Reflections from AAG 2015 on the notion of slow scholarship

“So the issue,” writes Martell, “is not speed, but control over speed. … In effect what slow is reintroducing is being human and well-being.”

The above quote is one of the arguments presented in a forthcoming article in ACME: An International E-journal for Critical Geographies advocating a movement For Slow Scholarship. Written by Alison Mountz and colleagues, the article develops a feminist ethics of care that challenges the isolating effects and embodied work conditions inherent to the increasing demands placed on academics within the neoliberal university.

The collectively written article explores alternatives to the fast-paced, metric-oriented neoliberal university – an argument contextualised in: a) an examination of how “the ‘slow’ in slow scholarship is not just about time, but about structures of power and inequality”, and b) the premise that “Care work is work. It is not self-indulgent; it is radical and necessary.”

This argument defines my experience of this year’s Association of American Geographers Annual Conference in Chicago. One of the highlights for me was a double-session titled Feminists on the Frontlines (see Twitter: #femfrontlines). The sessions included both lessons learnt within feminist geography in the past and reflections on how to forge the future. The stories shared by the panellists were heartfelt, honest, and raw yet simultaneously empowering in their effort to rectify how “the embodied realities of this workplace and worktime are rarely discussed” and how “the effects of the neoliberal university are written on the body.” As Mountz et al. articulately express:

“The business enterprise of academic life in the neoliberal university produces a work rhythm that is rushed, riddled with anxiety and pressure to be ever-present. Sometimes life gets in the way. Overwhelming pressures can lead to paralysis, and scholarship can come to a complete halt. Collective commitments to slow scholarship, fostered by academic alliances and friendships, can help us to come out of moments of depression or exhaustion, lest we drown in shame, loss, and discontentment.”

I felt the direct power of sharing and caring in my contribution to another double-panel-session on Grieving Witnesses: the Politics of Grief in the Field. My story of becoming a grieving witness in the process of witnessing grief during research was but one of fifteen similar yet vastly different expressions of how we as academic care, yet simultaneous fail to administer an ethics of care towards ourselves in the process of surviving within the neoliberal university.

The importance of thriving, not just surviving within academia, was one of the key points made in the #femfrontlines sessions and the forthcoming article:

“Counting culture leads to intense, insidious forms of institutional shaming, subject-making, and self-surveillance. It compels us to enumerate and self-audit, rather than listen and converse, engage with colleagues, students, friends and family, or involve ourselves in the meaningful and time-consuming work that supports and engages our research and broader communities. … What if we counted differently? Instead of articles published or grants applied for, what if we accounted for thank you notes received, friendships formed, collaborations forged?”

A strong ethics of care within academia and the notion of slow scholarship resonate greatly with me. Yet bringing them to bear in everyday life evokes feelings of vulnerability and of being overwhelmed. The ten feminist strategies for slow scholarship as collective action provided by Mountz et al. are therefore both reassuring and invigorating. Early career researchers and seasoned professors alike are encouraged to:

  1. Talk about and support slow strategies.
  2. Count what others don’t.
  3. Organise.
  4. Take care … we must take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. But we must take care of others.
  5. Write fewer e-mails.
  6. Turn off email.
  7. Make time to think.
  8. Make time to write (differently) … what we say and how we say it matters.
  9. Say no. Say yes.
  10. Reach for the minimum (i.e. good enough is the new perfect) … [it] allows for a focus on quality – rather than quantity – and acknowledges the need for balance.

I return from the AAG enriched by the stories fellow academics shared during the conference, and look forward to the Institute of Australian Geographer’s Annual Conference in July, where researcher self-care is the core focus of the pre-conference workshop organised by the IAG Hazards, Risks and Disasters Study Group.

7 thoughts on “Reflections from AAG 2015 on the notion of slow scholarship

  1. Thank you Christine. Thank you thank you! I can’t tell you how much your post resonates with with. Thank you for sharing. I was literally finishing a presentation on the emotion of research and the nexus of “expected productivity” and burnout! Can’t tell you how well timed this is. Oh. Did I say….. Thank you!

