Against the ‘slow professor’

A letter Filip Vostal and I have written to University Affairs in response to this interview:

We read your recent interview with the authors of the recent book Slow Professor with interest. While we welcome the continued expansion of critical debate concerning academic labour, we nonetheless found much to be concerned with in the interview. Perhaps this is inevitable, as neither of us are professors. In this we are like most within the academy. Though we recognise the complex considerations that factor into the naming of a book, this titular exclusion is indicative of the more substantive problems we have with the idea expressed in this interview and the broader discourse of slow scholarship within which they are embedded.

The interview with the authors confirms our assumption that slow manifestos of such a kind might account for projections and experiences of the authors, rather than for ethnographically or empirically informed studies. The archetype of the distracted time-poor scholar on the verge of psychological breakdown is far from being the norm – as many promoters of academic slowdown often tend to automatically assume. Whether one is distracted, accelerated, stressed, burn-out or just about the opposite – whether one thrives and enjoys plenty of quality and unhasty time – very much depends on other sociologically relevant variables such as age, gender, academic status, discipline, family situation, psychological disposition. 

We are aware that the notion of slowness is attractive and even seductive for academics but, at the same time we think that personal individual stories (and inferences made thereupon) – with all due respect to their seriousness – from academia often give an incorrect impression that academia is flooded with stress, despair and misery and that other corners of society are not (or not so seriously). It is also very much the case that the perceived acceleration of academic life is massively socially differentiated and often reflects power relations and hierarchies within the academy. This we think should be something of a start, perhaps a ‘working hypothesis’ to be explored, rather than more or less bold conclusions indicating that academia is taken by unprecedented speed and frenzy upon which one may be declaring the desperate necessity of slowness.  

One of the key components of such a hypothesis is thus this one: to be a slow professor is a privilege. It’s a privilege only available to those already at the summit of the academic career structure. Indeed, it is likely only available to some of them, certainly excluding the assistant and perhaps associate professors who are ambiguously subsumed under the catch all term ‘professor’. In reducing the temporal regimes of academic life to a matter of lifestyle choice, regarding it as a matter of learning to be ok with having fewer lines on your CV the authors not only fail to recognise their own privilege but actively mystify the institutional hierarchy within which they enjoy a security being systematically denied to ever greater swathes of their younger colleagues. We would suggest, in the spirit of well-meaning critique, ‘slow professorship’ only makes sense when such decelerating professors can take it for granted that junior associates will accelerate to pick up the slack.

Mark Carrigan (University of Warwick & The Sociological Review)

Filip Vostal (The Czech Academy of Sciences & CEFRES)