Review: „The Slow Professor“ by Maggie Berg & Barbara K. Seeber


[I have published this review before on my Hell Yeah, Campus Novels! blog]

I know, the cover kind of gives off the vibe of an kafkaesque but adorable story of a professor turning into a snail, but that’s not the case.

Instead, in this Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber combine the ideas of the Slow Movement with issues in academia.

I might be – as usual – ten million steps ahead of myself reviewing this as a student and not a professor (slow or otherwise), but I’ll do my best. But, because, student’s, too, deserve reminders for taking it slow, have three very good blog posts about the benefits of just chilling the fuck out: On Graduate Destiny & Academic Disenchantment and Reading My Way to Recovery by @ablogwithaview and this answered ask by @dukeofbookingham.

Anyway. Time to finally get to the review, right?

The Slow Professor is, in a way, part self-help book, part manifesto. As is says on the cover, it challenges the culture of speed, the culture of always publishing the most, of always being (or at least looking) the busiest and of always having the commercialise-able-estest findings. Because in that way you not only might lose your passion for teaching, alienate the students, make your research ultimately more superficial BUT also, and, in itself a reason to listen to this book: damage your mental health.

„We need time to think, and so do our students. Time for reflection and open-ended inquiry is not a luxury but is crucial to what we do.“ (x)

Something that made the reading experience very intimate was that it is written in the first person and that the authors don’t shy away from talking about their own experiences. They begin by talking about how they, at first, found it difficult to admit to others that they struggle – “Academic training includes induction into a culture of scholarly individualism and intellectual mastery; to admit to struggle undermines our professional identity. (4) – but, as they did, found out that they are not alone.

They talked about academic guilt, the feeling of never doing enough and how flexible working hours “can easily translate into working all the time or feeling that one should.” (19) Other problems are the corporatization of higher education with both the need for extremely fun, orignial and sellable findings and an emphasis on “customer satisfaction” when it comes to the treatment of student. (With regards to this, they mention that the stress students in higher education experience, was supposedly widely acknowledged nowadays. These are things I cannot really agree with – I do not really have the feeling that student’s stress is acknowledged, many people still seem to think being a college/uni student is all light and breezy and 50% holidays of the year. The idea of ‘customer satisfaction’ is, in this context, strange to me, too, but after all I luckily don’t study in a country were university is as expensive as in The States/Canada/The UK …)

The feelings of guilt are, of course, especially prevalent in the humanities, which are, useless and rightfully underfunded after all. (I’m being sarcastic, friends. I run a literature blog.)

After talking about the problems they tell the reader about their experiences with conventional self-help books for academics. While I often think I am too bitter a person to still be surprised by anything, I was quite shocked at the horrendous working hours they proposed and at the uncollegiality of simply externalizing your pressure and let the research assistants to everything, or the simple (and asshole-ish) little tip of just don’t make time to have a chat with colleagues.

But, once we’ve swallowed all these depressing things, it’s time for chapters containing the advice! Yay! This part of the book consists of four sections: Time Management and Timelessness, Pedagogy and Pleasure, Research and Understanding and Collegiality and Community.

Of course each section contained way more than I could put down here, otherwise I would just reproduce the book, but as a short and sweet summary:

The chapter on time proposes the idea of making space for something you could call an un-managed time, the state of timelessness were you can spend hours on really getting into your research and writing, basically losing yourself without constantly looking at the clock were the deadlines inevitably tick closer.

Pedagogy and Pleasure is mainly about the athmosphere in the classroom and offers detailed step-for-step advice on how to make teaching sessions more enjoyable both for the professors and the students, which leads to a better group climate and, ultimately, to more fruitful discussions.

In Research and Understanding they talk more about the above mentioned need to publish not only fast and frequent but also put forward extra-original findings which are hip and trendy and easily marketable. To counter this, they propose ways to engage more deeply with the research topics, not to compare yourself to others with their impressive publication lists (after all, you don’t see their list of rejected writings), and to maybe let your stuff simmer on a low flame for a while before you present it half-cooked to the public.

The last chapter is about the atmosphere on campi where every one follows this horrible advice from the self-help book above (I’ll never be over this) and instead of chit-chat with colleagues you are confronted with empty hallways, in a kingdom of isolation and you are its queen. (I have not even watched Frozen. I just want to be marketable to The Youth™!)

The conclusion, aside from being a conclusion, is about how enjoyable it was to write the book in team work. Which was sweet. My heart was happy.

Well. All good things come to an end so I should maybe slowly get to the point where I shut up.

All in all the book is an enjoyable read I full-heartedly agree with. I want to do the Martin Luther and nail it to university doors!

The only drawback of it is, that not literally every person in the world (or in academia) has read this book yet. Which, sadly, makes it harder to actually live in line of all those ideas about slowness. While you, as a single person can take all this to heart, it will not change the fact that there are people who don’t, and those are probably the people who’ll keep their jobs. This is very sad and I wish it weren’t so, but it was something I could not help thinking while reading all these humane, friendly, agreeable thoughts.

Well – all the more reason to nail it to the doors, then!

Thanks for reading my (really super long, sorry!) review,

Berg, Maggie & Seeber, Barbara K.: The Slow Professor. Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Published by the University of Toronto Press in 2016. It has 128 pages & the ISBN is 978-1442645561.