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!


Good Enough Woman said...

I was very interested and surprised to see the focus on the "crisis mentality" in higher education. I didn't realized the crisis model was so pervasive. At my community college, we were in crisis mode for several years because we almost lost our accreditation because of some bureaucratic failures related to planning and assessment. Granted, the crisis mentality helped to save the college (because it was truly a crisis), but the problem now is that some of our managers still function in the crisis mode. This mode crystalizes the top-down attitude of management (we HAVE to do this!) and actually is contradictory to the ways in which we are supposed to plan and follow those plans. It also leads to things like a VP ambushing and hijacking meetings, and other such non-productive actions that don't connect to any of our strategic planning.

For four years--during our crisis time--I was a co-coordinator for student learning outcomes and assessment (yes, I was one of THOSE people), and I received many accolades for helping to "save the college." Fortunately for me, my colleagues (including both faculty and management) support my PhD pursuit and were willing to let me step back and fly under the radar post-crisis in order to finish the PhD. People were grateful for my work and they knew I had worked my ass off, so they said, "Go in peace and do thy PhD and we won't get upset if you don't do much service."

And, let me tell you, flying under the radar has been FANTASTIC. I had sabbatical in the fall, and even in spring, I didn't attend a single college-wide committee meeting (I don't think). I just did some department-level stuff. Focusing on my own discipline and my own research was so wonderful.

This is all to say that, when the PhD is finished (is it possible?), I need to figure out how to find a middle ground between the two extremes I've experienced over the past few years. Then again, I'm kind of prone to swinging like a pendulum when it comes to these things.

The thing that got to me most during the crisis mode was all of the late night emails and late night work. People would note the time stamp on my late night emails and be impressed. But then our crisis-mode VP (whom I like but who also needs new leadership strategies) started to expect email responses within a couple of hours of sending them, regardless of when they were sent. These late-night or weekend email chains were often SO UNPRODUCTIVE. Actually, when I was working on SLOs, my partner and I often focused on SLOWING DOWN our VP who would get so worked up about what we HAVE TO DO RIGHT NOW.

Anyway, I didn't mean to go on so long, but I think my goal is very much like what we talk about in TLQ. I don't want to things to always seem so urgent when they really aren't, especially when it comes to problem-solving through email, which usually raises more problems than it solves. I think keeping the quadrants in mind and thinking about how to prioritize will be very useful.

Good Enough Woman said...

And with all that, I didn't do an introduction. I teach English at a community college where I just finished my 18th year (the first two were part-time, and I've been tenure for about 12 years or so). I'm at the tail end of PhD, and I want to continue to do research even though it's not required for my job. I also have a great family that includes two kids, ages 11 and 13. They can't remember a time when I wasn't writing a dissertation.

JaneB said...

Hi, mid-career academic in a middling sort of university in the North of England, in a STEM discipline, having a slow motion and utterly tedious midlife mid-career crisis (along with much of the HE sector in the UK).

I read and enjoyed the Honore Slow Food book that was one of the springboards for this project, and decided to savour and enjoy the act of reading scholarly test, so settled down with a pencil and a drink, and allowed myself the naughty-feeling habit of making notes on the book itself, so that I could converse with myself and the text as I read. I really liked and agreed with much of the opening material - sometimes I anticipated their arguments, sometimes added specific local examples, sometimes just wrote YES THIS or underlined phrases. Talking with a book like this is fun - and NOT how STEM people usually read.

A couple of thoughts: I too like the clarity with which the sense of individual failure that we know many academics wrestle with (through the academic blogosphere, through TLQ, through conversation and twitter and all that) is re-explained as a collective crisis, a perfectly reasonable reaction to an unsustainable, external context rather than proof of individual flaws. I've read many of the articles cited, or similar ones, but found the synthesis clear and compelling.

