Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ten Years Later

This blog's ten-year anniversary came and went in December, not that I've been blogging for that long -- there are several years I didn't write a thing here.  I certainly remembered and thought of the anniversary last month, but December is a really busy time with the holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries all crowded up against each other.  So the blog, as usual, gets short shrift.

But I wanted to note something here just for the record.  Ten years ago, I started this blog when I went to the Big Academic Conference for interviews for the first time.   I couldn't see into the future and imagine where I'd be in ten years but I was interviewing for jobs.  Where am I?  I'm tenured, overworked, out of place.  I'm married with a son.  It feels funny to have worked so hard in grad school and now I wonder whether the academy is the best place for me, though I honestly can't think of a better place.  What's going on with me now besides moving my projects forward at the snail's pace that is my wont is that I've taken up a hobby, purely and totally for enjoyment.  No little voice in the back of my head saying maybe I could make extra money at this or change jobs or whatever.  I've finally, in my forties, learned the value of something that is 100% a hobby (unlike crochet, where you get something at the end of it and so can call it useful).  And that seems important, not just in terms of my own life, but also that in terms of what becomes important to a person who is post-tenure.  You know what's important?  Joy.  Delight.  Happy times.  (Not working all the time.)

I want to go dancing.  (Some things don't change.)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Slow Week the Last: Conclusion: Collaboration and Thinking Together

For our final week of discussion, in the Conclusion, the authors reflect on their own collaboration in writing the book, which they describe as putting Slow principles into practice, as well as the various merits of "thinking together." Fundamentally, inspired discussion and supportive collaboration builds and is built on trust. 

Since the co-authors had known each other for a long time, "we were more patient with each other and more compassionate when life events or work pressure intervened in a deadline. Recognizing that the understanding and care that we extended to each other brought out the best in us has made us more compassionate towards our students" (88).  They sandwich in that sentence the idea that this support, rather than some kind of organizational cure-all or fire-rimmed deadlines, brings out the best in themselves and each other.  (Something in me instinctively bristles at this, as if "the best in us" is made by more exacting standards rather than loving support -- and I'm not sure I like what I'm discovering about myself.)

This is the conclusion, after all, and so there's only time for one more definitional clarification: "Slow philosophy overall should not be interpreted, Petrini reminds us, as "the contrast . . . between slowness and speed -- slow versus fast -- but rather between attention and distraction; slowness, in fact, is not so much a question of duration as of an ability to distinguish and evaluate, with the propensity to cultivate pleasure, knowledge, and quality" . . . Slow professors act with purpose, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience to the effects of the corporatization of higher education" (89-90).

So in the face of the fast currents coming at him or her, the Slow Professor aims to not get caught up in it and instead think deeply and purposefully.

This is our last week and so is a great time for summing up.  What have you gotten out of this reading and discussion?  Can you imagine going about your professorial life differently -- with a more conscious consideration of Slow principles?  How can you make time for timeless time?  What ideas do you have for teaching more Slow-ly?  How can a consideration of Slow principles help to nurture your research and scholarship?  How can you engage in building the kind of trust in your department or academic circle that will nurture your intellect and emotions?  How can you work to champion work-life balance for you and your colleagues? 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Slow Week 6: Collegiality and Community

While the last two chapters focused on teaching and then research, this week's chapter focuses not on service, but on collegiality.  Berg and Seeber begin the chapter by focusing on the necessity for academics, as professionals in one of the helping professions (to be jarred by this distinction is, I think, a feminist issue), to see "psychological wellness" as a "ethical imperative."  One kind of self-care is social support and this means that there is an ethical imperative to have positive emotions in the workplace in order to do our work well.  By contrast, in the corporate university social support is not there because people are too busy and people instead have negative emotions because of loneliness and isolation.  (Yes, Yes, Yes!!!)

They go on then to describe how isolating and rude a space the corporate university can be with people texting at meetings and instead explain that we need to be able to vent, understanding that venting isn't whining (especially with colleagues, I've found, since they can come up with interesting ideas), and that we really need emotional connection and support.  

And so if you really identified with all that, and you're hanging on by your fingernails trying to figure out what on earth you can do, Berg and Seeber tell you that the conventional advice about making more opportunities for community through creating series and events is wrong. These kinds of events can just be an additional onerous obligation when the point is to create more positive emotions and community. 

