Stephen Lee Naish reviews a new book about speed and academia, discussing representations of the university on film in comparison with the contemporary reality of pressured competition and short-term contracts in neoliberal academia.
Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (University of Toronto Press) 128pp.
In Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (University of Toronto Press), the authors paint a dramatic and hectic picture of academic life that requires a delicate discourse. Not being inside the academy myself, my view of professorial existence and campus life comes mostly from films such as Wonder Boys (2000), The Rules of Attraction (2002), Tenure (2008), Liberal Arts (2012), Irrational Man (2015), and most recently Maggie’s Plan (2016). On the contrary to Berg and Seeber’s argument, these films show a life lived in the shadows of grandiose architecture, quiet strolls through leafy campuses, and intellectual conversations with peers and students in sparse coffee houses. There is little that is confounding, it seems, about the academic life.
Most of the drama and trauma that drives the plots of these films comes from what we might call the personal or the everyday. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix’s jaded professor commits a murder in order to find excitement in a life of endless boring lectures and pompous insufferable colleagues. In Maggie’s Plan, Julianne Moore and Ethan Hawke play husband and wife academics who find time for brain boggling research and writing (Hawke is a ficto-critical anthropologist), but no time for their own kids and family life. In The Rules of Attraction, the faculty is reduced to one partying professor, whilst the kids have the run of the campus. The idea that an academic life is one of punishing work and crippling personal anxiety is not a popular one. The common perception, or at least those illustrated in the films I’ve mentioned here, is that university lecturers are socially inept, depressed, dysfunctional, and unable to lead a steady life. Whatever their differences, in all accounts, time, with the sacrifice of normality, seems on their side .
It’s refreshing that The Slow Professor discredits this popular perception. It shows that whilst this view of academia has its origins in reality, the notion is antiquated, at best. Over the course of the last few decades, universities have become tied to a corporate model, and an administrative cartel whom have placed enormous pressures on teaching staff to comply to this neoliberal outlook. The days of achieving tenure in a short time and contemplation of ones research goals is now largely absent. Replaced instead by short-term teaching contracts and an exhaustive requirement for productivity and results that pay in to the continuous workings of the university monolith.
So, The Slow Professor works in two ways. Firstly, the book acts as a neat study and counter-attack to the corporatization of the university complex. It offers a damning, and widely researched, insight in to how universities have turned from spaces dedicated to learning, enquiry, research, and contemplation, into monstrosities of private enterprise and profit. The student body, it shows, has become a mass of consumers of fast knowledge. Secondly, the book offers prudent advice and guidance on how one can ‘slow’ the pedagogic experience to benefit all participants. Using personal accounts and experiences of teaching, as well as research from sources in the fields of psychology and behavior studies, the authors document the cause and effect of a hectic work schedule on day to day existence.
Applying the philosophy of Slow, a movement that first originated in the late 1980s as a retort to fast food and has since encompassed everything from parenting to technology, the authors outline a manifesto that on first inspection may not move beyond the confines of the university complex. Yet, in fact Berg and Seeber are in a unique position that allows for the Slow philosophy to spread to their students, their colleagues, the university administration. Just by enacting the simple proposed theory of teaching and learning in a precise and delicate fashion may lead to significant change in how a university functions in the future. The Slow movement is a radical reaction to the culture of speed, productivity, and fast results we crave in the globalized, hyper-connected world. Whether nostalgia is involved or not, the work presented in The Slow Professor is a fine and important addition to this movement; and an act of cultural defiance we could all benefit from.
Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals, including Gadfly, The Quietus, Empty Mirror and Scholardarity. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and the forthcoming Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.