In preparation for next week’s Accelerated Academy, I found myself reading the Slow Scholarship Manifesto for the first time in a few years, as well as Heather Mendick’s brilliant critique of it. Taking explicit inspiration from the slow food movement, it calls for ‘slow scholarship’ as a response to ‘hasty scholarship’:

Slow scholarship, is thoughtful, reflective, and the product of rumination – a kind of field testing against other ideas. It is carefully prepared, with fresh ideas, local when possible, and is best enjoyed leisurely, on one’s own or as part of a dialogue around a table with friends, family and colleagues.

The author recognises how career pressure leads to hasty scholarship, encouraging scholars to “send a conference paper off to a journal which may still be half-baked, may only have a spark of originality, may be a slight variation on something they or others have published, may rely on data that is still preliminary”. The author cites their “own experience of taking 17 years from the start of a Ph.D. to the publication of the book which had its origins in the dissertation” to make the case for slow scholarship. It is a plea that others might see the “fruits of slow scholarship”, littered around us but often unrecognised because the academy rewards the quick, robbing the slow of prestige and financial reward.

The Manifesto for Slow Scholarship is explicitly negative about social media, framing it as “brim[ming] over with sometimes idle, sometimes angry, sometimes scurrilous, always hasty, first impressions”. This is a medium through which people inevitably offer “quick responses to a talk they have heard, an article they read, an email they have received” which are “off the cuff, fresh—but not the product of much cogitation, comparison, or contextualisation”. The manifesto calls for ‘slogs’ and ‘sleets’ in response to these pressures. These are “short, thoughtful essays, that have been carefully thought through” posted a few times a year or “carefully crafted sentences, that pack so much into them they can almost be read as a poem, or haiku on their own”. Such a sleet might “capture a complex thought, inspire such thoughts in others, and be worth preserving for posterity”. The impulse here is an almost aggressively traditional one: scholarly value is expressed through the creation of things which are lasting, self-standing and worthy of preservation. The work should be an end in itself, with anything which complicates this ambition or renders it ambiguous being seen as an unwelcome intrusion on the scholarly vocation.

Rather than being a repudiation of neoliberalism within the academy, as Mendick observesslowing down is often framed in terms of being a more efficient and effective scholar. We will do our work better if we slow down. We will be more successful if we slow down. Nonetheless, some are able to feel at home within slow, while others are not, reflecting “where you come from, which university you are at, which contract you are on and what other responsibilities you have”. This matters furthermore because the call to slowness involves a claim to prestige. The slow scholars are working carefully and creatively, in contrast to the hasty scholars who are hurriedly responding to the situational demands placed upon them. To be a slow scholar is an aspirational identity to which many will not have access because the brute realities of causal labour, documented by Mendick in her insightful paper. What might most accurately be seen as struggling is easily recast in the framework of slow scholarship as intellectual and creative failure. The way out of this failure lies in the exercise of temporal agency which is rarely feasible for those on fixed term contracts, concerned as they with successfully securing the next period of employment, let alone those on adjunct contracts who must piece together a working life from an array of desultory fragments.

In his Pascalian Meditations, Bourdieu is concerned with “the free time, freed from the urgencies of the world, that allows a free and liberated relation to those urgencies and to the world”. There are presuppositions to enjoying this condition which shape the dispositions of the scholar, necessitating reflexivity for epistemic and ethical reasons if there is to be any hope of transcending the frankly peculiar déformation professionnelle which suffuses the academy. Furthermore, the conditions through which one person come to be ‘freed from the urgencies of the world’ is intrinsically connected to another having those urgencies imposed upon them, as Jana Bacevic reflected on in a recent essay on the necessity of a fridge of one’s own for women who are writers.

I thought back to this when reading Ann Oakley’s recounting of the domestic circumstances of her childhood in Father and Daughter.  From loc 273:

My father couldn’t change a plug or put a nail in the wall. He wouldn’t have known what to do with the blue plaque. He couldn’t drive a car or choose his own socks. His dependence on my mother for these necessities was as much a matter of pride to her as the meticulously managed interior of the house. She couldn’t have achieved this without an array of helpers –not only the men who washed the walls and put the nails in, but a succession of working-class women who came from the cheap terraced streets of Acton in their pink overalls (I only remember the overalls being pink, just as I only remember my father wearing yellow ties the same colour as the front door) to follow her precise instructions about what had to be done on what day in what order. He was always referred to as ‘The Professor’. Shirley or Sharon or whoever it was (they never had surnames like Mr Pearce or Mr Crawford did) had to be especially careful about not disturbing ‘The Professor’ when he was at work in his study.