I'm skipping some pages in this synopsis because I felt a little bit that Berg and Seeber were long on explanation and short on help, resistance, or solace.  For example -- and I am not claiming here to be a representative reader -- I am super-sensitive and anxiety-ridden -- but the knowledge that social support has a powerful effect on health just gives me another thing that I can't control to worry about, another stressor, another reason to be frustrated at my job, further harming my health.  I don't think the Slow way is to leave us all depressed about the state of things.  Slow Food is premised on countering the dehumanizing and homogenizing qualities of Fast Food by embracing, savoring, and anticipating flavor!  I wanted Berg and Seeber to come up with some resistance, something we can embrace with gusto here, so I was disappointed to learn that Berg and Seeber weren't going to include practical advice in this chapter because an individual is not in charge of his/her community and because useful advice to promote community is hard to give.  Isn't there something we can embrace here? 

Luckily, the "themes for reflection" are actually really good.  One took me right back to my grad program and this wonderful, alas unbloggable, aspect of my grad school life that allowed me to really feel part of things in a weird way and to have different connections to people.  I had tons of pleasurable emotions from that.  I miss it terribly.  Definitely ask yourself what you miss.  That brought up other things, like intellectual engagement, which is why I usually think a speaker's series is a good idea.  I can see why it could be a nightmare and feel mandatory by the tenure-track.  Maybe I want a reading group -- where we're all just reading something that none of us has written and discussing ideas (hopefully without trying to one-up each other, as sometimes happens).

One thing that I've been trying to do is champion people's work-life balance and telling them not to apologize when they have family obligations or plans in the summer.  But the discussion of collegiality and community is weird right now because my department is now in major upheaval.  We're trying to figure out what to do and move forward, considering the changes that are happening.  We need to come together.  But at the same time I personally really need to be away.  And I feel bad about that. 

What were your thoughts about this chapter?  Do you have a safe space and supportive community to vent (rather than whine)?  What do you miss?

Friday, July 29, 2016

Slow Week 5: Research and Understanding

This week's reading hits me where I work, because I work at a very corporate university where other values -- slow values, academic values -- are eclipsed.  So the best thing I can do for myself is put in a very visible place as a constant reminder the following:  "Slowing down is a matter of ethical import" (58).

I need to put this to make an everyday mantra because I know I've said, in an admiring way, "s/he's a machine."  (Probably not often, but enough times for me to know I don't want to say that anymore, that none of us should be machines, and if someone feels so driven that they have to produce in a machine-like manner, we should probably find out what's wrong.  None of us should aspire to be as productive as a machine. To me, this really shows us an everyday example of what societal values actually are.)

And to support us, this chapter offers us the following:

Slow opens up ways of thinking about research that challenge the corporate ethos. Using the language of Slow connects us to a larger political and social movement.. . .Knowing that there is a global movement for slowing down can fuel us, and this is important because challenging the dominant model of research is quite difficult; going against the grain usually is not easy.  Slowing down is about asserting the importance of contemplation, connectedness, fruition, and complexity. . .(57)

There is more to this chapter -- a discussion of the ethics of time for self and other, the concern that the instrumentalist approach deflects critical inquiry into its own process as well as feminism, a focus on language, and specifics suggestions for us to try.  I have to admit I had a long day and not enough time to read and think about this chapter, so I'm going to leave it here and come back later.

What do you think of this chapter and its points?  What kind of language do you use to describe someone's accomplishments?  Are there ways you could advocate for a Slow-er take on research? 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Slow Week 4: Pedagogy and Pleasure

This chapter champions pleasure as important to teaching and learning.

It seems obvious that when one teaches well, one enjoys it, but perhaps the reverse is actually more accurate:  that when one enjoys teaching, one does it well . . . it may be the case that pleasure -- experienced by the instructor and the students -- is the most important predictor of "learning outcomes." (34)

Pleasure here is discussed as a positive and embodied emotion that affects our thinking in important ways, arguing against online coursework on the ground that it is not as effective as face-to-face interaction where emotions are infectiousThe authors here quote Picard et al: 

"a slight positive mood does not just make you feel a little better but also induces a different kind of thinking, characterised by a tendency toward greater creativity and flexibility in problem solving, as well as more efficiency and thoroughness in decision making." (37)

