“The slow professor — Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy” by Berg & Seeber (2016)

I have been recommended the book “The slow professor” from many different directions. It brings the “slow movement” (of slow food, slow travel, etc) into academia. And since I am a big fan of slow travel (as evidenced by for example my series of blog posts on the two day trips each way it takes me to get to my second job in Bergen…), I gave it a shot. Summary of what was most relevant to me below:

I really enjoyed reading “the slow professor”; even though none of the ideas were really new-to-me, it is a nice compilation with lots of food for thought.

It starts out with a shockingly accurate description of the common time-management advice that we get: delegate as much as possible down (without considering if the other people actually have the capacity or mandate to do it), and to work ourselves to death by optimizing the number of tasks we can do in parallel while getting up in the middle of the night to do them before anyone else is awake (the last one I am definitely guilty of). Yes, many time-management strategies cause more stress than anything! And maybe the problem is not how we manage our time, but that we are just expected to do more things than are humanly possible in the allocated time (or at least feel that we are expected…). So instead of driving ourselves into burnout (been there, done that, do not recommend), what can we do?

I love the quote (from another book) that “time management is not about jamming as much as possible into your schedule, but eliminating as much as possible from your schedule” (“…so that you have time to get the important stuff done to a high degree of quality and with as little stress as possible”). If I ever design my own stationary collection, the first part will surely go on the cover of the calendar!

Next, there are descriptions of how it is important to not consider intellectual work independent of what is going on with our bodies and emotions. We can only think well if also the other areas are taken care of, both in the long term as well as in concrete situations. So make time for breathing, literally and figuratively! And consciously go offline to not be distracted from notification that make other people’s emergencies your problems (that was the inspiration for the cover picture — dark screens while I am reading the book (actually, while I was making coffee to bring back to my desk — typically my screens would be on while I am reading, and I would see and react to notifications…)).

The book then looks into three facets of being a professor: Being a teacher, being a researcher, and being a community member.

Suggestions that might lead to more enjoyable, “slow” teaching:

  • Entering class by accepting nerves as part of the game (and mitigating their effects, for example by sucking on small candy to counteract a dry mouth), pausing to give space to breathe and think, and breathing.
  • Sustaining class by making space for laughing (about ourselves! Also: smile (even though I HATE to be told that, and nobody should ever tell someone else to SMILE!)!) and be approachable and authentic, listening (not just to answers to questions about content, also to general concerns and emotions). Connections with students make everything more fun!
  • Preparing for class by pacing ourselves (this, of course, only applies if we tend to start preparing early — but then the idea is to purposefully, actively wait a bit longer and give us the time to play with ideas and alternatives in our heads, and revisit them at a later date, before putting things on paper. Love this advice!), narrate (think about the whole course as a story. How would we tell that to increase our own and the listeners’ enjoyment? Also how do we react to the students’ reactions towards the story by modifying it?), and intercepting (having policies and/or reacting to unwanted behavior that we find distracting or upsetting)
  • Marking — by making assignments enjoyable to students by for example letting them follow their own interests, students will produce better artifacts (and cheat less), and artifacts will be more enjoyable for us to check.

Next, there is a chapter on slow scholarship. What I found really interesting to notice reading this book (and actually I had noticed that before reading other things, too, but then thought of myself as efficient, which I am questioning now) is that I found it suuuuuper difficult to slow down and actually read this book, rather than scanning it for the take-home points I wanted to find and document for future reference. Which very nicely makes their point that we don’t really take time any more to come across “unintentional knowledge” the same way we might have when we were “wandering down the library aisles”. They say that citations changed as articles became available online — people would cite fewer articles and more narrowly, as keyword searches narrow down the range of articles we come across and read. And of course there are biases in searches depending on search engines etc… So they give the advice to “just read it!”, which I like.

The last chapter is about collegiality, and how a lot of the advice on how to interact with colleagues is very transactional, not about actually building authentic connections. The alternative they suggest sounds a lot like Genombrottet‘s credo of “more and better conversations”, and, obviously, talking time for those.

While I read this book, I went through different phases. One of them being about “well, it’s nice to slow down teaching for your own increased enjoyment, but that is a very self-centered way of looking at teaching — shouldn’t we be more student centered?” (Yes — being student centered is good and should be a goal, but maybe taking care of ourselves is a good step in that direction? The intended audience for this specific book is obviously concerned with their own journey, and all the suggestions probably lead to better teaching, even though that isn’t the main intention), another one being “this is a looong book for very few actionable steps” (Woah, when did I unlearn reading for “unintentional knowledge”?!), and now I ended up at “it was good to read it, and there are certainly people / stages, when I would recommend reading it!”. And at thinking about time for thinking vs time for producing (just wrote about this on Friday in the context of how much time we want to spend on the beneficial side-effects of co-creating learning vs very targeted learning of content!), and really valuing — and hence protecting — my time for thinking. Will keep you posted on how that goes ;-)

Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. University of Toronto Press.

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