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.

How to Use Extra Time Productively: Pacing Multiple Sections of the Same Course

At the start of this semester I found myself struggling with filling class time. This is not a new issue, and I have generally found ways to deal with it in the past. However, my course distribution for this semester presented new challenges. Currently, I am teaching an honors class and two sections of introductory writing that are part of a learning community. Each of these courses is writing focused, but they include very different texts and goals. Across the spectrum of these courses I am trying to keep an even pace of introducing materials related to writing in each class, especially in the learning community.

However, managing the day-to-day progression of these courses is proving tricky for several reasons. The learning community consists of larger group of students split into two classes, while in their other complementary classes they meet as one large group. I’m also teaching a library and information skills class that complements the learning community curriculum. Because of the library class, I have an extra hour each week with the learning community students to introduce them to academic research concepts. In terms of the schedule the learning community has outpaced the honors class due to the extra hour that I can devote to research methods instruction, and I’m okay with that.

However, the learning community is the tricky class when it comes to pacing the day-to-day class meetings. I’ve taught more than one section of the same class in the past. I’ve done that a lot. I have learned that in the end the pace evens out. However, this class isn’t like other classes. Both sets of students know what is happening in the class. There is also an imperative to keep the classes on the same track because the information and research skills class builds on work from the writing class. For more on addressing related difficulties see Christine Kozikowski’s post from the spring.

Early on this semester I found that my solution to the pacing problem was to let the second class out early. I didn’t not want early dismissal to become a standard way to solve my problem of staying on pace. I knew pacing was going to continue as a problem because second and third classes often go quickly. I needed a better approach to filling up class time that didn’t result in the second class outpacing the first class. You’ve likely heard the advice on breaking a class up into 10 to 15 minutes blocks. I knew spending additional time on material and extra examples wasn’t going to be the best solution either.

I’ve long had a stable of activities that I could draw on to best utilize time in-class. These were often activities that I could build into a class plan or add on the fly. Many of these activities revolved around the standards like in-class writing, small group discussions, and think-pair-share. However, I was now faced with needing to draw on activities frequently, often on the fly, and needing added variety. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been searching out activities and things to do in class that would fill up some of that time in meaningful ways. I want to share some of these solutions today.

The Pocket-Instructor

Last year, Shelli Homer did a review of The Pocket Instructor for PALS. Once I realized I was having an issue with pacing I ILL’ed this book immediately. The Pocket Instructor has been great for providing ideas on filling time. Several of the featured ideas focus on short activities that take little or no planning. The low-prep activities can be used at a moment’s notice. I’ve also found that the spirit of some of the longer activities can be adapted on the fly to fill smaller amounts of time while also not being as intensive.

I encourage all of you to take a look at The Pocket Instructor. ILL it. Tell your library to buy it! I had to ILL it because most of the libraries in my school’s library consortium did not have it on the shelf. They were checked out. Like faculty checked out with due dates seemingly further out than expiration dates on canned goods. Get your hands on it. Read it. Page through it. It doesn’t take much time to read through an entry or two. Or ten.

(Note: If you’re searching for similar activities that promote active learning, then you might want to consider John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. It might be helpful to (re)visit Bean’s book for useful in-class writing activities.)

The First and Last Five Minutes of Class

Jim Lang wrote a helpful series of articles that were featured on Chronicle Vitae on the topic of making small meaningful changes to our time in the classroom. One set of articles specifically addressed the first and last five minutes of class. Lang offers helpful solutions because they not only fill some time in class, but they do so in a way that connects class material with what came before and what is to come. One beginning of class activity he recommends is using a “wonder image.” The wonder image is projected on a screen during the minutes before class starts. Class then opens with a brief discussion of the wonder image. I’ve used Lang’s wonder image activity in several of my classes and found it helpful. In a perfect world I’d use it more this semester, but it relies on having enough time to set up before classes. Unfortunately, I am dashing between classes. However, I’ve used the wonder image this past semester and it works well.

Outside of the first few minutes of class, I’ve found that the spirit of the wonder image can be adapted and used in any moment of class. This is an effective option for filling time in class, especially if skills for analyzing images have been introduced previously in the semester. Exploring images can also be further slowed down by embracing the practice of slow-looking or close-looking, a movement that has been championed in art museums. Slow-looking captures what Jennifer L. Roberts describes this as “the slow end of this tempo” focusing “on creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.” Slow-looking as an in-class activity is as easy as projecting an image on the screen. An analog version of this can be done if teaching from the standard American literature anthologies that feature images.

Working with Title Pages

Analyzing title pages is also an effective way to fill moments of class time if needed. (Note: This works best with older texts that have been digitized.) Currently I am teaching with an anthology of early American nature writing. As part of my weekly class prep I’ve gotten into the habit of checking each of the weekly readings to see if there is an easily accessible title page online. Working with title pages is most effective if you’ve already introduced methods for analyzing such things. I find that title pages do double work in the classes that I am teaching because they hit on the literary elements of the class and provide a way of thinking about rhetorical analysis and the construction of authority.

Title pages are also useful because they can stand in for some of the big ideas of an entire work. Considering title pages helps students realize that we can focus our analysis on a small amount of text and say a great deal about it. Working with title pages provides a way of emphasizing and refining other key skills. By working with a title page students see the focus needed for an analysis, and it provides a great way to help with close reading skills. Analyzing title pages is also a helpful way to emphasize to students how we select and use evidence. Working with title pages illustrates that we don’t need to quote entire sentences or phrases and shows students that they can focus on individual words. Working with title pages also provides a way for students to practice linking two texts together by making connections between the title page and the excerpted text we read.

Google Books is a great place to find title pages. However, I’ve been taking my clicks to better maintained and more user friendly sites like HathiTrust, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the Internet Archive.

Found Poetry

As I mentioned before, when I need to fill time I’ve avoided additional close readings of passages, but I’ve started to experiment with using Found Poetry. The Found Poetry activity from the Library of Congress allows for a low-stakes, indirect way of building skills needed for close reading and other forms of analysis. In this activity students examine a primary source (or selection of a literary text), select key words and/or phrases, placing these selections in a “found poem” that summarizes or recontextualizes the original document. It might take a while for students to warm to the activity. When many students have consumed texts for the purposes of pulling out information for tests and demonstration of reading comprehension, it might be difficult to break up a primary source or literary text and turn it into a poem. While many of the ideas I’ve offered rely on having technology in the classroom, the Found Poetry option is something that can be done with material from the books you might be using in class.

 What about the first class?

The activities I’ve discussed have been successful in helping me fill time in my second class, but I’ve found that the afternoon class often draws out new ideas and issues that were not addressed in the morning class. What about the morning class? Well, here is an example of flipping the script. For many of us doing a class or an activity again means that the second time is smoother and quicker. In the morning class I’ve found myself revisiting one of these activities, or an aspect of that activity that I want to key in on for the class. By adding material addressed in the second class to my morning class I have found that it greatly helped with my pacing issues across the board. It also provides a way of introducing questions or concerns that arose in the second class. I like to think that these examples of sharing act as a bonding experience uniting both classes as they hear about the goings on in each class.

I know that my case is somewhat out of the ordinary, but hopefully these ideas can help with any pacing difficulties you might have.  What other ideas do you have to fill those awkward moments of time in class? How do you keep two or more sections of the same class on pace with each other? Leave a comment below or send us a tweet!