Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty
I wish this had been a better book, but, if it had been, it certainly wouldn’t have been the same or even the same sort of book that it is. That said, it’s a pretty good book for the kind of book that it is. Let me explain.
The Slow Professor has won widespread praise, especially among university professors who feel (correctly) that the authors have nicely captured some of the immobilizing sense of angst and the disabling alienation that they experience trying to survive with their self-images intact as they are battered and bounced about in the “culture of speed” that pretty much defines a great part of higher education today. Bombarded with bureaucratic banalities, forced to adapt to inane instruments of accountability, pushed to abandon reflection, contemplation and refined criticism, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber argue that professors are going through a difficult period of transition.
The process is similar to that which was thrust upon artisans, scriveners and small merchants a century or two ago. They are experiencing a loss of autonomy, a demand for uncritical conformity and compliance with a set of expectations that, they believe, are not only ludicrous on their face, but are delivered in an alien language using concepts and behavioural requirements that have nothing to do with academic life as they had envisioned and, perhaps, already experienced it. No matter how much talk is generated about innovation, renovation, renewal and … nimbleness, postsecondary educators live in what Hillary Rettig (one of a number of scholars upon whom the authors rely for theoretical and practical support) calls a “context fundamentally hostile to creativity” (2011).
While reading the book, I was occasionally and uncontrollably transported back in a kind of reverie to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when what’s now called “second-wave feminism” was hitting its stride. Under the cool, controlling hand of women such as Gloria Steinem, the principal method of building the movement was called “consciousness raising.” It was plain to all (or at least to all feminists) that women suffered ancient and interminable abuse under patriarchy. For some, this involved physical violence. For others, economic exploitation. And for others still, a hideous form of psychological/cultural oppression in which the key to survival and what passed for success was a lifetime of deference to patriarchal social authority and subservience to the domestic male “head of the family.” Very often, it involved all three.
The chief problem (especially for middle-class women) was that the idea of authentic equality had either never arisen or, if it had, it had been snuffed out by social norms and expectations so invasive and pervasive that alternatives were almost literally unthinkable. True, first-wave feminism had won a measure of legal and political equality, but too seldom did the formal rights translate into the ordinary lives of real people. So, the first step in women’s liberation was to crack through the ideological barriers and to provoke—painfully if need be—women into a state of critical awareness. The task was both to show the pattern of oppression for what it was and to demonstrate that social arrangements could be otherwise. The chief problem for college and university professors is that their previous privileges and protections (perhaps illusory, but taken seriously at least as a mythical ideal) are being torn away by a new vision and structure of higher education.
For both women (who had never enjoyed freedom) and for educators (who may have taken it for granted), it was essential to become aware of their predicament as a precondition for doing something about it.
A good deal of The Slow Professor operates at the level of consciousness raising―the level of making it plain to the professoriat that the sinking feeling in the pit of its collective stomach, the widespread intuitions and intimations of guilt and self-reproach, and the chronic worries about being overloaded and potentially suffering “burn-out” are not the result of their own inabilities and inferiorities. They are, instead, the consequences of the excessive and often inappropriate demands that are being made of them by a system of higher education that is driven by apparently alien ideas, processes and requirements.
The difficulties the professors encounter are, the authors suggest, being imposed by a corporate structure and a corporate mentality that neither respects nor values the kind of work that has been the life-blood of higher education since time immemorial. Gently, empathetically and sympathetically, the plight of the professor is framed largely as a matter of culture shock and an effort is made to normalize the psychologically painful reaction to change by showing that it is a chronic malaise among postsecondary educators and not unique to any single individual.
Berg and Seeber go on to explain that the reaction to their project in its early stages of formulation varied from those who thought that they were being “brave” even to speak of such things in polite (that is, in “professional”) company to those stalwarts who accused them of “whining.” By thus casting matters in their own highly personal terms, they are able to “bond” with timid and intimidated colleagues/readers who are afraid of being labeled weak, defensive, incompetent or just chronic complainers, but who also lack the wit to analyse their own circumstances or the will to speak out on their own behalf. It’s a winning strategy that has plainly resonated among members of their targeted audience.
