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IN MY OPINION

Not so fast! A critique of the ‘slow professor’

It’s a privilege available only to those already at the summit of their academic careers.

By MARK CARRIGAN AND FILIP VOSTAL | APR 22 2016

Editor’s note: We received much positive response to our Q&A article with the authors of the new book, The Slow Professor. But not everybody agreed with the premise. The following response was too long to include in its entirety in the Letters to the Editor section of the next print edition of the magazine, so we are publishing it here.

We read your recent interview with the authors of the recent book, The Slow Professor, with interest. While we welcome the continued expansion of critical debate concerning academic labour, we nonetheless found much to be concerned with in the interview. Perhaps this is inevitable, as neither of us are professors. In this we are like most within the academy. Though we recognise the complex considerations that factor into the naming of a book, this titular exclusion is indicative of the more substantive problems we have with the idea expressed in this interview and the broader discourse of slow scholarship within which they are embedded.

The interview with the authors confirms our assumption that slow manifestos of such a kind might account for projections and experiences of the authors, rather than for ethnographically or empirically informed studies. The archetype of the distracted time-poor scholar on the verge of psychological breakdown is far from being the norm, as many promoters of academic slowdown often tend to automatically assume. Whether one is distracted, accelerated, stressed, burn-out or just about the opposite – whether one thrives and enjoys plenty of quality and unhasty time – very much depends on other sociologically relevant variables such as age, gender, academic status, discipline, family situation, psychological disposition.

We are aware that the notion of slowness is attractive and even seductive for academics but, at the same time, we think that personal individual stories (and inferences made thereupon) – with all due respect to their seriousness – from academia often give an incorrect impression that academia is flooded with stress, despair and misery and that other corners of society are not (or not so seriously). It is also very much the case that the perceived acceleration of academic life is massively socially differentiated and often reflects power relations and hierarchies within the academy. This we think should be something of a start, perhaps a “working hypothesis” to be explored, rather than more or less bold conclusions indicating that academia is taken by unprecedented speed and frenzy upon which one may be declaring the desperate necessity of slowness.

One of the key components of such a hypothesis is thus this one: to be a slow professor is a privilege. It’s a privilege available only to those already at the summit of the academic career structure. Indeed, it is likely only available to some of them, certainly excluding the assistant and perhaps associate professors who are ambiguously subsumed under the catch-all term “professor.” In reducing the temporal regimes of academic life to a matter of lifestyle choice, regarding it as a matter of learning to be ok with having fewer lines on your CV the authors not only fail to recognise their own privilege but actively mystify the institutional hierarchy within which they enjoy a security being systematically denied to ever greater swathes of their younger colleagues. We would suggest, in the spirit of well-meaning critique, “slow professorship” only makes sense when such decelerating professors can take it for granted that junior associates will accelerate to pick up the slack.

Dr. Carrigan is a research fellow at University of Warwick in the U.K. and a digital fellow at The Sociological Review. Dr. Vostal is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Centre français de recherche en sciences sociales in Prague.

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  1. Marcia / April 27, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    The notion of privilege is an excellent one to raise because it is more often than not, unacknowledged. As important is the recognition that one is operating within a larger socio-structural system that informs one’s ability to be ‘slow’; change is thus either only going to happen for individuals with power or unlikely to happen or be sustained without looking at the broader structure of the academy.

  2. Lara Perry / April 28, 2016 at 3:50 am

    Agreed that those who enjoy the privileges of slow professorship are likely resting on many other forms of privilege. But there is no necessity for a legion of TAs and sessionals or PTHP/fractional staff to bear the burden of the production. Its the institutions that demand academic overproduction, not the producers.

  3. Apple Orange / April 28, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    As an adjunct, I welcome this discussion on labour and privilege within academia. However, I don’t think that a defense of the corporate university is the way to go. I also think it is bad methodology for Carrigan and Vostal to make claims on behalf of teachers (the image of the professor on “the verge of psychological breakdown is far from being the norm”) without citing peer-reviewed studies or verifiable data to support such claims.

    In fact, I wish that the authors had cited current statistics on the rising “adjunctification” within academia. To be fair, the authors do call for a “working hypothesis” on the study of slowness in the interest of gathering such statistics. But these studies on university adjunctification have already happened (the data is already “in”). Consider the following study in California to which a whopping 845 adjuncts replied with personal stories: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/292-an-alarming-snapshot-of-adjunct-labor

    Or this study by George Mason University (VA) with 241 respondents: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/10/13/george-mason-grad-students-release-adjunct-study

    Or the “We Teach Ontario” initiative with personal stories from adjuncts (the facebook resource is an excellent catalogue of personal and harrowing testimonials): http://weteachontario.ca/income-gap-tenure-adjunct-professors/

    Or this article in The Atlantic on the rising precariat class in Academia: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/05/the-cost-of-an-adjunct/394091/

    And this article in CBC on the same casualization of teaching within Canadian Universities: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/most-university-undergrads-now-taught-by-poorly-paid-part-timers-1.2756024

    I would have liked to have seen Carrigan and Vostal cite from these already extensive and representative interviews with adjunct and sessional teachers. I would like to hear from the latter how they feel about their workload within academia today (the pressures to maintain excellent teaching evaluations while also publishing at an exorbitant rate). I would have liked some discussion on how adjuncts are considered “stale goods” if they cannot land the impossible TT job within a mere 5 years out of the PHD. I would have also liked some discussion of what happened to all of those TT jobs and why (key to understanding the current corporate climate of academia).

