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? 


What Now? said...

I have a question for those of you who are tenured: Because I left my job as soon as I got tenure (not the normal career path, obviously), I only experienced a few months of life as a tenured professor. My assumption -- perhaps naive -- was that, with the tenure pressure removed, one could actually adopt a slow research mode for oneself, no matter the university's larger culture. But it's not sounding like that's really the case, from what I gather from this chapter and from blogging academic friends. Could you all say more about this?

Earnest English said...

That's a really good question, WN. At least at my place, there are pressures to keep producing scholarship after tenure. We have annual review with merit raises, so that's one way we're rewarded for producing scholarship that "counts." Who doesn't want to get a raise every year (especially if we're already underpaid and sole breadwinners for our family -- for me, not going for the maximum raise feels like a slight to my family, though my family feels more slighted by my not being around, so there's definitely a balance there)? Another is that we have post-tenure review, so after five years of tenure, then there's a whole new review process. Now, administration claims that the point of post-tenure review is to reward those who are exceptional and to find and get resources to those who need it. Now all of this ignores that we have a really high teaching load (so the pressure to do research encourages people to phone in their teaching, a real problem where I am).

So could I go Slow? Yes, because mostly the requirements for annual review in scholarship in my department are reasonable, though I do need to have tangible products on a regular basis in order to get the maximum raise -- and who doesn't want to get the maximum raise (especially if you do oodles of service for which you'd like to get credit)? I don't have to panic about scholarship, but I do need to make sure I'm lined up well to have those products on a regular basis, especially because publications in Secondary Field are much harder to come by (so depending on them for my raise is too scary). If I produce scholarship on a regular basis enough to get a raise, I should be in decent shape for post-tenure review.

But the option to not publish at all (some people do focus on teaching, service, or admin and never publish again) or to go Slow after tenure without any attention to these pressures comes at (what is for me) a high cost. (And I'm not thinking I'll bother going for Full.)

I do wonder what others' situations are. Anyone else want to weigh in?

heu mihi said...

Well, since I'm newly *un*tenured (after being tenured at a place with no merit raises and where I could have gone up for full, no problem, as soon as I'd put in the minimum years), I can't really tell you. But I do know that we, like EE, have merit raises based on publications, and getting to full comes with a substantial pay bump, so I do want to keep a pretty lively research agenda going beyond tenure--particularly because TM's long-term job prospects may be uncertain, the mainline church being what it is. Also, for full, we need to demonstrate that we have an "established international reputation," and I do think that I have a ways to go before that happens!

There was a lot that I really liked in this chapter. I was drawn to a graduate degree in literature because I love reading and want to be widely read--not because I wanted to specialize intensely in something. And, while I do like my subfield, I must admit that much of what I read for it is borrrrrringggg--and I don't just mean the secondary lit. (Medieval hagiography has its kernels of fascinating stuff, but they're outnumbered by the long slogs.) When I was in graduate school, I really didn't understand my classmates who thought that our exams (which asked us to read the canon, basically, in one national literature) were a waste of time and took away from their specializations. If I wanted to be a specialist in English lit, I thought, I really should read Milton at some point--and I should *want* to do so! Even though I have no interest whatsoever in specializing in him! I'll add that having studied for my exams helped me immensely in my first job, and has also helped me to make much broader connections between literatures than I could have done without them.

I've been feeling, this summer, that I'm trying to write my next book too fast, and it's scaring me, a little. It's scary because there's so much that I don't know and I'm not sure that I can cover all of those bases in, say, a year. So I think that I need to remind myself of this chapter when I'm rushing forward too headlong and I feel--as I do--that my work is suffering from superficiality. On the other hand, Forward Progress really makes me feel better (there's so little concrete gain in academia, and sometimes I need it!). How does one balance those two needs? How can I assure myself that slow movement *is* movement, and that my work will be better if I take my time/chill the f*** out?

JaneB said...

I'm in a system without tenure, although at a university which is pretty incompetent at managing disciplinary matters in a way that would lead to real penalties. We've definitely had cases where unproductive (in the research sense) people are rewarded with fewer other duties to support them in getting their productivity back up. The current preference is that non-REF-able people are moved to teaching only positions, but the REF requirements (4 papers of at least 'national' significance in peer reviewed journals in a 5-6 year period - monographs are not given enough weight, I think, but I'm in STEMM so not supposed to monograph until retirement age anyway) are not very onerous.

One thing my university does well, I think, is that research productivity targets are set in terms of sums over the last three years, extended to four or more if for example you had a maternity leave or aren't full time. So for my (research-machine-ambitious) department I am expected to be able to report a minimum of 6 papers, three grant applications, one grant success, one completed grad student etc. etc. in the last three years, which allows for fallow years and good ones.

JaneB said...

