In our favorite film comedy of all time, Back to School (1986), a classroom scene highlights the difference between an ivory-tower econ instructor and Rodney Dangerfield’s street-wise and realistic non-traditional student. After describing a theoretical construct, Professor Barbay asks his class where do we build this factory, and Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon wryly responds, “How about fantasyland?”
Dangerfield’s commentary pretty much sums up our reaction to reading Berg and Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016). We agree for the most part with Berg and Seeber’s description of the major problem with today’s university as the “corporatization” of the academy that demands faculty must do more with less, but we disagree with their solution—“the premise of this book is that an approach influenced by the Slow movement” (p. 56) is necessary to combat the stress caused by “the corporate university.”
Observing Higher Ed Professorial Productivity
This self-admittedly “idealistic” call to action, furthermore, is buttressed more on anecdotal evidence, examples from fiction, and pronouncements from academic self-help experts than studies or data. Berg and Seeber ardently believe that to increase student learning and produce greater quantities of quality scholarship, professors need more time to think. We are reminded of a departmental discussion years ago on merit points where one faculty member demanded his points merely for thinking deeply for twenty minutes per day (it would be cruel to point out that professor’s lack of scholarship over the years).
In fantasyland, Professor Barbay and our former colleague would have a point, but as the accountabiity movement grows and state legislatures scrutinize faculty productivity in terms of retention, graduation rates, and measures of student learning, giving more “slow” time would necessarily demand smaller teaching loads, which in term would mean administrators and legislators are getting less faculty teaching time to generate the same amount of student credit hours. Less bang for the buck—how many legislators line up behind that one?
So, as Thornton Melon observes, who pays for ideal-world theory in the real world?
Yes, while reassigned time (never say “released” time) is nice for research and creativity, it is not necessary. Consider the current sorry state of professorial productivity. According to Boice, twenty years ago about one in seven professors was a practicing productive scholar. At our university, promotion and tenure rubrics from assistant to associate professor can be satisfied with a single peer-reviewed article or single book, and advancement to the next rank demands merely an additional article/book.
Setting A Higher Scholarly Production Bar
The scholarly production bar is already so low that to lower it more would be a disgrace. Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift (2011) makes it clear that professors aren’t teaching their students much either.
A study of over 2300 students at 24 institutions revealed 45% of the students demonstrated no significant improvement in skills such as writing, complex thinking, and critical thinking in their first two years; 36% showed no significant gain in four years.
While these students lack the rigor necessary and have more social than academic engagement, the real culprit is the higher education professor who assigns less than 40 pages of reading per week, requires under 20 pages of writing, and places these snowflakes in study groups rather than promoting studying on one’s own. Impersonal online courses don’t help a lot either.
Standards for Other Higher Ed Activities
Permit us to utilize a sports analogy. When high school athletes move up to the college level or college athletes to the pro level, they often complain the game is moving too fast for them. If they whine or give up, they are gone. If they learn, gain some experience, and develop expertise, they are able to adjust to the faster pace. Perhaps if the one-half of one percent who earn Ph.D.s learned from the likewise small percentage of professional players, they would have a higher success rate.
Check out the mirror of academia’s soul, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Once dominated by articles on student learning, scholarship, and research, recent Chronicle articles trend toward politics, administration, and leadership. Politics dominates the CHE home page, rather than teaching and learning, faculty affairs, or leading research in higher education. Visitors have to dig deeply for an academic book review or recent update on higher education research. Scholarship and research seem to be buried among the other priorities of higher education.
When Charlie and I taught full-time, they still managed to publish an average of twenty items per year over the last thirty years of their four-four-load teaching careers. Last year as half-timers, they published six books, not to mention columns, articles, and blog posts. Rusty, who also serves as Director for the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity and editor of the Journal of Faculty Development, is nipping on their productive heels. Our point is not to crow but to count; if they are extremely disciplined and hard-working, professors can still produce as teachers and scholars without additional “slow” time.
Nothing ages the academy like a fine whine, and nothing so alienates it from real-world number-crunchers like asking for more so they (professors) can do less. Would “slow” time produce better quality teaching and scholarship?
Let’s fight fire with fire to respond to these English professors. At the end of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Lady Brett Ashley claims, “Oh, Jake, we could have such a damned good time together,” and Jake Barnes replies, “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (p. 251).
Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses.
Chicago: University of Chicago.
Berg, M. & Seeber, B. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the
academy. Toronto: University of Toronto.
Hemingway, E. (1926). The sun also rises. New York: Scribner.
Ph.D Hal Blythe writes literary criticism to mystery stories. In addition to the eleven books he’s published with New Forums, Hal has collaborated on four books on a variety of subjects, over 1000 pieces of fiction/nonfiction, and a host of television scripts and interactive mysteries performed by their repertory company. He is currently co-director of the Teaching and Learning Center for Eastern Kentucky University. Meet Hal Blythe.