This week I listened to the recording of a Slow Academia panel I participated in earlier this year. It was organised by Demelza Marlin for higher degree research students and early career academics, and I was on a panel alongside Andrew Dunstall, an academic from Philosophy “who surfs casual contracts from semester to semester and tries to write research articles in his spare time”, and sociologist Michelle Jamieson, who is currently HDR Learning Advisor in Arts.
Our talking points included the following challenging questions:
What does slow academia offer beyond a darn good critique of the corporate logic of the modern university? Does the vocabulary of slowness offer us a way to re-value forms of academic labour that are currently under-valued (spending time with students, cultivating scholarly communities, spending time in thought)? What is at stake for HDRs, ECRs and casual staff in going against the grain and opting to produce less? Is that what slowness is ultimately about? How do you incorporate it into your working routines?
Here is a link to the 90 minute recording and Demelza’s slides are available separately: An introduction to slow academia.
Listening to an audio recording isn’t my favourite way to experience something I’ve missed (in this recording questions from the audience are especially difficult to hear, and there are some quiet gaps), so here are some of the highlights.
From Demelza Marlin:
- Demelza described “time sickness” or “time poverty” in academia, a culture of speed, quantified academia, productivity and time management, anxiety, and fragmented time
- Because the audience was predominantly higher degree research students, Demelza spent some time talking about the push towards “fast PhDs”. At its extreme, there is an organisation that promises to “support” you to complete a PhD in 3 months!
- Demelza describes time management strategies in relation to Max Weber’s work: “idleness is a sin, leisure is important only in that it restores you for the working day”. “We are invited to think in utilitarian terms about our leisure as well as our work”
- She shared this gem of university marketing “Never stand still” and, tongue in cheek, encouraged us to try never standing still and see what that experience feels like
From Michelle Jamieson:
- As an academic learning advisor for research candidates in Arts, Michelle sees students under pressure to complete a PhD in three years: distracted, pulled in multiple directions, loss of wellbeing, less pleasure in research
- Tries to achieve time at work that does not feel pressured or measured by not focusing on productivity, but on enjoying what she is doing
- Michelle is running a workshop series on mindfulness for researchers, including regular meditations (I am keen to attend some of these sessions, so I hope they continue next year).
From Andrew Dunstall:
- No allegiance to any slow movement, “I am just slow”
- Asks: What has to change in institutions to ensure a future generation of researchers and to ensure high quality research and teaching?
- Maintain your body if you want to be an effective researcher: be active, eat well
- Identify your own expectations and beliefs that put pressure on (e.g. as a PhD candidate thinking “I want my articles to become classics that are read in 100 years” is too ambitious).
- Being a slow academic is a consequence of my experiences as a PhD candidate with a sick baby; that was my pressure cooker
- Slow academia should not be individual, it requires collective institutional and sectoral focus on the politics and cultures of higher education
- I recommended ImaginePhD, an online career planning tool for humanities and social sciences
From 50 minutes on, we had questions from the audience, which covered:
- daydreaming, reflexive freedom and timeless time
- the need for students to have time to make mistakes and experience failure
- writing and research practices and the motivation of stress and deadlines (I recommended Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space)
- academic activism, the importance of union membership, and leadership roles
- the opportunities and limitations of working part-time
- non-linear conceptions of time (e.g. Aboriginal experiences of time circles, eternity now).
Lots of food for thought! For the time being, here’s Demelza’s summing up of slow academia using Seeber and Berg’s The Slow Professor:
Slowness is not just a critique, it also offers an alternative, a different model for academia … The slow movement advocates a shift in our practice and our public discourse and our relationship to work. This gives meaning to thinking about scholarship as community (not competition), to periods of rest, and understanding that research [has] rhythms that include pauses and periods that may seem unproductive. It allows us to shift from worrying about the annual report to thinking about what is sustainable in the long haul.
4 thoughts on “Slow academia: a panel discussion”
I love the idea and principles of slow academia (and the critique it offers, AND the practice of it) but the reality I see is that slow academia practitioners won’t get far as academics in today’s universities. Essentially, if you want a “traditional” academic career (i.e. teaching, research, some university service and community outreach, some contribution to public discourses in your discipline and on higher education) then you’re not going to get there without some years of concentrated self-promotion: “building your brand”, networking, obtaining patronage from the powerful and sucking up like crazy to your Head of Department who may or may not be a total fuckwit.
Agnes, you’re an exception – it’s getting harder and harder to do what we’ve done, and slip through the gaps as they’ve opened up. And I didn’t make it, although I’m quite happy where I am right now.
I plan to use retirement to “catch up” on my practice of slow academia – I plan to read, do a couple of non-award courses, talk to people, go camping, indulge my singing and handcraft hobbies (as long as my eyesight lasts) and feel thankful that I’m not starting out with academic ambitions now.
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Cathy, I’ve been sitting on a reply to your comment as I don’t want to be an exception. I feel very uneasy about modelling an approach to academia that is not achievable. I love the sound of your retirement, however!
Cathy, I love the blunt honesty of this post. My thinking has moved on since the panel, too. My view now is that Universities are walking dead. I’m looking for other types of work that involve research.
Andrew, I wish you luck in your search. Ruth Barcan’s recent research on people who left academia found that all of them described themselves as happier.