Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest book review from Caitlin Kelly. In this post, Kelly shares a review of The Slow Professor and addresses what the book offers regarding teaching for both full-time and precarious faculty. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University.

Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

slow prof book cover

The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber is a book I have been trying to get my hands on for months—when I first requested a copy at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester, it was checked out from every holding library in the OhioLink consortium. As I eagerly awaited my turn to read the book, I wondered whether or not it would live up to the hype. As the title suggests, the authors draw their inspiration from the Slow Movement, a resistance to globalization and corporatization, which “challenges the frantic pace and standardization of contemporary culture” (x). Through this approach, Berg and Seeber aim to “disrupt the corporate ethos of speed” (11) by prioritizing reflection, dialogue, and community.

Published by the University of Toronto Press in March 2016, The Slow Professor is a slim volume of roughly100 pages—a deliberate decision rooted in the strong ethical impulse that permeates their book. In the university, corporatization is evidenced by the rise of contingent and adjunct faculty positions and the erosion of tenure, something that Berg and Seeber acknowledge. As they write in the Preface,

Our guiding principles were for The Slow Professor to be useful, accessible to a variety of disciplines, and affirming. While we acknowledge the systemic inequities in the university, a slow approach is potentially relevant across the spectrum of academic positions. Those of us in tenured positions, given the protection that we enjoy, have an obligation to try to improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us. We are concerned that the bar is being continually raised for each generation of faculty, so the book is also addressed to graduate students. (ix)

While Berg and Seeber do write from a position of privilege, their advice is useful for tenure track and non-tenure track faculty alike. In contrast to the “how-to guides” that aim to help their readers find success in the traditional sense of attaining and maintaining a tenure track appointment, The Slow Professor offers readers guidance in “cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (x). Where the typical faculty development book gives us the equivalent of a “couch to 5k” plan, Berg and Seeber offer us something more akin to yoga: reflective, empowering, and focused on where we are now rather than where we think we need to be in the future. The Slow Professor entreats us to be more reflective about our work, and this is where the book distinguishes itself from the many faculty advice books already available.

One of the books that The Slow Professor might remind some readers of is Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members (2000), which also urges faculty to slow down, take time, and be more mindful. Even so, the tacit message in Boice’s book is that the endgame is success on the tenure track. Advice for New Faculty Members is divided into three sections— teaching, writing, and service—matching the three requirements of tenure-track positions. Comparing the approach to teaching between the two books is also telling. Where Berg and Seeber offer advice aimed at bringing pleasure back to teaching, Boice’s advice privileges time management and efficiency. One of the most valuable contributions that Berg and Seeber make is the way that they breathe new life into advice like Boice’s. For example, in their chapter on teaching they recommend his approach to preparing for class but where Boice cites self-discipline and practice as challenges to enacting his advice, Berg and Seeber speculate that the explanation may have more to do with a culture that makes us feel guilty about taking steps that allow us to enjoy teaching (46). This is not to say that a “survival guide” is not useful but The Slow Professor offers a refreshing alternative; despite the fact it is written by tenure track faculty, their advice is not solely in service of the tenure track model.

Over the course of the four chapters, introduction, and conclusion, Berg and Seeber apply the principles of the slow movement to time management, teaching, research, and collegiality. Each chapter situates an element of faculty life within the philosophy of the slow movement and offers small-scale strategies that individual faculty members can use in resisting the increasingly corporatized, administrative university environment. For example, the chapter “Pedagogy and Pleasure” breaks down a typical class meeting chronologically, offering advice at each stage of a class for making teaching more enjoyable. The authors first suggest that we make a conscious transition to class instead of rushing. During class, they urge us to not be afraid to laugh and have fun as well as to listen and create a dialogue even in the moments before class starts formally. In preparing for class, they urge us to think of the course as narrative, as a story we tell. In general, the advice offered in The Slow Professor is not groundbreaking; its value lies not in its originality but rather in the way that it is contextualized as resistance to the corporatization of the university. While contemplative in many regards, The Slow Professor is still well researched and well grounded in the literature on both faculty development and the future of higher education. The book is, the authors admit, “idealistic in nature” (ix) but that is, I think, exactly what makes it so refreshing and well worth the couple of hours it takes to read.

According to the University of Toronto Press website, a paperback edition will be released in May 2017.

Caitlin L. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. At Case Western, she teaches courses in the SAGES program and serves as a tutor in the Writing Resource Center. Caitlin’s research interests include Transatlantic religious and print cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century, women’s experience, the novel, and digital and multimodal pedagogy. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly.

Teaching English Graduate Students to Write

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Type Away” by Laura D’Alessandro

When thinking about teaching and writing for PALS about teaching, I also spend a fair amount of time reflecting on how I was taught over the course of my educational career. One aspect of my education that I have thought a lot about is how I was taught to write. And within that larger topic, I have been considering the pedagogical aims of writing assignments given in graduate school. Thinking over the various writing I did during my MA and PhD, I have struggled to fully understand the goals of one particular assignment: the seminar paper. Specifically, I am wondering why it has become the default assignment in graduate education (at least in literary studies).

