I read with interest this piece in University Affairs about “The Slow Professor”, which is the name of a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber – English professors from Brock and Queen’s, respectively – who think that professors need to push back against the hecticness of the modern academy. To wit:
“The authors offer insights on how to manage teaching, research and collegiality in an era when more professors feel ‘beleaguered, managed, frantic, stressed and demoralized’ as they juggle the increasingly complex expectations of students, the administration, colleagues – and themselves. ‘Distractedness and fragmentation characterize contemporary academic life,’ they write. Today’s professors, they argue, need to slow down, devote more time to ‘doing nothing,’ and enjoy more pleasure in their research and teaching. It’s time, they say, ‘to take back the intellectual life of the university.’”
I don’t doubt that the majority of Canadian professors work hard – very hard indeed, actually. Not all, of course; but on the whole, absolutely. In fact, some data from the 2007-08 Changing Academic Profession Survey suggested that Canadian professors might actually work the longest hours of any professors in the world. And that’s OK, given that the Canadian professoriate is also the best-paid in the world. Maybe the two are linked. Not directly of course; nobody actually correlates pay to effort in Canadian higher education. But overall, maybe we’re getting a good deal: high-paid, hard-working professors. Nothing wrong with that.
So, how to interpret a demand for less work such as that contained in the Berg-Seeber piece?
The most cynical answer I suppose, would be: hey, look, two profs who want to work less for the same pay? But this is perhaps too churlish. The authors do after all make a less-is-more argument – that they will be better academics if they have more downtime. One could imagine a deal that trades time for performance. That is, say we could come up with a performance metric for professors that lets them reduce their hours, provided they hit particular targets. But of course the metricization of higher education is something else the authors rail against, so that’s probably not an option, either.
This leaves a third possibility: why not let professors trade salary for time? If you want to be on a 40-hour/week track instead of a 55-hour/week track, do it – but take a pay cut. Sounds fair to me. Of course, the only way to implement this is to have a system in which management actually pays attention to workload in a systematic way. We don’t have that here in Canada – but other places do (notably Australia). Maybe it’s time we moved in that direction?
One final point. The authors locate the source of stress in the academy as the university’s “corporatization”. This is a hard claim to evaluate without knowing which of the myriad definitions of “corporatization” they are using, but let me simply suggest an alternative explanation. Maybe, just maybe, the academic rat-race is a product of really bright, driven people pushing themselves even harder when they are surrounded by other bright, driven people. That is, it’s an emergent property of academia itself, rather than something imposed from without by mean old administrators.