The Slow Professor: A Review

In The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber clearly state that slowing down is not to be conflated with unchecked leisure. Rather, “Slow professors act with purpose,” they write, “taking the time for deliberation, reflection, and dialogue, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (11). In the past few weeks, Berg and Seeber have received a lot of press that missed this point. Browsing through the comments on sites like Inside Higher EdNPR and any variety of blogs, many exasperated faculty claim slowing down to be impossible, or they charge the authors with failing to check their tenured privilege.

The slender, 90-page manifesto applies principles of other “slow movements” to academic life, urging readers to resist corporate models in universities that continually speed up and stretch our work. The authors move mindfully through three chapters on the pitfalls of time management advice, the joys of teaching while relaxed, and the need for authentic collegiality. So much of academia is driven by fear: the fear of never measuring up, of never being enough. Unlike the endless line of books on academic life, however, Berg and Seeber intentionally reject the rhetoric of “crisis.” Such language only aggravates existing tensions and do little to alleviate the situation. Berg and Seeber’s overall message is to be kind to yourself, be kind to your students, and be kind to your colleagues. In doing so, we can cultivate a humane campus climate where we develop the very best of everyone’s gifts and talents.

I tend to avoid books directed at faculty because the rhetoric of crisis evokes a painful, visceral reaction (eg. it makes my stomach hurt). I thank my public school teacher parents for my skepticism on that point. Berg and Seeber’s book appeared on my reading list after Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play when No One Has the Time, Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of the Buddah, Karen Armstrong’s Tewlve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and Bene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. Within that context, it struck a chord by combining my interests compassionate, mindful living with my actual job.

The Slow Professor is a timely read for me. Sidelined by health issues in 2015, I decided that one of the goals for my sabbatical was to rethink my relationship with my job. Before heading into surgery in April 2015, I assured my department chair that I could finish teaching my courses for the semester. He encouraged me to take the time I needed to heal and kindly remarked, “Are you sure? Don’t you think your students have learned what they need to know by now?” I followed through with my courses, but my chair’s kindness shaped my own internal dialogue, providing space for me to view my illness not as a professional liability, but as a moment to pause and connect with my students in different ways.

Over the last year, I’ve intensified my yoga practice, looked after my health, and studied mindful meditation. In November, a friend and fellow academic launched a life coaching business – so I signed up for that too. While I love working as a historian, the long hours, late nights, and biting suspicions of never being “enough,” had taken a toll. Before one of our first meetings, I wrote to the life-coach:

“I seek strategies to rethink how I view my career. I feel stuck in this idea that I’m defined by my productivity, which can make it hard to enjoy the work. I’d rather be defined by relationships with to my colleagues and the community.”

At that moment, I was worn down by assessing my selfworth with lines on my CV. No matter what I accomplished, it was never enough. And I say that knowing I am not alone. This feeling is more common than not for folks in this line of work.

What I wanted was more human connection. Working on the IC archives, as well as a number of collaborative writing and editing projects, taught me that I found the most rewards from collaborative endeavors. In their conclusion, Berg and Seeber noted that working together allowed them to see one another as a “whole person, not as a ‘position’ on an academic question or as an instrumentalized networking ‘contact.'”

And their reflection on collaboration is worth quoting in its entirely:

“[Collaboration] meant we were more patient with each other and more compassionate when life events or work pressures intervened in a deadline. Recognizing that the understanding and care that we extended to each other brought out the best in us has made us more compassionate toward our students. We not only motivated each other to keep going but also gave each other permission to see work-life balance as a legitimate goal, a balance particularly tenuous for academics whose commitment and love for their subject matter can make drawing the like between work and life more difficult. And it meant that we genuinely listened to each other… The underlying trust and respect made it possible to have an open exchange of ideas: we listened to each other in an attempt to understand rather than find the weaknesses as we had been trained to do” (88).

Hit the nail on the head.

Many people have criticized Berg and Seeber for failing to provide concrete solutions to the problems they identify, and as I cracked the spine on The Slow Professor, I too was skeptical. As I read, though, I found myself constantly backing up, re-reading sections, stopping to think. In otherwords, slowing down. Sure, it is only 90 pages long, but I quickly realized this was no quick read. The Slow Professor includes some bulleted lists, but their proposal for change is much more challenging than most readers realize.

In the comments to the article on Inside Higher Education, PhilisopherP wrote, “I cannot both slow down AND grade 200 or so final papers every semester. It’s impossible.” This seemed to be a fairly typical reaction. And I get that. But my work with the life-coach taught me to rethink my investments in certain practices and to be more mindful of how I choose to react. Rather than unchecked privlege and impractical advice, a careful reading of Berg and Seeber suggests that by taking the time to listen, to appreciate the strengths our colleagues and students bring to the table, and cultivating more mindful intentions, we can actually come to grips with the cruelties and ineuqalities within the academic profession.

So I suggest you read it.

A mindful pause works wonders.

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