Slow University: A Manifesto

In 2004 I attended a convocation address by our President, Fr. Robert Lawton, SJ. Fr. Lawton’s speeches and homilies are, as a rule, excellent—it is not uncommon for his words to stick with me for several weeks after hearing his talks. On this occasion, Fr. Lawton used an example that has stuck with me for several years. His address was on the “university as business.” In the course of acknowledging the legitimate concerns that the academy has with becoming too businesslike, Fr. Lawton pointed to some criticisms leveled by Bertrand Russell against the faculty of Harvard University:

[I]f Russell liked, even admired, the students, he had little good to say about the faculty, which persisted in trying to recruit him.  “Dull,” “tiresome,” “complacent” people, forced to spend themselves in endless teaching and to produce “quick results,” they were deprived of the “patient solitary meditation … that goes to produce anything of value.”  They lacked, he said, “the atmosphere of meditation and absent-mindedness that one associates with thought – they all seem more alert and businesslike and punctual than one expects very good people to be.”

The picture Russell paints of the life of the mind is one characterized by a certain amount of leisure, not in the service of laziness, but in order to make room and time for the patient meditation that any thinking of real import requires. Such a life is at odds with quick results, overfull schedules, multitasking, “working lunches,” and all the other “businesslike” practices that are encroaching on or well established in the academy.

I am sad to point out what most of you already know—the faculty of LMU has much in common with the faculty that greeted Russell during his tenure at Harvard. However, I’d like to suggest that this particular commonality with Harvard is not one we should pursue or one of which we should be proud.

I find myself with a distressing lack of idle time and, without presuming to speak for others, I believe I am not alone in this respect. Most weeks I do not get a sufficient amount of sleep, much less adequate time for meditation, prayer, idling, and creative absent-mindedness. What’s wrong with this picture? And, more importantly, what can I do to fix it?

Diagnosing the Problem

It is not difficult to diagnose the problem. I suspect that faculty, and especially junior faculty, have always felt some pressure to perform. However, the current academic climate seems especially corrosive to the life of the mind described above. Few could legitimately ignore or dismiss the growing demands on faculty schedules: teaching, advising, publishing, service, etc. If these demands are epitomized by the requirement to publish early and often, at a school like ours they are also evident in the demand for excellent teaching, service to the department, university, and discipline, and in the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis. Each of these demands represents a competing good, and I do think they are all goods. However, taken together with the expectation of excellence in each category, they present an unattainable ideal—one cannot really give 100% to three or four endeavors—that undermines not only the quality of life and health of faculty members, but also results in lower quality scholarship and teaching, and degraded relationships with students and colleagues.

The danger of burnout is particularly acute for junior faculty members with whom the mission resonates. All faculty members must juggle teaching and scholarship, often at a level prohibits true excellence in either—or in which such comprehensive excellence comes at the cost of quality of life or even health—but junior faculty must perform that juggling act with the Damoclean Sword of tenure above their heads. On top of this, all faculty members must serve their departments, universities and disciplines. And, on top of that, faculty who feel dedicated to the broader mission of the university find themselves inundated with emails, invitations and appeals to help with a dizzying array of committees, focus groups, student organizations, pilot programs and ad hoc groups. We cannot simultaneously expect faculty to have the on-campus presence of an Oxford don, the classroom impact of Mark Van Doren, the publishing success of Ralph McInerny, and the service commitments of my Jesuit friends. Add responsibilities to family and friends, and some measure of private life—all of which should be taken very seriously by institutions purporting to espouse the education and health of the whole person—to this mix and things get downright Sisyphean. Something has to give.

It would be easy, and not entirely inappropriate, to place the blame for such burnout squarely on the shoulders of the faculty members who over-extend themselves. Indeed, accepting personal responsibility for one’s choices and actions is something I generally have to teach my undergraduates and, therefore, something that I should certainly accept in my own life. No one forces me to agree to another committee assignment. No one forces me to teach new course preparations every semester. Indeed, no one forces me to publish more than is necessary for tenure and advancement. I choose to do these things.

On the other hand, it would be equally incorrect to ignore the substantial institutional contributions to this problem. Certainly as assistant professor could make a unilateral stand against the drive to “publish or perish,” the demand for “assessment” in a “culture of evidence,” or the committee work that leads to entire semesters of triply booked conflicts during convocation hour; however, such choices do have real world consequences, both in terms of salary and in terms of the aforementioned high stakes game of tenure. Isn’t hypocritical to encourage, if not demand, faculty members excel in scholarship, teaching, and service and then criticize them, especially junior faculty members, for over extending themselves? Is it possible to give one hundred percent to scholarship, teaching, and service? Is it desirable?

