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IN MY OPINION

All for slow scholarship and slow scholarship for all

Slow scholarship must not be a project for the privileged few, but rather a collective effort to remake the university.

By ALISON MOUNTZ ET AL | MAY 09 2016

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There is no question that workers have grown more precarious at the same time that university work has accelerated in recent years. Late last year, we published an article called “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University.” Before its publication in the open-access, online journal ACME, we posted the final version on researchgate.net and academia.edu. The manuscript was downloaded over 30,000 times, mentioned in an article in The Guardian and attached to a faculty member’s letter of resignation. In short, we struck a chord.

As advocates of slow scholarship, we write now to wade into the debate unfolding in response to the publication of the new book The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. Critics such as Andrew Robinson and Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal suggest that slow scholarship is, by nature, an elitist effort on the part of privileged, self-indulgent professors to protect their time while ignoring – or even making worse – the problems of part-time and adjunct faculty in the increasingly neoliberal university. We advocate a very different vision of slow scholarship, one that is necessary precisely to address the increased precarity of academic labour and the fact that precarious labour in the university (as elsewhere) is classed, racialized and gendered. The fuller arguments of Drs. Berg and Seeber’s book, as presented in more detail in their interview with University Affairs, align with our approach.

In our article, we advance slow scholarship and care work as collective rather than individualizing endeavors; as resistance to, rather than reification of, the current system. We agree with critics: if slow scholarship is understood and enacted as a project of the self, it will only make the problems of academia worse. Yet, to stop at this criticism represents a failure of imagination. There seems to be an underlying misunderstanding of feminist politics and ethics of care at work in some of the reactions to slow scholarship. To us, care work is work. As Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed both wrote, care work is not self-indulgent, but radical, necessary, and risky, imposing a burden on those who undertake it. In the article, we argue for the “need to find ways to shift the culture, not back to an elitist, exclusionary university but towards a more care-full future of rich and creative research and teaching.”

For these reasons, slow scholarship must not be a project for the privileged few, but rather a collective effort to remake the university as we know it. We make the case that those in positions of relative privilege (especially full-time, tenured faculty) must bear more responsibility to resist and challenge, not exploit and reproduce inequality within the academy. Slow scholarship is a way of making visible all of the work of academia that has been rendered invisible, the work not accounted for in metrics designed to evaluate our worth: the reading, the agonizing over writing, the teaching preparation, the mentoring of fellow faculty and students, the outreach to community partners, as well as the failures (grants not received, papers never published) that are never accounted for.

We depart from Drs. Berg and Seeber in the leap from slow scholarship to the slow professor. Slow scholarship is not only about professors, but about how we all work and how we aspire to work. How can we work collectively to change the conditions of our collective labor? For academia, that means resisting the push to churn out as many articles as possible (and the incentive to cut corners or even engage in misconduct that can come along with it).

Instead, we want to ensure that the university makes time to create knowledge that is more than a mirage and to create a space for us to be allies and mentors to those with less privilege. This requires counting differently – just as there is pushback against the influence of the quarterly earnings report. As we argue in the article: “We can push back against narrow quantitative evaluations of academic work, in part by making a wider range of work ‘count’ in decisions about graduate student advancement, hiring, raises, and tenure and promotion. … We can recognize the value of collective authorship, mentorship, collaboration, community building, and activist work in the germination and sharing of ideas.”

While space prevents us from reviewing all of the strategies of resistance discussed in our article, it’s important to note that we do not merely advocate “say no.” Indeed, one of our recommendations is to say no and yes: “Along with saying ‘no’ when necessary, we also encourage those in positions of power (however limited), to say ‘yes’ when they encounter opportunities for slow scholarship collaborations. Take the opportunity to make change one case and decision at a time.

Debates about slow scholarship are happening in a fast-paced, pressure-filled, anxiety-inducing environment. As Drs. Carrigan and Vostal state in their letter, they are responding to an interview in University Affairs about the new book, not the actual book. One of the frustrations of life in the fast lane of contemporary academia is not having or finding time to read.

We articulate a vision of slow scholarship that does not ignore questions of precarity and vulnerability, but engages these as primary reasons we need slow scholarship. For us, this is not a project of the self, but of the collective.

The authors are Alison Mountz, department of geography and environmental studies, Wilfrid Laurier University; Anne Bonds department of geography, University of Wisconsin; Becky Mansfield, department of geography, Ohio State University; Jenna Loyd,Zilber School of Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Jennifer Hyndman, departments of geography and social science, Centre for Refugee Studies, York University; Margaret Walton-Roberts, department of geography and environmental studies, Wilfrid Laurier University; Ranu Basu, department of geography, York University; Risa Whitson, department of geography and women’s and gender studies program, Ohio University; Roberta Hawkins, department of geography, University of Guelph; Trina Hamilton, department of geography, University at Buffalo (SUNY); and Winifred Curran,  department of geography, DePaul University.

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  1. Philip G Hultin / May 12, 2016 at 10:47 am

    This is the first time I have encountered this debate over “slow scholarship”. It certainly strikes a chord with me. As a tenured, male full professor of chemistry I am a privileged person in the university to be sure, but that privilege never seemed to give me the space to be a scholar as I understand the term. In the sciences the pressure to publish as much as possible and to churn out “HQP” – “Highly Qualified Personnel” as quickly as possible is the dominant driving force imposed on all of us by the granting agencies.

    I have always felt that the education of graduate students was an important outcome of my research program (or, “scholarship” if you prefer that term). What I realized was that some students take longer than others to mature, but the current fast-food approach to higher education makes it very difficult to justify accepting such students. Our institution has identified “time to completion” as a measure of the quality of a grad program, and has set targets for the duration of ideal graduate study programs. All very well if every student you accept already knows the culture of Western academe, has come from an undergraduate program that has prepared them to function as we expect, has completely absorbed both the factual and intangible lessons of their previous education, has no complicating family or personal challenges to balance with their study, and so on. None of these can be taken as given in the modern Canadian university. Slow scholarship is the only model that can support the education of such students to bring out their potential to the fullest. That is hardly an “elitist” goal!

  2. Joe Thorogood / May 12, 2016 at 11:56 am

    Your work on slow scholarship very much struck a chord with my own approach to my PhD, and inspired me to create our own website with a friend.

    We both work with undergraduate students in various profesisonal capacities, and have been exploring ways in which students can benefit from the collective project. Our website is http://www.slowstreaming.com,

    I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on our work.

  3. Michael Skolnik / May 12, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    Having waged a lonely battle against the university quality assurance establishment since the 1980s over the harmful effects of its illogical practice of assessing the quality of education by counting publications and research grant dollars, I am thrilled to see the development of the slow scholarship movement, and I heartily support the Mountz et al effort to remake the university. I agree with the authors that the problem cannot be addressed effectively by the individual faculty member. I doubt that it can be addressed very effectively at the institutional level either because of the pervasiveness of national and international norms within the academic profession. While the funding and accountability practices of governments impose obvious constraints, the academic profession must bear some responsibility too for maintaining a culture that values quantity over quality. A place to start might be by trying to get people who value quality over quantity on the assessment boards that do so much to determine what gets rewarded and what doesn’t in higher education. As I argued in an article entitled “Quality assurance in higher education as a political process” (Higher Education Management and Policy, 2010), it matters a great deal who gets to decide what quality is. And as I argued in another article entitled, “Does counting publications provide any useful information about academic performance” (Teacher Education Quarterly, 2000), the consequence of rewarding quantity of publications over all else is that work on publishing articles will take a priority over all else.

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