatization, has grown at a steady rate over the past two decades. As a university professor, I am drawn to these books as a moth to a flame, part of an effort to understand the history and nature of higher education. Usually these volumes provide little in the way of realistic practical advice, but occasionally there are exceptions. A recent example is Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), a brief book focusing on how academics should view and manage themselves. Berg and Seeber, both English professors, consider issues such as time management, teaching, research, collegiality and community, and collaboration. There are no surprises in the range of topics they comment on, but the book is likely to provoke lots of discussion, discussion that will appear quite different depending on whether you are a professor, administrator, trustee, or parent of a student.
The authors define what they mean by slow culture as constituting a culture that “values balance and that dares to be skeptical of the professions of productivity” (p. 21). In other words, they question the university’s use of productivity measures for everything that a professor does (citation counts, numbers of publications, teaching evaluations, etc.) in favor of building space for reflection and understanding. Some of what they are contending with has to with the nature of the corporate university. For example, in considering research, they note, “The increasingly managerial model of research shifts the focus away from those doing the scholarship and creates faculty compliance with institutional imperatives” (p. 54). Berg and Seeber emphasize the need for faculty to recapture their mission to focus on understanding their own areas (and helping others to understand as well). And they elevate the need to recast how faculty view themselves by stating, “Slowing down is a matter of ethical import” (p. 58).
One of their most interesting observations concerns faculty collegiality. They contend that the present nature of demands on university faculty work against any semblance of collegiality. Faculty members stay huddled in their offices or rarely come to their offices, busy with demands on their time for research or just filling out forms and surveys intended to keep them compliant. Visitors to departments often find that they are “ghost places” (p. 75). This needs to change. If faculty members are to develop creative and innovative programs and conduct research of use to their fields and society they need to be available to work with each other. If they are to mentor students, they also need to be available to them.