Of course, it would be grossly unfair to single out LMU for blame with respect to this problem. The publish-or-perish mentality is wider than LMU, and I do think that the pinch for time, the stress, and the encroachment of a businesslike mindset is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception in the contemporary academy. Indeed, the “fast mindset” is a social phenomenon much wider than the academy. Today people can work anytime and anywhere thanks to “advances” such as laptops, cell phones, and instant messaging. Because we can do work anytime, we tend to allow ourselves to do this and, at our worst, feel that we should be working all the time. For millennia cultures in the West have respected the idea that there should be times in life protected from work and labor. Today, however, there is no Sabbath, religious or secular. The siesta is slowly being phased out in Italy and Spain. European companies, long admired for their more humane policies with respect to holidays, vacation time, maternity leave, etc. are fast adopting American standards.

I feel lucky to have a tenure-track job in a philosophy department. I’ve labored in low-paying, blue-collar jobs and I am well aware of the relative ease with which university professors can enjoy “the good life.” But should I really be available to my students “24/7”? Is this the best thing for them, or for me? Recently, in a description of my teaching philosophy written for my fourth year review, I noted that one of the most important ways we can contribute to the education of our students as “whole persons” is to allow them to know us as healthy, nourished, well-rounded, whole persons. If this is the case, and I believe that it is, shouldn’t I model the life choices I think my students should adopt? Can I really undertake the cura personalis of my students as I rushing from appointment to appointment on campus? While my mind is occupied with a half dozen or more looming deadlines?

Identifying a (Partial) Solution

So, what can we, as individual faculty members, do about this problem? Certainly we can work with the administration to make institutional changes, develop support structures and mentor new faculty, make tenure and promotion requirements more transparent, and change methods of faculty evaluation; but these sorts of responses will take place over the medium to long term. Moreover, they smack of more committee work for some poor soul. As I noted above, I acknowledge that I contribute in some ways to the current state of affairs and, therefore, I have some ability to change the situation by simply refusing to be complicit in it.

Of course, I’m not suggesting a simple “just say no” approach. I will, obviously, still publish, teach, and serve the university, and I’ll try to do each very well. As I noted, I consider each of these goods, and I actually enjoy most of these endeavors. Moreover, failing to do so could mean the loss of my job and, much more importantly, would be a disservice to a way of life I consider a vocation. However, while I’ll continue to publish, teach, and serve the university, I will not allow the pursuit of an unattainable goal—perfection in each of these three arenas—to undermine a well-rounded excellence, to jeopardize my relationships with my family, friends, colleagues, and students, to unjustifiably encroach on other interests and endeavors that contribute to my flourishing, or to eliminate time for idling. In short, I’ll put professional excellence in its place, as contributing to my well being rather than determinative of it.

I do not pretend that this will be easy. Resisting deeply entrenched social and professional expectations, which have the advantage of a century or more of momentum, will not be easy. So, what do I suggest? How is this essay any different from any number of bitching sessions or platitudinous assessments of the challenges of teaching in the modern academy?

Slow University

In 1989 the “Slow Food” movement began when delegates from 15 countries signed a manifesto in Paris (its forerunner, Agricola, began in Italy in 1986). The aim of the movement was to defend local cuisine, and the lifestyle associated with it, from the proliferation of global, corporate, fast-food franchises. Slow food is about encouraging “good, clean, fair food,” about the active production of food (as growers and as cooks) rather than passive consumption of it, and about the preservation of diversity and local cuisine from homogenization. The Slow Food movement has since given birth to movements for “slow cities” (Cittaslow) and even a few “slow companies.”

This academic year I am going to make a concrete resolution—and I invite other faculty members, students, staff, and administrators to join me—to slow down, and here is how I am going to do it.

What I propose is a commitment to a “slow university” movement here on campus and, heck, let’s think big, on other campuses across the country. We need to act consciously to reestablish the sort of university climate we all dreamed of when we became professors rather than passively accept the current global trend toward a model of the university as a glorified polytechnic or vocational school (in the contemporary, diluted sense of “vocation”).

I want a university in which there is a real intellectual community rather than a disperse legion of cubicle-jockeys whose most meaningful interactions take place via email. I want a university in which my relationships with students are, or at least have the potential to be, enriching and complex rather than merely instrumental. Where students and professors engage each other has whole persons rather than as partners in an economic exchange. I want a university in which great ideas are given time to mature and ripen rather than being plucked unripe and rushed off to press in order to guarantee tenure and promotion, where it is more important to say something well than it is to say something fast. Of course, these things can take place at LMU and occasionally do, which is part of what I love about our institution; however, when they do take place, they represent the best of who we are and what we do rather than our everyday selves and the everyday state of affairs.

This semester I will be establishing, posting, and maintaining “slow hours” in my academic schedule. During these times I will not, under any circumstances, work. I will not read or write with the intent of developing a publication or conference paper. I will not prepare for class or grade papers. I will not attend any committee meetings. I will not answer the phone or respond to email. I will not do chores or run errands. I will try to avoid anything that smacks of being productive. My slow hours will be spent letting my thoughts wander, walking along the bluff, sitting under trees, and, hopefully, talking and eating with friends, colleagues, and students. Again, this is not out of a desire to be an idler per se, but out of recognition that at a certain point the more I do the worse I become: worse as a scholar; worse as a teacher; worse as a colleague; worse as a husband, father, friend. I believe that these slow hours will actually result in better contributions here at LMU: better publications; better relationships with students; and better relationships with my colleagues.