And again on loc 291:

In the small space next to the confrontation of the cooker and the back door in the Blue Plaque House’s tiny kitchen, my father used to dry the dishes sometimes, and sometimes he would stand at the sink to peel the potatoes, but that was the extent of his contribution to household labour. There were two steps up from the kitchen to the breakfast room, so the person drying the dishes was higher than the person whose hands were in the sink. He was taller than her anyway, but this elevation exaggerated his dominance. He never looked after me, his only child, or took me out or away, on his own. He never wielded a vacuum cleaner or a brush or a duster; I don’t think he even engaged in that most epigenetically masculine of all domestic tasks, emptying the rubbish. He never went out to buy food, not even in a masculine bag-carrying capacity. He never made a bed, rising from his own and returning nightly to its magically straightened embrace. He never washed or ironed his clothes or anybody else’s. She organised his wardrobe, forcing him periodically to attend a bespoke tailor’s in order to commission a new suit or set of shirts: his arms, she said proudly, were too long for the ordinary ready-made kind. Her husband was not a ready-made man. Thus she was able to eject him from the Blue Plaque House every morning, every inch a well-attired Professor.

The world moves around ‘the Professor’ to facilitate his purposive withdrawal from it. He is able to be slow because those around him are fast, structuring their days around his rhythms and routines in order to ensure that mundane domesticity enables him rather than constrains him. My point is not the ‘slow scholarship’ inevitably takes this form. Obviously it does not. But we tend to moralise speeds, seeing acceleration as inherently corrosive and deceleration as inherently worthy. There are many reasons to be sceptical of both assumptions but the gendered realities of actually existing slow scholarship should surely be foremost among them.

It is worth adding that the same dynamic obtains even when ‘the Professor’ is not slow. Even when he acts purposively in the wider world, concerned to manifest the products of his disinterested study in bringing about social change, the temporality of these interventions relies on the support surrounding him. From loc 1251:

The answer, of course, was that our class was based not on property, or on inherited identity, but on the labour of ideas, the politics of mind. Richard and Kay Titmuss collected around themselves a coterie of people who shared their commitment to improving public and personal welfare through the analytic and prescriptive power of thought. They thought about it and talked about it, and the politicians and the social engineers tried to manifest these ideas in action. Actually, he thought and discussed and she served the meals, keeping a little notebook in which she wrote down what was served –‘roast lamb and cherry pavlova’, ‘Greek fish dish and apple pie’ –so the same people wouldn’t eat the same meal twice, which would have been a faux pas of unforgettable proportions.

This lofty distance from practical considerations can operate as a source of meaning, rather than just constraint, within the lives of those picking up after homo academicus. From loc 3628-3646:

Richard Titmuss never wrote about housework, just as he never did any. He played to the old stereotype of the absent-minded professor, whose head is so much in the clouds of abstract thought that he doesn’t notice the odd socks he’s put on, the train that’s going to the wrong place, the leg of a study table smouldering from its proximity to an electric fire. These events and many more were enthusiastically recited by my mother as evidence of my father’s domestic incapacity. It was her way of justifying her own role. Her domestic management was an essential pre-condition of his intellectual prowess: indeed, without her, he would scarcely be alive. The lesson a daughter learns from this is that intellectual and domestic work inhabit completely different spheres. The busy housewife looks after the thoughtful man, and they talk about equality without knowing what they’re talking about. I didn’t read what the thoughtful men who talked in the Blue Plaque House wrote then, but, when I did, I was floored by the conundrum that they, too, seemed to assume the Alienation and freedom line –women’s labour ties them to a natural world of love and care, whereas men exist in an historically contingent material place which is also the domain of public policy. 

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)

A work in progress. Feel free to make suggestions!

  1. The SLOW University – Work, Time and Well-Being by Maggie O’Neill
  2. Should academics adopt an ethic of slowness or ninja-like productivity? In search of scholarly time by Filip Vostal
  3. Life in the Accelerated Academy by Mark Carrigan
  4. Surviving Life in the Accelerated Academy: Problems and Prospects for Digital Scholarship by Mark Carrigan (podcast)
  5. Online Communication in the Age of Fast Academia by Heather Mendick
  6. Is Slow What the Slow University’s About? by Heather Mendick
  7. Is Slow Academia Conservative? by Heather Mendick
  8. on the university as anxiety machine by Richard Hall
  9. Notes on the university as anxiety machine by Richard Hall
  10. The Slow University: Work, Time and Well-Being by Maggie O’Neill
  11. Social Class, Gender and the Pace of Academic Life: What Kind of Solution is Slow? by Heather Mendick
  12. Racing for What? Anticipation and Acceleration in the Work and Career Practices of Academic Life Science Postdocs by Ruth Müller
  13. The Slow University: Inequality, Power and Alternatives by Luke Martell
  14. Slow Movement/Slow University: Critical Engagements by Maggie O’Neill, Luke Martell, Heather Mendick, Ruth Müller
  15. Slow Scholarship: A Manifesto 
  16. Networking Our Way Through Neoliberal University by Liz Moorish
  17. The Uberfication of the University by Gary Hall
  18. Accelerated Academia by Filip Vostal
  19. The Paradox of the Underperforming Professor by Liz Moorish
  20. A Feminist Leaves Neoliberal University by Liz Moorish
  21. Gender and Performance in the Neoliberal University by Liz Moorish
  22. Women’s Working Lives in the ‘new’ university by Angela McRobbie
  23. A Call for Slow Scholarship: A Case Study on the Intensification of Academic Life and Its Implications for Pedagogy by Yvonne Hartman & Sandy Darab
  24. Academic life in the fast lane: The experience of time and speed in British academia by Filip Vostal