Almost every course I took in graduate school required a seminar paper at the end of the semester. I never got very much guidance about what actually went into a seminar paper or how I should approach it. I always thought of them as just much longer and hopefully smarter versions of what I had been doing since undergrad—making an argument and supporting it with claims from the text and criticism from scholars. When writing seminar papers, I did learn a lot about the topics the papers were on, but, upon further reflection, I didn’t learn a lot about writing. I would read the comments my professors wrote when I got the papers back and try to absorb them for future papers, but I wasn’t learning much about the genres that professors actually write in.

When told about the reasons for writing semester papers, we were usually instructed to think of them as preparation for writing articles. While working on my first article, I realized that this formulation of the seminar paper as a kind of pre-article was a false construct. Seminar papers were insular in ways that articles are not, and the construction of a seminar paper as “they say, I say” was really nothing like the structure of an article. Maybe if I hadn’t written so many seminar papers, I would not have been frustrated by this. But I felt unprepared to write an article, and at the risk of being melodramatic, I felt a little bit betrayed. Why didn’t anyone talk to us more about writing? Why had I been writing in this form for years when it wasn’t what scholars actually did? When I started to formulate those questions, I discussed them with my fellow graduate students and my graduate school professors. Both professors and students generally agreed with me that seminar papers were not always a productive form and that usually there was a long road to go to get a seminar paper into shape for an article. I didn’t really find any strong defenses of the seminar paper, but I also didn’t find very many people who were asking what alternative assignments could do better than seminar papers could.

I would like to spend the rest of this essay highlighting some of the writing assignments I did in graduate school that were useful and some other projects that I didn’t do but would have liked to have done. Instead of just complaining about the seminar paper, I let’s use the outline of these assignments to think about what constructive writing assignments look like. If you are reading the following list and teach graduate students, maybe reconsider some of the assignments you give your students. Or, if you teach graduate students and have already diverged from the seminar paper model, I would love to hear which of these options you use and if you have created other types of writing for graduate students. Finally, if you are reading this and you are in graduate school, maybe very politely suggest to your professors that you would be interested in alternative assignments.

These are writing assignments that I found to be useful in graduate school (shout out to the professors who used them in their classes):

    • Response Papers

      One of the best series of response papers I was required to write was in a class on Emily Dickinson where we were asked to write about one poem every week using the variorum. This was useful for how deeply it lead us to engage with a poem every week. It also asked us to not only think about the poem as it existed in printed form but to consider Dickinson’s fascicles, the variant words she used in her poems, and the different versions of these poems. While I haven’t worked on Dickinson’s poems in a while, this way of focusing on the materiality of texts and their various forms has informed my current work. In this case, even if the content is not something I am contending with in this moment the process and methodology was important for me to learn.

    • Book Reviews

      I have never been very adept at switching between genres (which probably has some bearing on this essay that I am writing now). The first book review I wrote was pretty bad, and the guidance my professor gave me on it helped me understand how the book review works as a genre. How do you structure it? What from the book do you emphasize?

    • Conference Papers

      I wrote at least one conference paper for a class in grad school that I went on to actually present at a conference. How useful is that? I also wrote other conference papers for classes that I didn’t present at conferences but that gave me good practice writing conference papers. It felt useful to practice that genre I would be using in my future, even if I didn’t directly use that paper.

    • Group Papers

      I only wrote one group paper in graduate school. It was with a partner (hi, Naomi!) in a Women’s and Gender Studies class. I’m not so sure that the paper was any good, and I remember specifically laying on the bench in the coffee shop while we were writing it because I was so exhausted from the end of the semester. However, the process of working with someone else on a paper laid the groundwork for a lot of the collaborative writing that we do at PALS. I learned how to blend my writing into someone else’s, and I learned to not be too precious with my writing.

    • Archival Projects

      My dissertation involved a lot of archival work, but it was my first sustained archival project. I wish I had done more before (I can remember two archival projects in grad school) because knowing how to do archival work would have been useful to my dissertation. Also, one of the projects—on the author Eleanor Early—is memorable to me because it turned into a publication, which was an obvious plus. I know a lot of scholars do archival work, and I would like to see more of the work scholars do in classroom assignments.

These are types of projects I didn’t do but would have liked to:

      • Pedagogy Projects

        I witnessed a few people do this as an alternative to a seminar paper. I think for the most part when someone did this they created syllabi and wrote about how they would teach the texts on the syllabi. This would be excellent preparation for a class in your field, but it would also be a useful exercise in a field where you might never teach. Practice thinking like a teacher is useful even if you are not going to directly teach those texts.

      • Digital Projects

        I thought about this when I read a tweet (below) from Colored Conventions about a class project to help digitize records. Two of the founders of Colored Conventions are graduate students and several other graduate students are rather involved in the project. Many graduate students work on and create their own digital projects, but if you are a professor and working on a digital project why not have your students, graduate or undergraduate, participate in it? (I know that many people do this already, but it is something I definitely wish I had had the opportunity to do.)

At the end of my time in graduate school, it seemed like more professors were starting to move away from the seminar paper. I would love to hear more about whether the trend of writing assignments has continued to shift in the last couple of years. I would also be interested in your thoughts on seminar papers. What did seminar papers teach you? What didn’t they? Why have they been the go-to assignment for graduate courses? What kinds of writing do you wish you had more practice with?