Slow Down to Speed Up: Creating a Counterculture of Resistance to Speed in the Neoliberal University

“[I]t may be a mistake, a representative and revealing mistake, to concentrate on the ‘outcome.’” (foreword, ix)—Stefan Collini

 “When we experience timelessness, we are creative, and creativity is experienced as timelessness.” (27) — Berg and Seeber  

“No one likes to be rushed.” — anonymous colleague


In The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016), authors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber examine how academia’s emphasis on speed and “busyness” conditions university faculty to operate within the corporate model of out-put and productivity. Although their analysis does not discuss the historical particularities of neoliberalism (see, for instance, David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism as an insightful understanding of neoliberalism from both a domestic and international viewpoint), it is important to keep in mind that the corporate model has been gradually implemented in the university since at least the 1960s when political conservatives expressed anger and outrage at the presumably leisure-class of academics. In fact, Ronald Reagan was the first to usher in the era of financial austerity and the dismantling of the public university (“The Day the Purpose of College Changed”). These political sentiments are driven by the desire from conservatives to monetize higher education while, at the same time, dismantling it.

Given this framework on neoliberal ethics and values, the authors’ emphasis on the current neoliberal climate in the university and how it engenders speed and time stress as affective orientations marks Berg and Seeber’s analysis as a remarkable text in comparison to other texts within critical university studies (Christopher Newfield, Jodi Melamed, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, among others). To date, Berg and Seeber’s text is the first book to critique the university corporate model from the standpoint of feminist affect studies, neoliberalism, and the “slow” movement. They explain,

We see our book as uncovering the secret life of the academic, revealing not only her pains but also her pleasures. Writing this book provoked the anxiety of speaking what is habitually left unspoken, and we continually needed to remind ourselves that the oscillation between private shame and the political landscape would prove fruitful. We came to recognize that anxiety is the inevitable consequence of breaking taboos that are not just current but have a long-standing history: the ideals of mastery, self-sufficient individualism, and rationalism prop up the ‘old’ as well as the ‘new’ university. In fact, patriarchal values opened the door to corporatization. (12)

This astute analysis of the perniciousness of speed and patriarchal values and how such values have impacted the neoliberal university are the primary reasons why I enjoyed this text. Because of my own research interests in these areas, I was intrigued by the authors’ focus on speed as an affective orientation. Below, I consider several important points that Berg and Seeber make, including why these moments deserve consideration in light of our places at the university.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Berg and Seeber emphasize how the ethics of slowness may help to counter the culture of speed and “busyness” found within the neoliberal university. Specifically, Berg and Seeber argue that the ethics of slowness allow us to dismantle the dominant cultural discourses that glorify “busyness.” These dominant cultural discourses condition us to believe and accept that speed is a positive characteristic when, in fact, speed is detrimental to intellectual life. As Berg and Seeber put it, “Academic culture celebrates overwork, but it is imperative that we question the value of busyness. We need to interrogate what we are modelling for each other and for our students” (21).

Berg and Seeber’s primary contention (that slowness principles help to counter the culture of speed in academia) is refreshing to hear. This celebration and glorification of busyness has a negative impact on the personal, physical, and psychical well-being of ourselves, our students, and our families. Speaking from personal experience, I have been struggling to keep pace with the “busyness” of academic labor (attending conferences, publishing, and establishing works in progress, all while balancing a 5/5 teaching load as a ‘temporary’ faculty member on a limited-term contract). This “busyness”-complex is exacerbated by the fact that I am a newly minted PhD (the thought, ‘I need to make something of this dissertation!’ has yet to be silenced). Despite the fact that my contract stipulates that my responsibilities begin and end with the classroom, I still feel the need to be producing in other areas (such as service and scholarship) in order to be viewed as a valuable and contributing member of my department.

In The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), Brené Brown argues that these feelings of unworthiness and imperfection burden us with a need to (as she puts it) “hustle for worthiness.” One might argue that this pressure is self-imposed, but Berg and Seeber (along with Brown) contend otherwise-- that this sentiment of “busyness,” over-work and accumulating lines on our curriculum vitaes (Berg and Seeber 59) are due to academic work culture, a culture that I am continuously striving to distance myself from even though I wish to obtain a tenure-track position in the future. Berg and Seeber suggest that it is possible to resist academic work culture while also being a fully functioning human being. Author David Posen points out in The Slow Professor (as paraphrased by Berg and Seeber), “doing less actually achieves more. We all have a maximum capacity for productive work and sustained thinking, and once the peak is passed we are simply putting in time, which is pointless (since the work will not be of high quality)” (30, emphases added). To combat this culture of “busyness,” Berg and Seeber explain that we need “timeless time” (25). These are essentially immersive experiences with regard to both teaching and our scholarly interests. Changing and re-conditioning our relationship to time and existing in a state of timelessness are imperative for creating positive work environments: “When we experience timelessness, we are creative and creativity is experienced as timelessness” (27).

Secondly, while the book’s emphasis on the problems of “busyness” and its connections to affect and emotion were impactful for me as a reader, I find Stefan Collini’s argument against outcomes to be rather enlightening. In the foreword, Collini writes, “It has taken me a long time to write this foreword. But then, writing usually does take a long time, I find— certainly long when compared to the brevity and unsatisfactoriness of the outcome. However, it may be a mistake, a representative and revealing mistake, to concentrate on the ‘outcome’” (ix). Here lately, I have focused a lot on outcomes and expectations, both professional and personal ones. In my field (composition studies), the emphasis on learning outcomes echoes throughout the scholarly literature. In an earlier reflection on the mindfulness workshop with Dr. Cameron Gordon, I discussed the ways in which this attachment to outcomes and expectations actually does a great disservice to ourselves. As Dr. Gordon made clear in his presentation, by focusing on the outcome and expectations of situations, we become less curious to the possibilities that might arise from a particular event. In fact, by attaching ourselves to the outcome of a situation, we miss the importance of the journey. 