On the chapter itself: I'm in STEMM, so reading, thinking and writing are not the only modes of research - I'd definitely include one or two phrases for engaging with my material non-verbally (field work, lab work, data entry, visualising it through graphs and plots and maps), and see this/them as key places where a bit more time and playfulness would help. I wonder if there is also a place for communicating about research, though I guess conferencing, emailing, phone chats and seminars and all that comes into the next chapter - that sort of early, fumbling attempt to put what I'm thinking about into words that convey something of how I feel about it and its essence to others seems to me quite different to writing-as-thinking or writing-for-publication, and a real part of the process.

The points about measurables and "Cult of Celebrity" (Stars and ECRs with Star Potential are persistent annoyances), and the effects this sort of thinking has on the self, the corrosion of kindness and compassion and connection, were very familiar, and are things I continually try to fight against. The pointer towards the next chapter at the end, "...As academics become more isolated from each other, we are also becoming more compliant as resistance to the corporatization of the academy seems futile", really struck home, and I'm going to share it with my writing group buddies at least... (which may in itself be a politically unwise act, but that thought alone makes it necessary, if that makes sense).

Like the teaching chapter, though, I'm left looking for suggestions of what to actually DO. What would it look like, feel like, involve, to be a person Slowly getting tenure, Slowly meeting the demands of one's muse and one's desire to earn one's pay and one's merit raise, Slowly keeping oneself competitive for roles one might desire especially if one desires a job with a lighter teaching load or to attract resources (in STEMM grants are the tip of the iceberg of resource-attracting - even research literally on my doorstep requires some resources, and the 'fights' over lab facilities I keep whining about over at my blog are very real and potentially are going to force me to abandon about two thirds of my current research agenda and switch, because I can't spend the next 20 years (which is probably my realistic working life, until late 60s) being frustrated and stressed and mostly unable to collect the data I and my students need, that's DEFINITELY not healthy!), Slowly setting a good example which is distinctly different from the example set by coasters or dead-wood or people who've given up or chosen a career without active research?

My useful quote isn't actually cited in this chapter but I think the authors would approve it:
"Good science consists largely of play disguised as work". (E.O. Wilson)

Play has that same property of timelessness the authors invoked in the intro and chapter 1, and also makes me feel the happiness and enjoyment they praise as the basis for a good learning environment in chapter 2, so I think that this quote definitely belongs here in chapter 3!

Earnest English said...

JaneB, your comments have me thinking. Your 3-year expectations sound impossible to me, but I know that's because I'm not in the field. I have seen the tenure requirements for people in STEM disciplines with the requirements for tenure with the grants worth this much or more, etc. It's a lot. (Hey, what's the other M in STEMM?)

One thing I'm not sure about that your posts make obvious to me is that here Slow is resistance, a reaction, a counter to what I'm going to call here the efficiency crisis. But does Slow have integrity beyond being a reaction or corrective? Does it have enough integrity and vision to stand up by itself? That is, can we have Slow without the efficiency crisis? I think Slow does have enough integrity and meaning, especially when we think of food, but perhaps the authors don't do enough to show what Slow might look like except in contrast, making it more difficult for us to imagine what a Slow professor might do. Instead, we get ideas of what we could do to get closer to Slow, inch toward it.

I did read the rest of the chapter, of course, and mostly I've come away with a few things: 1) don't compare productivity; 2) don't add to the lauding of overwork by calling someone a "machine" (dehumanizing and inhumane!!!) or praising overproductivity or working on weekends, not taking downtime, etc.; 3) allow the work to take as long as it takes.

This third one has got me thinking a lot these days about the decisions I made in grad school and whether I regret them or not. I moved from Secondary Field to Primary Field for several reasons but an important one was that I didn't like what the environment with its alternating support and competitiveness was doing to the work and my attitude toward the work. It was making me desperate to write anything, anything and get it out now!!! (There was a lot of panic there, though I didn't realize it.) Primary Field didn't have those problems. While I had always thought that my hireability was going to be because I could do both fields, I ended up getting a job in Primary Field at a place where they don't really care about Secondary Field, which means I can't get a sabbatical or much support for Secondary Field, though SF is where my heart is. From the perspective of the progress of my work in Secondary Field, I'm saddened by how everything has turned out (though I have very little reason to complain because I really like most aspects of my life), though with tenure I can write what I want. And this chapter reminds me, again, that the work takes as long as it takes -- and if that means ten years, that's okay.

This is important right now because I'm doing a MOOC where there are weekly assignments (totally optional, but I'd love to do them because they are very inspiring), but I just can't get something together in that kind of time for other people to look at (unless they want to look at 5 pages of garbage -- that I could manage!). And the chapter reminds me: that's okay too. It takes as long as it takes because it's the work that matters -- now how "productive" I wish I were. I have to do something to remind myself of this over and over.

JaneB said...