Who doesn't want to gain greater creativity and flexibility in problem solving?  Who doesn't want students engaging in more creative and flexible thinking in the classroom?  The answer is to "work at having positive emotions" in order to counteract the brain's instinctive negativity bias with several suggestions, the most succinct of which is probably we need to "stop abusing ourselves with overwork" (40).  The other suggestions were varied:  remember to make a transition to class; "hold the space" in silence before beginning class; remember to breathe; don't be afraid to laugh and make students laugh; listen and pay attention to students; giving students specific boundaries in the syllabus or course guidelines about social media (one lesson I took from the "intercepting" section); "'reduc[e] one's attention to time may therefore be an important, yet previously overlooked, means of promoting flow'" (as quoted from Conti, 50), (the other lesson I took from the "intercepting" section; prepare classes in brief enjoyable sessions; think about preparing one's class as a story as well as use stories to make the lessons more engaging; prepare assignments that are "useful and enjoyable for the students themselves" (50).

What is the most difficult part of teaching for you?  How could you make teaching, preparing for teaching, and/or grading more pleasurable?  Are there boundaries you could set that would help make teaching more pleasurable?  What concrete steps could we take to "stop abusing ourselves with overwork"?  What gets in the way of really listening and attending to students?  Is there a way to introduce "timeless time" into the classroom without getting hopelessly behind?  What does thinking about your course as a story do for you?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Slow Week 3: Time Management and Timelessness

I love the movement of this chapter.  It starts with the startling assertions that more faculty report the feeling that they can't get everything done no matter how hard they work than CEOs.  More faculty feel physically or emotionally exhausted at the end of the day than CEOs.

A key quote to me (among many -- I have 4-1/2 pages of notes, mostly quotes I wanted to spend more time with):

The fact that we need to give ourselves permission to eat, bathe, and pay bills reflects our loss of balance in the current university climate. The time crunch is not just a personal issue. It is detrimental to intellectual work, interfering with our ability to think critically and creatively. (17)

Berg and Seeber do a great job of going through some representative academic self-help literature and calling out some of the key assumptions behind their time management advice.  (One that I had read was Donald Hall's Academic Self, but though I had admired the way he called for academics to have credos or purpose statements, his time management never worked for me.)  Berg and Seeber ask "Is academic time really as 'subdividable, regular, and predictable' as Hall posits?" (24) (to which I want to scream no way.  Not only is academic time not regular and predictable, but I am not regular or predictable!  And these relentless time management systems seem to assume people are not moody or emotional or that their days are more regular than mine at least are.  If the point of the time management systems is to get intellectual work done, my moods and emotions are going to be relevant.  But I can't turn on a dime because it's 11:30 and a month ago I thought it would be a good idea if I'd work on my scholarship now.  Go!  But that's not Berg and Seeber's point here.)

It turns out that "[r]esearch show that periods of escape from time are actually essential to deep thought, creativity, and problem solving" (26).  We need timeless time or timelessness; this "flow" or "engrossment" not only makes us more effective at our intellectual work, it makes us happier.  "The major obstacle to creative and original thinking . . . is the stress of having too much to do" (28).  (Oh how well I know this.)

The following quote I'm pretty sure I need to see in front of my face on a regular basis:

We need, then, to protect a time and a place for timeless time, and to remind ourselves continually that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work.  If we don't find timeless time, there is evidence that not only our work but our brains will suffer. (28)

I may put that one on my office door.  The rest of the chapter offers some concrete suggestions about how we can champion timeless time:

1. Get offline.
2. Do less.
3. Create/schedule (?) regular sessions of timeless time. (Berg and Seeber have five components here that are worth exploring.  Anyone?)
4. Give self regular timeouts.  (Kindness to self with radiate out to others.)
5. Change the way we talk about time all the time.

So what were your reactions to this chapters and its assertions about time management versus timelessness or timeless time?  Am I the only one who sees a relationship between timelessness and mindfulness and maybe even the current craze for meditation?  If you are, as I am, hooked already by Berg and Seeber's arguments, then how do people at your institution talk about or regard time and how could you resist that by proposing a counter-example?  How could you be a slow-er professor? What would each of Berg and Seeber's suggestions look like for you?  Is it worth it to try one suggestion out this week even?