Simply put, this attachment to outcomes and expectations does not allow us to be intrinsically curious and exacerbates the anxieties and insecurities that many of us face by virtue of being non-tenure eligible faculty. The university administration though has a tight grip on outcome assessment. In fact, the first University-wide faculty meeting and the first faculty meeting for the College of Liberal Arts both emphasized outcomes and assessment. But, as Berg and Seeber make clear, “The current emphasis on ‘evidence-based practices’ and ‘processes to measure impact’ in teaching and learning entirely overlooks pleasure...yet it may be the case that pleasure— experienced by the instructor and the students— is the most important predictor of ‘learning outcomes’” (34). Later, they write, “Pleasure is, as the Slow Food movement has made clear, inimical to the corporate world” (34). Given this framework as an argument for de-privileging the emphasis of outcomes and assessment, we can see that the university’s attachment to and emphasis on outcomes is an unhealthy relationship. Thus, in order to fully prosper as a university and as engaged faculty members, we have to detach ourselves from outcomes and expectations. The neoliberal university and its emphasis on business and corporate ethics do not allow for us to actually do this, although we must for the sake of intellectual inquiry and slow scholarship.

There are other smaller, but equally important, points that the book makes that I find helpful for visualizing and implementing a long-view of my career. For instance, Berg and Seeber emphasize the importance of emotionally distancing ourselves from our work and our work environment. Emotional distance is synonymous with understanding how we expend emotional labor in our professions, especially over-extending ourselves and our commitments. This includes finding the courage to say “no” to last-minute requests, but, also, saying “no” to being over-worked while being underpaid for our labor (Berg and Seeber 1). Another crucial argument that the authors make is that we need to (re)establish connections to the pleasures of pedagogy and our work. They argue, 

Although thinking is inevitably embodied and contextual, academia tends to neglect the emotional and affective dimension to teaching and learning, along with the advantages of thinking in groups. It is well known that positive emotions facilitate learning, so it seems reasonable to suggest that they will also enhance teaching. It is neither frivolous nor incidental to ensure that we enjoy ourselves in the classroom: it may be crucial to creating an environment in which students can learn. (14)

And, later in Chapter 3, they write, “Students...make no distinction between how they felt in a course and how they thought; their emotions-- whether positive or negative-- were integral to how they learned” (36). Adding, “If learning were purely or even predominantly cognitive, then computers would be adequate and there would be no point in gathering people together in a room” (38). As the authors make clear, so much of learning is affective, and it is the procuring of positive emotions that have a greater impact on learning rather than the focus on outcomes and assessment.

This brings me to my final point about The Slow Professor and that is the importance of community-building, especially sharing our frustrations with our colleagues. Berg and Seeber write,

While certainly not every classroom is an ‘ocean of distress emotions,’ many are most definitely full of mixed emotions: joy, excitement, fear, boredom, anger, anxiety. And sometimes we do encounter distress in our offices: the student who is going through a break-up; the student whose mother is dying; the student who is furious with her ‘B,’ which will keep her from getting into medical school. And then there is our disappointment when we open the email that rejects the manuscript we have been working on for years. But who do we turn to at those crucial times? (73).

One strategy offered is that we should re-frame how we see “venting.” “Venting” is not complaining; as they explain, “If we don’t vent, we will begin to whine” (84): “The experience of stress lessens when we feel supported. We have found that talking to each other helps us avert the downward spiral into loneliness, suspicion, and burnout” (84). The importance of sharing testimonials and stresses are vital to the livelihood of a department. At a time when faculty isolation is at its highest, sharing and “venting” our frustrations to one another may help to combat a neoliberal ethos that wishes to maintain our separations. I would also extend this sharing of our stresses with our students. For instance, simply asking students as a warm-up exercise how they are feeling might allow us to cultivate a community of support in the classroom, as overwhelmed students learn to share their emotions alongside their equally overwhelmed instructors.

Overall, what I enjoyed most about this book are the connections I made with it on a personal and professional level. As a contingent faculty member who is not eligible for tenure, I find Berg and Seeber’s arguments to be empowering, as the authors affirm my feelings of being rushed and time stressed:

Corporatization has compromised academic life and sped up the clock. The administrative university is concerned above all with efficiency, resulting in a time crunch and making those of us subjected to it feel powerless. Talking about professors’ stress is not self-indulgent; not talking about it plays into the corporate model. (xviii, original emphasis)

This book makes clear that the institutional structures have made the academy an unbearable environment to work and think. Additionally, the mask we wear as university professors is beginning to erode. I think that this is a good and sustainable practice because it allows us to become our authentic selves, including expressing our frustrations and anxieties with one another about our workplaces. Although we have been conditioned to not be our authentic selves (i.e., marginalize our emotions to the realm of the private sphere and wear our PhDs as a cloak of amour), this book is a first step in reclaiming who we are as imperfect individuals. As Berg and Seeber share, “What began as helping each other became a sustained examination of academia” (12). Indeed, these stories of personal and professional struggle are not anecdotal; rather, they are symptomatic of a university culture that continues to move the goal posts on faculty, especially contingent and non-tenure track faculty. As such, The Slow Professor functions as a manifesto for reclaiming power over our intellectual and professional livelihoods, including the time (or timelessness) needed for producing quality scholarship and teaching.