Among the themes that are explored in the book’s four slim chapters (plus a helpful introduction and a somewhat satisfying conclusion) are: the changing roles in academia (the dominance of the administrator over the professor and the emergence of the student as customer/consumer); the dominance of technology which has altered, blended, flipped or altogether eliminated the classroom as space and the lecture as method; the technological challenges of online education and the more-or-less forced ventures into social media which have blurred work and life and lead to artificially induced stress levels for both students and teachers; the “conceptually incoherent” demand for continuous curricular change and improvement; and a work environment that presents as an echo chamber for alarmist and often hyperbolic diagnoses of a state of permanent crisis in academe. They quote, for example, Henry A. Giroux’s insistence that contemporary “attacks [on higher education] are much more widespread and … much more dangerous than the McCarthyite campaign several decades ago.” (For interest’s sake, see Giroux, 2007, 2011 and 2014.)
According to the Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning (2010), IBL “describes an environment in which learning is driven by a process of enquiry owned by the student. Starting with a ‘scenario’ and with the guidance of a facilitator, students identify their own issues and questions. They then examine the resources they need to research the topic, thereby acquiring the requisite knowledge” (para. X). Skills developed in IBL and PBL will then include question/problem finding or creating, as well as working towards answers/solutions. The products of IBL/PBL may include an application to a real-life situation; however, this is not required in all instances as the learners themselves may define the end product.
Berg and Seeber, having acknowledged that they had already been “unflaggingly playing therapist [for] each other,” explain that they envisioned The Slow Professor as “a self-help book for academics.” I sincerely hope that they have succeeded (and the positive reception the book has won to date suggests that they have). So, dust-jacket assessor Nancy Chick of the University of Calgary glowingly reports that she “loves this book” and urges that it be distributed widely to newly minted Ph.D.s and newly hired faculty. She also urges that already employed scholars read it too so that they can “reclaim some of their sanity.” After all, mental health concerns among postsecondary educators are growing areas of concern (Catano, 2010; Catano et al., 2010; Wiggins, 2015). The “consciousness” of educators from pre-school to post-doc supervision seems rather seriously to be in need of raising. But there is a problem.
As Everett Knight wrote in a much neglected volume, The Objective Society (1959: 86-126), therapy is a “course in resignation,” at best a “retrograde stoicism” and an embrace of “futility.” Coping mechanisms are adaptation devices that can keep people together socially and under control emotionally in the presence of unfathomable instruments of discomfort ranging from mild annoyance to abject terror. They provide support under unfortunate circumstances, but they do not fully describe and explain the nature and the causes of those circumstances. They certainly do not provide actionable advice about how to change those circumstances or even to understand that change is a possibility.
Berg and Seeber, however, at least offer intimations of redemption. While they do not locate the macro-level sources of their micro-level troubles with precision, they do drop some hints about where such analyses can be found. So, scattered throughout the book are useful quotations from other scholars who have probed a little more deeply into matters of economic power, political domination, ideological hegemony and institutional control (examples from diverse philosophical and practical perspectives include: Aronowitz, 2000; Coté & Allahar, 2011; Menzies, 2005; Menzies & Newson, (2007); Newson, J. 2012; Nussbaum, M., 2010; Turkle, 2011). An astute reader can quite quickly find references to other advanced studies of the turmoil and travails of the academy. If enough teachers are drawn in to the dialogue and incited to follow the signposts to the next step in their political education, the signs are there to be followed.
As well, although not framed in terms of a plan for organized response (never mind resistance or insurrection), the authors have some good things to say about the kinds of available alternatives to the frantic, frenetic and fragmented culture of contemporary higher education.
The stress of performance regimens receives a sensitive treatment. Berg and Seeber use a comment by Bodil Jőnsson (2001) that “intellectual work, such as research (the creation of new knowledge) and learning (the creation of new knowledge within oneself), must be measured in a way totally different from the way we measure industrial production.” Academic life must ideally be “timeless.” They therefore urge that we “protect a time and a place for timeless time, and to remind ourselves that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work.” If there is a “self-evident truth” in the book, this is surely it.
The distressing fact, however, is one that a quick excursion into the history of work would provide us with a deeper problem. The same experience was had by antique artisanal occupations (Thompson, 1967) some of whose members chose to resist but were unsuccessful (cf. Thompson, 1991). Berg and Seeber set the scene, but do not go beyond diagnosis to prognosis, much less effective therapy.
Likewise, pedagogy is considered in a delightfully playful fashion. Comparing the classroom to the kitchen and drawing on the compulsion to protect food preparation from the indignities of standardization (with “fast food” implicitly substituting for globalized, standardized educational fare … MOOCs and all that), we are shown the possibilities for joy in teaching, but only under conditions of “deglobalization,” in which critical literacy, borrowing from Tara Brabazon (2007) is permitted to overcome the “simplistic affirmations of standards, sameness, and homogeneity.” So, they speak engagingly, even whimsically, about constructing a “Manifesto of Pleasurable Pedagogy”; but, again, there are no practical, actionable suggestions about how to implement.
