Imagining the Slow Academy: Transforming the University Ecosystem for the Covid-19 Era

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This post by Paul Jenkins is the seventh in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.

The culture of speed has had a deleterious effect on the identity, life, and work of the university, and the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to re-imagine the university and its role in society. This topic may seem out of place in a series exploring the impact of the current pandemic on work in the environmental humanities. However, through this lens this piece examines aspects of the environment and ecologies of the university itself, and argues that those working in the humanities have a crucial role to play in re-shaping the university ecosystem and higher education in the COVID-19 era.

When we look at the cascading series of political, economic, social, cultural, ecological, and health crises that define our times, it is important to recognise that the decline in public support for higher education, and the impoverished public ideas about what a university is and what it can do, are linked to these other crises.[1] As Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes, this connection might not seem obvious. Indeed, to some it might appear “self-indulgent and self-marginalizing,” like so much overblown, ideological ax-grinding. However, much depends on how we view the university and the best of what it has to offer.[2]

The time has come to boldly re-imagine the university; to both dissolve the corporate or entrepreneurial university that sits at one end of today’s conceptual spectrum, and to bar the door and shutter the “ivory tower” that sits aloofly on the other. Indeed, Ronald Barnett argues that a replacement in the form of “the ecological university” is already upon us, though we do not yet see it, “so blinkered are we by the dominant ideologies of our age.” According to Barnett’s inspired re-imagining, the ecological university is embedded in, and necessarily engaged with, the ecologies of the wider world.[3] One way to better see, and productively engage with this type of radically re-imagined university, is to turn our attention to the subject of academic time, and, in particular, the philosophical and political relevance of what has come to be called the Slow Movement.[4]

This movement urges us to find rebalance and renewal through calm reflection; to immerse ourselves in sustainable local cultures; to recognize the politics and value of pleasure, leisure and timeless time; and to see connectivity and collaboration as an ongoing social accomplishment. Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber observe that while the importance of slowness has been recognized and celebrated in many aspects of politics, life and culture, “it has not yet found its way into education.”[5] The dramatic disruptions caused by COVID-19 present a welcome opportunity to revisit their call to slow the tempo of academia.

Universities have become spaces brimming with busyness, whether it is with administrative processes, meetings, monitoring, and evaluation, or keeping up with emails, time has become one of the defining elements of working in a university. The growing preoccupation with things like “project time” and “process time,” “fast knowledge” and the latest “fashions” impact not only perceptions of time (or the lack of it), but also notions of space, identity, work structure, and emotional wellbeing. And in the wake of COVID-19, the congestion and time pressures squeezing faculty have only intensified. The hype and pleas to exploit digital technologies and Ed-Tech, for instance, have never been higher or more problematic in the way they both ignore the lessons from the long history of educational crises and Ed-Tech, and place, with often impossible and unnecessary suddenness, a complex range of additional demands and obligations on faculty, staff, and students.

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In times like this, we would do well to draw on the work of the physicist Ursula Franklin in our strategic discussions about technology. “Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters,” she explains. “Technology is a system” that involves “far more than its individual material components. Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.”[6] Franklin’s emphasis on technology as a matter of organization and mindset bring us back to the structural and cultural operations of the university. The current rhythms and pressures of the university are completely unsustainable, and worse, they grind down and burn out the best thing a university has to offer: its people and unique communities. Whatever else a university might be, it is always a collection of minds.

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In the COVID-19 era, when universities everywhere face urgent calls for increased social responsibility, responsiveness and change, this is our moment to answer by slowing down and converting to a humanism that rejects the theology of speed and the harried congestion it causes, in order to better harness the best of what universities have to offer. This is the best way to reimagine the university and recognize that its greatest value is not its unique power to advance knowledge and solve problems. Rather, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick convincingly argues, it rests with the university’s distinctive ability to develop “diverse, open communities—both on their campuses and across their borders—encouraged to think together,” and “be involved in the ongoing project of how we understand and shape the world.”[7]

This requires taking care of the people and communities of a university, and that is no easy task. To foster a generous and engaged atmosphere in a university, and thus create the conditions to sustain our thinking together, Berg and Seeber talk of the need to construct a “holding environment.” Such an environment can be seen as a kind of network, but should not be understood as “networking.” According to Berg and Seeber, the creation of a holding environment “requires the simple acknowledgement that our work has a significant emotional dimension.”[8]

While this recognition may be simple, the emotional labour it demands is not easy and Berg and Seeber suggest that the successful creation of a holding environment may well require as much effort as other forms of academic collaboration.[9] But this only further underscores the need to slow down. In doing so, and attending to our emotional needs, we create an environment that better sustains its people and multiple communities. This has, perhaps, never been more important. Not only does this make universities more hospitable places to be in, it also makes them better places to think in, which, in turn, makes these unique institutions better able to serve the interconnected ecologies of the world—of which they are an interactive part—as well as to shape that world and our understanding of it.

All members of the university community have a responsibility here, but those in the humanities have a special role to play. The humanities are “the meaning-making” disciplines, as Helen Small puts it, and are specially attuned to the interpretation and evaluation of context, contradiction, nuance, complexity, tone, and subjectivity.[10] Extending Rorty’s claims for philosophy, the humanities are a form of “social hope,” a means of not only knowing ourselves, but a way of creating ourselves, of shaping who we want to be along with a better and more just world.[11]  The university and its people are not without power, and the challenges presented by COVID-19 represent a rich opportunity to reform the life and work of the university, and thus strengthen its unique abilities to both shape and make better sense of the world in which we all live. There are no short cuts when it comes to the recovery from the present pandemic. Ultimately, it will all come down to informed thoughtfulness, competence, and time.

[1] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019). Christopher Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018)). Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier, Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). Ronald Barrett, Imagining the University (New York: Routledge, 2013).
[2] Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking, 1-45, quote, 5.
[3] Ronald Barnett, The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia (New York: Routledge, 2017), 1. Barnett lists seven interconnected ecosystems: knowledge, social institutions, persons, the economy, learning, culture, and the natural environment.
[4] Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed, rev. ed., (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2019). Geoff Andrews, The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (London: Pluto Press, 2008). Bodil Jönsson, Unwinding the Clock: Ten Thoughts on our Relationship to Time, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2001).
[5] Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 2016), x.
[6] Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology, rev. ed. (Toronto: The House of Anansi Press Inc., 2004), 10.
[7] Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking, 5, 44-45.
[8] Berg and Seeber, The Slow Professor, 83.
[9] Berg and Seeber, The Slow Professor, 82.
[10] Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[11] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999).
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Paul Jenkins

Paul is a historian of religious and intellectual culture. He has devoted his professional life to education and lifelong learning, having served a variety of organizations, including the BBC, a Higher Education philanthropic foundation, and universities in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. He currently oversees the delivery of flexible and online education at The University of Manitoba, Extended Education.

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