Higher Education

slow of study and study of slow in academic life

The recently published book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, is probably too easy a target. As comes up in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, few are going to feel any sympathy for tenure-track, let alone tenured, professors, least of all those who work most closely with us: graduate students, adjunct faculty, administrators, and so on. From a greater distance, one might legitimately ask who has greater job security or greater latitude in defining their work than tenured faculty?

The answer is not many.

Pleas for sympathy aside, there’s little doubt that the academy has changed a great deal in this century. The book refers to this change as corporatization. Certainly we’ve become more bureaucratic, more economically driven (both in terms of how students view their majors and how administrations value departments and programs), and been transformed by digital culture (like the rest of the world). Stereotypes notwithstanding, there is growing empirical evidence that faculty work long hours (61 per week on avg) and that a significant number experience stress and/or anxiety in their work.

Personally, there’s no doubt I’ve experienced stress, anxiety, and general unhappiness with my work at times. Who hasn’t? The fact that it’s a common experience doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it; indeed, one might say it’s more of an argument for addressing the issue seriously. And I don’t just mean for academics.

As the book’s title suggests, the general condition under question here is “the culture of speed.” This notion is of interest to me, more from a technological than corporate-bureaucratic perspective (though the two are related). As I’ve often written here (as is perhaps the underlying kairos of my work), we do not yet know how to live in our digital culture. The struggles of academics are just once slice of that general problem. Our connections to media have altered our capacities such that we no longer know what it is that we should do. Institutionally we have new capacities to measure, analyze, communicate, organize, and so on, but I don’t think we know what we should be doing there either. And the related post-industrial shift in the economics of college only exacerbates the problem: we have (or at least feel we have) very little room for error. 

That’s not stressful at all, heh. We don’t know what we should be doing, but we had better start doing it fast, and we had better not mess it up.

So here’s my abstract-theoretical disciplinary response to this. We need to develop new rhetorical-cognitive-agential tactics for our relations with media ecologies. That begins with recognizing that rhetorical practice, thought, and agency are not inherent, let alone ontologically exceptional, qualities of humans but rather emergent, relational capacities. Once we recognize that, we can begin to develop those capacities. I’m certainly not going to tell you what you should be doing. If you’re looking for that, I’m sure you can find it elsewhere. I’ll just say that what you should do is logically a subset of what you might do, and what you might do is a product of your capacities, which are themselves fluid.

If I had to guess at this problem, I would imagine that the stress and anxiety arise from a  combination of the way academics tend to strongly identify with their work (moreso than people in other professions) and the growing disconnection between what academics imagine their work (and hence their identity) would/should be and what it is actually becoming. That is, if one didn’t identify so strongly with a particular imagine of one’s profession, then changes to that profession probably wouldn’t make one feel quite so miserable. My personal confession on this matter is that over the years I have come to view my work as a less central part of my identity. And I think I’m better off for that and, honestly, no less productive.

I’m not suggesting that academics shouldn’t be involved in shaping the future of the university. To the contrary, I think it is a key part of what we should be doing collectively, though that responsibility is likely one of the key examples of the kind of work most academics don’t really imagine as part of their identification with the profession.

I guess I don’t know how to conclude this post except to say that we need to invent in a collective fashion a better way for university to work and for academics to work within them and that whatever this is is likely not a replication of the past.

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