As a STEM person, even one with more 'humanities' hobbies (I write poetry and sloppy drafts of long form fiction, read seriously in history and archaeology, literature and poetry - history and philosophy of science was my favourite subject at university and if our system allowed I'd've double-majored in it and my home STEM discipline), the idea of the individual's actions as a deliberate act of collective resistance is relatively fresh, and that idea stood out to me. An understanding of individual actions in response to overwhelm as actually a community endeavour appeals to me - I love the idea of academic collegiality, of the university as a collection of scholars and enthusiasts at different stages in their journeys rather than a corporate producer of research metrics and graduating neatly packaged work-ready sausages for the capitalism kitchen, and this fits in with it.

So far, I find myself in sympathy with and convinced by the arguments. Interested to see what concrete, actionable ideas come up in the next three chapters

heu mihi said...

Hello! Commenting late because I just got my book yesterday. I introduced myself last time, but here goes: Literature prof at an R1 after 8 years at a SLAC.

I unexpectedly found myself underlining several passages because they so perfectly encapsulated circumstances at my last institution. Namely: Strategic planning is "an 'assertion of leadership'.... It is the appearance of process that counts." Also, from Collini, "the belief that the process of reporting on an activity in the approved form provides some guarantee that something worthwhile has been done" (5). I left my SLAC right after a year of strategic planning, which followed two years of creating "white papers" in areas of importance to the college; we were also about to dive into accreditation review. Because it was such a small college, my husband (also faculty) and I were heavily involved with all of these processes (except re-accreditation, which we dodged by leaving), and, while we were excited about the *idea* of improving the college etc., by the end of each process it felt exactly like so much busywork that would result in nothing. (A HUGE amount of busywork, by the way.) Strategic planning was particularly disappointing, as the administration essentially rewrote sections at the last minute, reducing the document to a pretty generic statement that virtually left out academics.

And the crisis mentality is something that I'd noticed for several years. It's exhausting, demoralizing, and a great way for (non-virtuous) administrators to push things through/make decisions that faculty and staff didn't like. Basically, it gave a kind of executive pass on a lot of things.

Obviously this is not true of all (or probably even most) administrators, but unscrupulous ones can certainly use it to their advantage.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to ignoring the "slow" injunction and diving right into chapter 1!

KJHaxton said...

I just downloaded the kindle edition today and have just finished the introduction. Like heu mihi above, this bit:
"the belief that the process of reporting on an activity in the approved form provides some guarantee that something worthwhile has been done"
really struck me. I've seen several occasions over the last few years where this exact thing (almost right down to the wording!) has been imposed as a proxy for actually doing stuff. It's something that lets the do-er feel productive and collegial but is busy work in the plainest sense - a sense of productivity but producing something comparatively meaningless (more so when all the 'stuff' in the report is available in another way.
The crisis mentality bit is a new way of thinking but I can see bits of it reflected in stuff going back a long while. I'd also propose that a crisis aversion mentality is equally damaging, if not more so: a great deal of work is created in anticipating 'the next thing to go wrong' and preemptively acting to avoid it. I think academics/administrators/institutions can become somewhat entrenched in this mentality and overreact to a potential crisis. Perhaps I/we/they need a better risk assessment matrix (probability high-damage low versus probability low -damage high) to work out what to preemptively act on. While I'd like to think I'd stopped a good few crises by acting preemptively in the past, I wonder how much that stems from a need to think in crisis mode.
The crisis mentality is so pervasive across culture at the moment - the terrorist threat being a key example of a means to keep people in crisis mode and accepting of laws and actions that would be unthinkable in other circumstances (yet should be unacceptable even currently if we had the time to think and critique them fully). And perhaps another offshoot of the crisis mentality is that it stops us having to deal with the big stuff: if we're too worried about the next comparatively local crisis-type event, we have nothing left to invest in the broader global 'crises' such as the environment, and inequality and poverty. To loop back to universities, one purpose of good scholarship should be demonstrable means to tackle those things and to do it right we need time.
I'm looking forward to chapter 1 but that's not for this afternoon I think!
By way of introduction, I'm a early/mid-career (who knows the boundaries are continually redrawn) academic in physical sciences in the UK.