What do you think, y'all?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Slow Week 2: the Introduction

The introduction to The Slow Professor argues that stress in academia exceeds stress in the general population (finally, some empirical studies to show what we live every day!) and that this stress has a lot to do with busyness, time pressure, and lack of work-life balance promoted by the corporatization of the university.  With corporatization and increasing managerialism (of particular relevance to me right now because academics at my institution are being restructured) comes the language of efficiency and crisis. 

While much of this may be familiar territory to those who've been paying attention to the many critical studies of the university (or just living in academia), what surprises me (but shouldn't) are assertions like these:  "individual professors' well-being has far-reaching effects.. . .It goes without saying that stress is bad for the individual and has direct consequences for society.  The harmful effects of stress our our well-being, health, and communities are widely documented and now generally acknowledged.  What is less evident is that addressing individual professors' stress has political and educational ramifications" (4) and "faculty stress directly affects student learning" (6).  Instead of asking "what is wrong with us?" that we seem to be struggling as academics within our institutional contexts, the authors ask, "what is wrong with the academic system?" that it creates conditions that we know are actually detrimental to our being effective as academics.  That these issues of stress and time crunch can be directly connected to some of our most significant work -- teaching -- is really important.  I know that I've felt very compromised as a teacher lately because last quarter as we were reading about how we need more time to deeply think about our actions and responsibilities, I was also completely behind in their grading and everything else, unable to role-model what I was talking about.  If I can't actually do what my class argues for in the context of my visible work life, how can I expect my students to take seriously what I'm advocating?  (What's more, at my institution, which is deeply entangled with the corporate model, I may be able to more effectively argue for better conditions by talking about the way it makes me an ineffective teacher and role model than by arguing for traditional academic values.  This is just an oddity of my institution, though.  It may be that others can do more with that argument.)

I love that Berg and Seeber assert that in response to "crisis!" and calls for efficiency, "Slow Professors act with purpose, taking the time for deliberation, reflection, and dialogue, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience, able, as Collini puts it, to hold our nerve" (11).  In the face of all the calls to rush to a decision (and I know I'm NOT the person I'm capable of being when I'm rushed, as suggested in the Rettig quote in the Preface), asking for time to consider something has seemed weak or ineffectual or just plain not possible.  My chair and I spoke about exactly this once, where zie affirmed that it was okay to say that I needed more time to make a decision.  But it still seemed weak in the face of my highly-corporatized institution and institutional culture (where even some of my best colleagues would rather just throw something together, put in place, and then improve it later, which drives me nuts because a bad decision can definitely be worse -- and more damaging -- than none at all); Berg and Seeber help me see this differently -- that asserting that I need more time to consider a decision can be seen as resistance.  What's more, I can also think of it as role-modeling to others that we should be taking more time to think deeply about our decisions.

While Berg and Seeber are both humanities scholars, they also assert that "[The humanities] are paradigmatic of the non-instrumental intellectual enquiry which we need to protect across disciplines. It is precisely this critical thinking that is at the heart of the university as a public good" (13).  This reminds me of the movie, Contact, and the pulling of funding for all pure research in favor of applied research.  So I can see the connection to the STEM disciplines here.  Though my strange context has made me wonder about the notion of a critical citizenry as a public good.  Obviously, while some critical thinking can be deployed to solve corporate problems, it doesn't necessarily seem helpful to corporate interests to have an informed and critical citizenry.  So the corporate university does not support the notion of critical citizenry as a public good.  (In fact, what I'm learning about neoliberalism is that it does not support notions of the public or common good.)  So I'm wondering whether the notion of a critical citizenry as a public good now sounds like a liberal (as in liberal versus conservative) notion.  I know that it's very difficult to argue, in my context, for these broad values; both students and faculty in other disciplines at my institution believe implicitly in the instrumentality of the education we provide and academic knowledge more broadly.  (Another, perhaps too harsh, way to say this is that my institution doesn't really believe in academic values.)

What are your thoughts about the introduction?  What does the culture of busyness, overwork, and efficiency look like at your institution?  (Perhaps sharing these will help us all to recognize the signs -- and opportunities for resistance -- at our own institutions.)  And I've been thinking a lot about this one:  how can we decolonize our own heads of this thinking (that what's wrong is us rather than this efficiency and overwork culture) so that we can change our own habits, self-talk, and interactions with others so we can be people and academics we're capable of being?

Please don't feel constrained by my questions or opinions!  Take the comments in any direction you like.  I look forward to it!