A third domain of crucial significance to any professor worthy of the name is “research and understanding.” Here our intrepid leaders outline the worries experienced not merely by educators trapped on the gerbil wheel of “publish or perish,” but also the new trends in the kind of research people are being asked to perform. Much of the administrative requirement for publication, of course, invites a simulacrum of scholarship. There are, I am informed, at least 1.5 million and as many as 3.0 million professors currently functioning on the planet (it depends on whether we include adjunct and other contingent faculty in universities on the one hand, and community college teachers on the other). Even with the lower number, if every one were to produce a single peer-reviewed paper every two years and a book every four years, the sheer volume of published material would be taxing for Watson the IBM computer to ingest and far beyond the capabilities of any human appendage to the machine. So, we must sadly conclude that a good part of academic “productivity” is bound to be dreck (not that predatory publishers neglect to take advantage of the desperation of low-level faculty willing to pay to have their work put between covers or at least online).
The Slow Professor calmly reports, however, that under the newly organized rules of “academic capitalism,” the already overreaching productivity rituals have gained an additional dimension. Research agendas geared to the immediate commercialization of products and services in both the public and the private sector rather than to “pure” scientific (never mind any work in the humanities) diminish the academic calibre and frustrate the academic objective of intellectual development. Quoting Daniel Coleman and Smaro Kamboureli (2011), Berg and Seeber make the point that “the emphasis on the quantifiable, applied, and profitable ‘runs the risk of flattening out or restricting the kinds of scholarly activities that universities recognize, promote, and reward.’” I would respectfully add that it is more than a “risk,” it is proven certainty.
The best suggestions Berg and Seeger offer to encourage qualitatively better work include getting off the Net and using a real library. Pointing to empirical evidence that the impulse to access digital sources has reduced the range of references and narrowed scholarship (Carr, 2010; Evans, 2008), we learn that it isn’t just our students who are being “dumbed down.” Restoring a commitment to print over pixels is, of course, important but it’s only a beginning. Alas, this cleansing suggestion falls a bit flat when it is followed by such banal bromides as “follow your heart.” So, once more, we are presented with rousing closing quotation: “The neoliberal agenda stands at odds with ideals of discovery, enquiry and intellectual advancement” (Fanghanel, 2012); but then we are left thinking, “that is as may be, but what is to be done?”
Finally, Berg and Seeber have some insightful and even inspiring things to say about “collegiality and community,” both of which are increasingly casualties of the corporate college. They state the obvious; namely that “corporatizing has imposed an instrumental view of not only time but also each other … has brought increasing workloads and changed the structure of academic appointments … [and made] contingent labour …particularly vulnerable to isolation.” An authentic academic “community” simply cannot exist in virtual reality, cyberspace or on the social media. (Have we forgotten everything McLuhan taught us about the media being message?) An academic community, I feel safe in adding, is inconsistent with a “revolving door” of contract appointments. An academic community, it follows, may not require a literal “grove,” but it does require collaboration, congeniality and (dare I say it) co-management.
The Slow Professor is not merely a cri de coeur, but it is certainly not a call to arms. It is, however, a first step toward self-awareness and a significant stride beyond the disheartening experience of frenzied, frenetic and fragmented work life in the modern postsecondary institution. It contains enough anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that there is a systemic problem and enough citations to allow adventuresome educators to connect with writers who have paid enough attention on the study and the reality of the political economy of higher education to learn precisely what has given rise to those problems.
Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber have therefore given a helpful guide to anyone who chooses to think seriously about what is happening and to contemplate what might be done about it. Meantime, I vividly recall a comment made by my old friend and colleague Frank Eastham (1944-1998). Shortly after our first faculty meeting together in August, 1969, he gazed at our small collection of newly-hired teachers who had been thrown a little off-track if not severely disillusioned by an early managerial endorsement of perverse pedagogy and seemed thoroughly flummoxed: “Surely,” Frank said, “there must be a strategy more ennobling than a pre-emptive cringe.” Now, almost fifty years later, the same proposition should be posed to the readers of this book. The courage and creativity of the responses will determine what comes next.
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Howard A. Doughty teaches Cultural Anthropology, Globalization and Modern Political Thought in the Faculty of Applied Arts & Health Sciences at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org