The grant requirements are onerous and for me almost impossible, but the paper writing is not bad at all - partly because in my field we do mostly co-author so this isn't 6 papers in three years all by just me, although to be honest I sometimes think it would be easier if that was the case as most collaborators take up a lot of energy! A three author paper isn't one third the effort of a one author paper in most cases, it's more like the effort of two papers spread across three people, like most 'economies' in academic work.

I also have what is probably a fairly light teaching load in terms of contact hours, last time I worked it out using the US 3 hours a week = 1 teaching unit I came up with an estimate of my load as a 3:2. However, I do teach a lot of new stuff every year (sigh. doormat syndrome?), and not having a regular weekly schedule is tricky at times.

Oh, and STEMM is Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths and Medicine - the 'subjects allied to medicine' lot tend to get rather stroppy about being left out of STEM initiatives although STEM is not allowed into Health initiatives, so I've got in the habit of using the second M in a propitiatory way!

That's an interesting thought, and does help me see the book a bit differently - yes, they said at the beginning that this was a manifesto, and I think I've come at these last two chapters looking for something more like a recipe. Reading the Slow Food book, a lot of the 'things you can do' are incredibly obvious and seem very logical and right to me - shop local, pay attention to the art of choosing, preparing and consuming food, think about wider connections, put food back at the heart of communities instead of marginalising it as only fuel, as a necessary evil. Some of that is because my parents were out of step with our neighbours, had an allotment and managed it as close to organically as possible (lots of green mulches and compost and crop rotation and interplanting to ward off pests and soft-soap sprays and double-digging and hoeing...), put part of the garden down to food plants, ate home-baked wholemeal bread ('brick-bread' we called it... my Mum wasn't the best bread maker)... so it was in some ways a call back to those older values.

Maybe part of me has some sort of resistence to 'Slow' when it comes to work because work is MEANT to be hard? That's the model I grew up with (my Dad hated his job in many ways, and the only 'professional' work in the immediate family was teaching younger kids, which is very, very hard - somehow sitting at a desk and teaching adults just seems a bit wimpy, I guess). And then there's the old Protestant Work Ethic, and my own assumption of inadequacy... I have always worried about whether I am 'enough', and that has translated in work to whether I do enough, and part of me probably thinks these Slow ideas are for those who are 'worth it' or something. Like you have to earn the right.

But the point of a manifesto like this, I think, is to argue that everyone has the right, inbuilt, a grace given rather than a permit granted reluctantly to the worthy only. That the result will be MORE overall worth, right?

Maybe the work of figuring out what Slow anything looks like, for each of us, in our work, in our context, has to be left to us for us to make the manifesto manifest, that if we're told what the answers are they won't fit everyone, just as the 'Fast' corporate world does suit some people (I know several extravert, ultra-competitive people with short attention spans and good sales skills who would really hate this book and these ideas, and proudly claim machine status for themselves)...

Earnest English said...

JaneB, of course you're right that it's a manifesto and it's up to us to figure out what Slow looks like in our contexts. How could it be otherwise when our contexts are so different (I work in a completely corporate university, for example)? But I confess I wanted more recipes in some chapters more than others. I think this also has to do with when I read them. The Collegiality chapter, for example, I read right before a big important meeting, so I think I came to it with needs that it's unfair to judge the chapter by.

I love hearing about your family and the allotment and the brick-bread! (Not to mention the ducks at your uni.) And it's funny how these are both more traditional values and yet they feel completely anti-conventional and counter-culture (at least here) when embraced. That's how Slow is too.

When dealing with a thorny issue at work or getting inundated by idiocy, I often remind myself that "this is why they call it 'work,'" and that I get paid precisely to deal with the bullshit. So I hear you on the "it's supposed to be hard" idea. Burdened with physical and mental problems (by which I mean an inability to focus my attentions where I want them), I also think of myself as lazy since most days if you ask me what I want to do, I'll tell you I want to go back to bed. I've been rethinking whether I'm "lazy" or not though; I don't think any reasonable standard would find me lazy; I think it's actually the difference between what I think I should do and what I actually do that I find lazy. So my instinct is to think there's something wrong with me. (There are other reasons too, like my institution has got me really questioning how long I want to stay in the academy.)

So one thing that I'm thinking about is the issue of leisure. Universities were originally peopled with those few people who had leisure, and I think in Slow we do see the leisurely attitude championed as the one that creates the best thinking. I don't disagree with any of this, but I wonder how the idea of privileged leisure can really be championed without bringing along with it a sense of privilege. These thoughts are really mangled at the moment, but I'm just reminded of an article passed around FB that was about how women never had leisure and since writing depends on leisure, women really have to fight just to assert the right (within ourselves first) to write. So do women, then, also have to fight to assert the right to the leisurely attitude that creates the best thinking? I don't know. I'm still thinking.