    The problem is NOT that we do not have the data; the problem is that nobody in a position of power is willing to listen to, and/or act on, this data. For that reason I welcome publications like The Slow Professor!

    Yes, the authors of The Slow Professor are “privileged,” but isn’t that privilege of a TT job and a decent salary something we all deserve? Doesn’t that kind of job security benefit both teachers and their students? And don’t we want people who are in tenured positions to fight for those who don’t enjoy the same security and thus who do not have a voice? I hope that more TT and T’ed professors read The Slow Professor and stand with us in the fight against the corporate university, with its exploitation of underpaid and overworked adjuncts.

    For reference (both readers’ as well as Carrigan and Vostal’s), here is a study that addresses the rising number of adjuncts (and the effects of exploited labour) within US academia: http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts

    Those of you in Canada will recall that the Harper government did away with the long-form census, so we do not have recent & comparable statistics (though this *should change under the new Liberal government). This, too, is worthy of discussion in the context of the corporate approach to education in Canada. http://www.caut.ca/news/2015/11/05/academics-welcome-reinstatement-of-the-census

  4. Emma Grace / April 29, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    I don’t think that Carrigan and Vostal have actually read the book. I am thinking of this passage from the Preface: “While we acknowledge the systemic inequalities in the university, a slow approach is potentially relevant across the spectrum of academic positions. Those of us in tenured positions, given the protection that we enjoy, have an obligation to try and improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us. We are concerned that the bar is being continually raised for each generation of faculty, so the book is also addressed to graduate students” (The Slow Professor ix). … One can also see how this applies to junior faculty, adjuncts, sessionals, and others in vulnerable positions and/or without a voice.

    • Mark Carrigan / April 30, 2016 at 7:42 pm

      Hi Emma,

      The book isn’t out in the UK yet. I have it on order & will engage with at length once it’s here. Prior to this, I thought we’d made it clear we were responding to the Q&A, rather than a book that was as yet unavailable.

      Cheers,
      Mark

      • Emma Grace / May 5, 2016 at 10:42 pm

        Why not wait, then, and read the book first before critiquing Seeber and Berg’s argument? Why rush to judgement using only an article that, as the the author (Moira Farr) even admits, “was condensed and edited for clarity.” Your argument is not exactly entirely informed, is it?

        As added preparations for your (informed?) response, you might have considered Seeber and Berg’s earlier published research on the same topic–research which is readily available through the internet as a pdf: http://www.kpu.ca/sites/default/files/Teaching%20and%20Learning/TD.6.3.5_Berg%26Seeber_Slow_Professor.pdf
        In this earlier article, Seeber and Berg clearly explain what they mean by “slow” ; theirs “is not nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ that never existed in the first place (6). Through ample reference to peer-reviewed studies and scholarly publications, Seeber and Berg instead argue that the slow movement “has the the ‘potential’ to not only ‘reinvigorate everyday life’ . . . but also ‘repoliticize…everyday life’” (6). They wish to apply Slow movement tactics to academia in order to “take[] back the intellectual life of the university” (6)

        It would seem worthwhile for future critiques to review the authors’ work in full (not “condensed” versions). While we are at it, why not look to the authors’ prior publications on the same subject, as well as sources cited, to ensure accurate definitions and thus fair assessment? And why not also cite scholarly sources and studies in order to substantiate one’s own conclusions? After all, these are the practices of fair and rigorous scholarship, are they not?

        • Mark Carrigan / May 8, 2016 at 4:45 am

          Hi Emma (and Apple), we were invited to write a short response to the editor (circa 500 words) rather than a peer review paper. You may have turned down such an invitation but we felt, given we’ve both been working on this topic for some time, we’d have a go at writing a shorter response. Feel free to look at our more extensive work on this issue, if you find a letter inadequate.

  5. Female Adjunct / May 6, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Maybe the MALE authors of this article should check their gender privilege? http://qz.com/670647/academia-is-quietly-and-systematically-keeping-its-women-from-succeeding/

    As a female adjunct in the humanities, I would like to see things slow down and take the pressure off of us female teachers in sessional and adjunct positions who are overburdened and exhausted.

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