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.

Bad Pedagogy

This is a post about making bad pedagogy decisions out of necessity, specifically the drive towards bad pedagogy in order to move forward on the career path. We could file this post under course planning. The concerns that I’ll be addressing in this post will likely resonate with folks like me that have yet to find secure and long-term employment. I am writing this post to give voice to several feelings and concerns that I have about the path that I am on when it comes to planning my courses and the larger trajectory of my career. This post touches on many issues that we often grapple with when thinking about everything we must do. And I think what I have to say is important. The end of the semester comes with many things: finals, student concerns, and a seemingly endless stream of positive teaching posts. Sharing doubts and concerns about teaching should be just as front-and-center as sharing triumphs and good advice.

I found myself in the waning weeks of the spring semester wanting to commit myself to doing a substantial post-mortem of my writing about literature course, which just wrapped up a few days ago. I wanted to keep a write up of a series of ideas and observations that I could draw on when I do the class again (hopefully) in the spring of 2017. I thought the practice of a post-mortem, for lack of a better term, would also be a good idea for a PALS post, too. I thought it would be a good idea to share some of these observations, especially as contingent faculty, and I know that a great deal of readership of PALS represents this demographic.

Good Pedagogy

However, instead of good pedagogy, like thinking about the end of my most recent class, I find myself thinking a lot about bad pedagogy. One reason that I’ve been thinking about bad pedagogy is seeing the tweets under the hashtag #4wordpedagogy. The hashtag was championed by Jesse Stommel. I have a lot of respect for the work of Stommel. His ideas about pedagogy, especially digital pedagogy, resonate with me. However, under the demands of a 4/4 or a 3/3 load, utter exhaustion, the stress of the job market, and a myriad of other reasons—I find myself drifting away from Stommel’s pedagogical ideas. Not because I think they aren’t worthwhile, but because I worry they aren’t sustainable for folks in my position.

Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid

got-to-get-paid

Last weekend I joked with someone that my #4wordpedagogy is this: Shakespeare gotta get paid. The phrase is a riff off of a popular cartoon from Married to the Sea. My comment was tongue in cheek, but the more that I think about it—I don’t think it is. It is a reality reflecting the choices that I make need to be about positioning myself going forward. Doing less in the classroom would be best approach. Less is more means more intensive work in class, which is good for the students. Less is more means more time outside of class. I am a champion of less is more in the classroom. Less is more is a pedagogical idea that many people have shared with me. It still ranks as one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. Less is more informed how I developed my previous class. In thinking about my previous class, if I do it again, I’d do even less.

However, if I want to position myself for the future, I need to do more of what I am trained to do. I feel that the pressures of the job market means that I need to commit myself to bad pedagogy by doing even more of what I am trained to do. I feel pressure to widen the range of what I have taught and that I should be adding even more texts to my class, not cutting texts.

Bad Pedagogy

When I say bad pedagogy, what do I mean? Bad pedagogy means making the pedagogical decisions that one must make for their own academic survival. Bad pedagogy is more than just establishing the balance between teaching, research, and life at home. Bad pedagogy means turning one’s composition class into something more like a literature class. Bad pedagogy means teaching huge 18C & 19C novels in what is foremost a second semester first-year writing class. Bad pedagogy is doing things to position one for success on the job market—and I don’t mean guessing at what will be hot and popular in the coming months. Bad pedagogy is the realization that innovation in the composition class isn’t prioritized, even if the job advertisement says you’ll teach first-year writing. Bad pedagogy, for me, means morphing my composition classes into literature classes in my field, even at the expense of creating a positive experience for my students.

The course that I just wrapped up was the second in a sequence of writing courses. It involves writing about literature, but it isn’t a writing about literature class, like one usually taken by majors, but many of the same ideas and approaches apply. Doing the class right, or in a way beneficial to students, means providing them with writing tools and strategies to take into other classes. However, I have to use this opportunity to teach my own field, but that comes with problems. My class becomes a crash course in my field. I was triaging literary criticism skills so students can navigate databases that they’ll never use again. My class becomes a way to teach what I am trained in as a scholar. I teach books that I can’t teach in the first semester writing course. I made sound choices in my class. I picked short texts that I’ve taught before. I didn’t assign large novels. Short novels: most less than 90 pages. If I had to do the class again, right now, then I’d do even less. Less is more. I aimed for that idea when I designed the class, but still, I’d do even less. That is good pedagogy. However, I feel under intense pressure to not make those sound pedagogical choices about what I teach and how I teach it.

I have to do things to position myself for the future. I don’t think I’ve seen an English major in a classroom setting since I was an undergraduate myself. I started this career path with my MA in 2006, but I’ve never taught a class in my subfield. I need to teach books in my field. I need to teach things in my field, so I can write about them in job letters and teaching statements. I feel pressured to assign readings for class that meet my teaching and research goals. I have tried to balance my needs with the student needs and with the course goals. I tried to make sound pedagogical choices. But I also have to start thinking about making bad pedagogical choices.

A Changing and Specialized Job Market

I noticed one trend in the job market over the past year that worries me. The number of jobs featuring phrasing like “PhD in rhet/comp, English, or a related field” seemed to become a rarity. The advertisements seem increasingly specialized and require training and specific credentialing beyond the traditional PhD. This development is certainly concerning and it makes me feel that I must take all the opportunities to teach my own field as the pool of jobs I can do narrows. It doesn’t matter if reacting to the market in this way makes for bad pedagogy. I’ve seen enough of the job market to be concerned. I’ve seen enough bad pedagogical practices get rewarded with full-time positions. I’ve seen people practice good pedagogy and get left behind. I think I’m ready for some bad pedagogy.

I know that this problem of fashioning one’s self for the job market isn’t new. It comes from the same family tree of advising graduate students to spend more time on their research and not on their teaching. Never mind for those at teaching intensive graduate programs that were told teaching would be a great boon to their CV. Maybe I am finally finding myself resigned to embracing this circumstance and embracing the spirit of bad pedagogy that leads (hopefully) to a position teaching literature in my field.

The sound thing is turning all of my teaching opportunities into chances to teach my field and my research. I’ve seen people rewarded for that. The process isn’t sound pedagogy. But it gets the results. The job market changes the way that I think about my classes. Not necessarily my own limited experiences, but I see the experiences of friends and colleagues and I continue to worry. I balance my needs: personal, teaching, my future. I balance sound pedagogy. I balance it all with the goals of the course that are handed down. I try to do all these things.

I’ve yet to do that post-mortem for my spring class. Perhaps it would be better to call it a self-reflection on my teaching? I’ve been doing other things, like recharging from the close of the semester. I’m fatigued. I feel like I should be doing something. Producing something—spending time reading, time writing, or course planning. It is hard during periods of doing nothing to remember recently going through periods of teaching, intense grading, and the number crunching as I pulled together course grades. I’ve been recharging myself instead of jumping immediately into a mounting to-do list. It is exhausting to feel guilty about doing nothing.

But I need to also think about the bad pedagogical decisions that I need to make.

I teach classes for students that will likely never see a true English class. However, the job market creeps in to the equation. It means I need to do certain things. I must do bad pedagogy.

However, I owe students more than that.

But, that would be good pedagogy.

Contributor Bio

Greg Specter is regular contributor to PALS and a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. His research interests are centered on the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the role of the circulation of texts depicted in her writings. In the classroom, Greg is interested in empowering students to acknowledge their inherent ability to be makers of knowledge and meaning. To this end, Greg seeks pedagogical tools for teaching American literature that draw from digital pedagogy, the digital humanities, and museum studies to aid students in the collaborative creation of knowledge. Find him on Twitter @gregspecter.