Academics must take action to save colleges from market’s incursion

Opinion: Intensive modern education system should look to ‘slow’ model of learning

Whether driven by market ideology or rationalisation, universities are choked by top-down imposition of corporate thinking and managerial vocabulary, say academics Áine Mahon and Shane Bergin. Photo: iStock/Getty

Whether driven by market ideology or rationalisation, universities are choked by top-down imposition of corporate thinking and managerial vocabulary, say academics Áine Mahon and Shane Bergin. Photo: iStock/Getty

 

In Flannery O’Connor’s 1955 short story Good Country People, a young woman named Hulga Hopewell holds a PhD in philosophy. Hulga is an expert on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and she believes not in the importance of God but in the importance of nothing.

Over the course of O’Connor’s story, however, the PhD doesn’t do much for Hulga’s critical capacities; she is seduced by a travelling Bible salesman who runs off with her prosthetic leg.

Sharing the comic company of Flann O’Brien and David Lodge, O’Connor isn’t the only 20th century writer to lampoon the pseudo-intellectual or the indulgent PhD.

Parodies of academic and university life have always been written (usually by academics themselves) and they trade knowingly on fixed stereotypes of the ivory tower, the leisured professor and the lazy academic.

Demoralising demands of efficiency and productivity continue to escalate as our university system advances increasingly along market lines

Of course, the public perception of the academic as an absent-minded intellectual divorced from the neoliberal world couldn’t be further from the truth. It is by now widely recognised that contemporary academics, including those in Ireland, are working in an environment that is more intensive, individualised, fast-paced and stressful.

Demoralising demands of efficiency and productivity continue to escalate as our university system advances increasingly along market lines.

One recent and important book to highlight and address this troubling trajectory is The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.

It is the work of two English literature academics (Maggie Berg and Barbara K Seeber), both based at universities in Canada, and both rejecting the corporitisation of the modern university.

Countercultural approach

There is much to admire in Berg and Seeber’s book. Taking their inspiration from the Slow Food Movement which originated almost 30 years ago in the activism of Carlo Petrini, the authors bravely propose a countercultural approach where “slow” indicates a thoughtful and deliberate approach to contemporary academic practice.

In the authors’ own terms, slowing down is about asserting the importance of contemplation, connectedness, fruition, and complexity'

Their approach involves questioning the value of productivity and efficiency and reinstating the value of conviviality and the local. They also extol the virtues of creating in the present and sidestepping the endless pressure to produce for the future.

In the authors’ own terms, “slowing down is about asserting the importance of contemplation, connectedness, fruition, and complexity”.

In terms of teaching, the slow movement offers students and their teachers a meaningful space to engage deeply with ideas and to experiment creatively with pedagogies. Such pedagogies, ideally, would dispense with rushed modules and rote-learned exams crammed with more and more information.

They would connect learners with their intrinsic motivations around their disciplines rather than chasing grades and seeing education solely as a means to an end.

And in terms of research, the slow movement would resist reductive and empirical scales in determining the value of scholarship. Academic research, on this model, would be much more than the currency of hiring and promoting professors.

We speak of customers, not students; delivery, not teaching; impacts, not learning

Our best habits-of-practice would be those that free us from the frenzied tyranny of “publish or perish” or that encourage piecemeal intervention over genuine insight. This counting and accounting can only get us so far, as The Slow Professor points out, because in the final analysis “we don’t measure scholarship, we judge it”.

Savage funding cuts

Following a decade of savage funding cuts, Irish universities face an existential crisis. Whether driven by market ideology or related attempts to “save” through rationalisation, they are choked by top-down imposition of corporate thinking and managerial vocabulary.

We speak of customers, not students; delivery, not teaching; impacts, not learning. It is time for Irish academics to pause and consciously resist if they are to save what makes universities so special and so central to any society.

In its clarity at pointing out the obvious, The Slow Professor serves as an intervention for higher education. It serves also as a manifesto. It powerfully outlines how academics must act in order to save the institutions they value.

On the slow professoriate model, we are called to reject the seductive priorities of overwork, competition and endless CV-building.

It is a plea for sanity, for creativity and for calm

We are called to make a deliberate ethical choice to prioritise our colleagues as well as our students.

We are called, in sum, to offer to each other the strong social support that underpins university and academic life as essentially human and humane endeavours.

This is not special pleading for the already privileged, or any kind of nostalgia for a lost “golden age” before semesterisation or professional accountability. Rather, it is a plea for sanity, for creativity and for calm.

In such slower environs, as even O’Connor and O’Brien would attest, our lecturers as well as our students stand to learn the truly valuable life lessons of thoughtfulness and care.

They stand a stronger chance of holding firmly to their constituent parts, and resisting the many seductions of today’s travelling salesmen.

Dr Áine Mahon and Dr Shane Bergin are academics based at University College Dublin's school of education.