As I intend to make slow hours inviolate, I will not allow others to disrupt this time with “urgent” work-related issues. I’m a professor of philosophy, not a cardiac surgeon. How urgent can it be? I do not think of this as a purely selfish decision. In fact, I invite others to join me in slowing down, and sincerely hope that there will be interested parties from across the university (faculty, staff, administration, and students). However, while I hope some of my colleagues will join me in making a commitment to a slow university, I will not violate my slow time by discussing pedagogy, committee schedules, or campus politics with those who do not. I hope some of my students will also make this resolution with me; however, while we may talk philosophically over lunch during slow hours, I will not discuss philosophy with students in a manner that could be related to papers I’m working on or questions that might be on their final exam.

This fall my slow hours will be Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 12:00 to 1:00, Tuesday and Thursday from 11:00 to 12:00, as well as all day Sunday. This represents only 29 of the 168 hours of each week, surely a modest fraction of time for something so important. Although some of us may already exceed this amount of leisure in a given week—as I sometimes do—I know many of us at times fall short. Moreover, while I do preserve time for a good deal of leisure in my schedule, I want to make my own commitment to slowing down more formal and explicit; and hence this proposal.

Why post these hours? Why not merely absent myself during these times so that I am unavailable to students and colleagues? Because I’d like to see a change in the university climate itself; I’d like to see the whole university slow down—not because it would be good for me, although it would, but because it would be good for many people I care about, and because it would be good for the institution itself. Perhaps my stand will be a unilateral one, perhaps not. In any case, I plan on posting slow hours each semester from here on out.

I recognize that others may not be able to join me during my chosen slow hours, but I encourage you to form your own “slow communities.” Eventually we may have dozens, perhaps scores, of groups on campus, each with dedicated slow hours for a given semester. As schedules change, such groups can reorganize; old groups may disband and new ones may form. The point is to establish some corner of life that is protected, inviolate, from the instrumental demands of productivity.

If you find this idea intriguing, I invite you to join me in making a conscious commitment to slowing down; if you find this idea idealistic, ridiculous, and/or counterproductive I wish you well, but I invite you to respect these hours, which will be posted on my office door, syllabi, and website.

Brian Treanor
Department of Philosophy
(c) 2006

Postscript

The preceding was written in 2006, a couple of years before I came up for tenure. Much has happened since then. For some years, I conscientiously stuck to “slow hours,” and continued to advertise the policy to students, faculty, and staff. However, other than one colleague, no one stepped up to join me in the practice and, over time, my slow hours became little more than a lunch hour, which—while both pleasant and the source of my most substantial friendships at LMU—lacks the subversive punch of the slow hours ideal.

The truth is, some of the blame lies with me: lack of commitment, professional ambition, a desire to be praised by others—none of which are things to be particularly proud of—slowly lead me to lose focus on the process. However, while I am perfectly willing to pillory myself in this regard, another truth is that the climate at LMU is, perhaps, particularly poisonous to something like slow hours. This is because the university has, increasingly, become captive of a corporate model for education.

Faculty tend to place the blame on the administration, which is certainly appropriate in some measure. However, the faculty shares an equal, if not greater, amount of the blame. The single thing that would do the most to enliven the slow hours project would be the existence of a robust intellectual community, a community that could, and did, speak regularly and enthusiastically about ideas without speaking about work. Such a community is, however, conspicuously lacking at LMU, which is shocking for a university, and doubly shocking for a university that still attempts to describe itself as a liberal arts college.

Few people talk about ideas unrelated to their own work—that is, unrelated to productivity. Pub Night at the Library, Friday Faculty Colloquia, talks sponsored by the Center for Ignatian Spirituality, and other opportunities to expand one’s intellectual horizons are, notoriously, attended by more staff members than faculty members. Pace Descartes, not much thinking of worth—including slow, idle, absentminded thinking—gets done in the solitude of a stove-heated room. And, when it does, it is because one retreats to that room after enlivening engagement with others. Generally speaking, a vibrant intellectual life requires a vibrant intellectual community. Sure, we all need time alone—I need more than most—but without others to engage and challenge and be challenged by, much of our “thinking” is, as William James reminds us, merely “rearranging our prejudices.”

The faculty often criticizes the student body for lacking an intellectual community, but it hardly offers itself as an alternative model. We need to make intellectual community a priority if we want LMU to be something more than employer, and our positions here something more than a mere job. So in addition to—and in support of—slow hours, I’d like to see faculty challenge themselves to become involved in the intellectual life of the campus, and particularly in the intellectual life of the campus insofar as it does not relate to their own sub-field or research interests. The result of such involvement would be a community in which we were happy to chat with other intelligent, educated, interesting people, and in which slow hours would be that much more attractive.

Brian Treanor
(c)2008