  2. Dear Christine,
    Thank you for making time to write down these thoughts. Hopefully feminist geographers and others can bring a focus on social reproduction with care to the forefront of what our work should be aiming for rather than techno-capitalist bureaucratic ideals of “production”. The latter being gratified by abstracts ethics of quantity, excellence, and internationalization (read: good for the pride of the nation reagardless of the needs and freedoms of its majority people). By reading your piece and attending similar sessions at the pre-AAG conference in Milwaukee, I feel part of something bigger, a social movement in the making. I recommend having a look at newuniversitynorway.org , which is a forum opening up this week to start reimagining our universities in Norway, inspired from the stuff taking place in Amsterdam, Denmark, London School of Exploitation, Toronto and many other places.
    Have a great day and thank you again for your empowering message.

    Thomas
    PhD student, Department of Geography, Norwegian University of Science and Technology – NTNU

  3. Dear Dale and Thomas,
    Thank you for taking the time to write to share your feedback on the blog post. It is fantastic that the movement for a stronger ethics of care in academia is gaining momentum globally.
    All the best,
    Christine

  4. Excellent. Shifting this around, we constantly blame ‘the system’ for forcing manic production and over-work. It is helpful to isolate out the individuals and the institutions within that ‘system’ that support and create a neo-liberal production agenda, and to convice them of alternative pathways. I won’t say I have been all that successful personally in influencing deans, heads and others in this category (better when I was a head of a program), but sometimes this requires a double-movement – showing that collaboration and care ends up being more productive! (as in the case of joint grants, articles with large authorship, articles that took longer to produce but had a greater impact…).

    I am a bit annoyed that those ten points do not mention the fundamental duty that university academics signed up for – to teach. (this is also what brings in the money to pay salaries at most Australian Universities). Doing your own individual research slowly does not endow it with an ethics of care or community spirit – you are still looking after your cv. Teaching is empowerment, outreach, creating learning.

    I might add that reading and replying to blogs is regarded as timewasting by some!….it is not just emails that need ot be on the list. Actually, not replying to emails because you are writing and article can be regarded as un-cooperative.

    So lots to think about and to challenge, thanks

  5. Hi Simon and everyone – Thank you for this blogpost and for the feedback. I want to note that there is much fuller discussion in the paper about teaching, service, and all manner of work in the university; that the ten points are merely ten points made at the end of the paper. There is more to read.

    An important point of the paper is to work in collectives and not prioritize individual research programs.

    In terms of email, a close read even of the ten points will show divergent and conflicting strategies, with some authors not able to respond to the full volume of email received, and others insisting on responding to every single email upon receipt.

    In any case, we definitely do not presume to have answers to everything – or goal in this paper was to provoke conversation, and we appreciate that it has done so here and beyond.

    Readers can access the full paper here:
    https://www.academia.edu/12192676/For_Slow_Scholarship_A_Feminist_Politics_of_Resistance_through_Collective_Action_in_the_Neoliberal_University

    Best, Alison

  6. Thank you all for continuing this conversation.

    Your comment Alison, came in just as I was reading a wonderful and very relevant blog post by Kate Bowles on ‘Service as a Service’: http://musicfordeckchairs.com/blog/2015/08/02/service-as-a-service/

    Kate brings a very articulate voice to the debate on slow scholarship: “We need to recognise that service time that isn’t costed is human time that isn’t valued. So until we properly cost all the services that universities have committed us to delivering, we’re going to be sprinting over the mountains in a broken peloton, endlessly trying to prove ourselves against those nearest to us. Let’s keep thinking together about what it will take to slow this down.”

    Since I wrote the post-AAG blog post, I have published further reflections on ways to thrive (not just survive) in academia in an article in Emotion, Space & Society: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1755458615300244

    Here’s to a continuation of thoughtful conversations on ways to better academia…

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