Towards a higher education: Contemplation & compassion

If we can exist together in less instrumentalist and less harried modes then we might have world enough and time, for education and for each other.


In the summer of 2004, all incoming undergraduate students to Harvard University received an official letter encouraging them to slow down. The letter was penned by Harry Lewis, then Dean of Harvard College, who had become increasingly worried by the frenetic pace of curricular and extracurricular activity undertaken by Harvard freshmen. These undergraduate students, as Lewis recognised, had placed themselves under huge amounts of pressure during their High School careers (with such pressure only exacerbated by their parents, teachers and wider community) and typically, following admission to the Ivy League institution of their choice, they showed no signs of slacking off. Their focus shifted instead to fitting in as much activity and achievement as possible into their time-limited degree experience. What worried Lewis in particular was a particularly pervasive obsession with structure and productivity; for the undergraduate students he had been dealing with, optimising one’s efficiency was seen as fundamentally necessary in order to accrue advantage on the next rung of the academic or employment ladder.

Lewis’s letter offers to his students both a general word of caution and a series of concrete suggestions. Among the latter is his advice that undergraduates ‘think very carefully’ before opt ing to graduate in three years instead of four; that they choose a pathway of study for reasons beyond professional preparation; that they consider working or studying abroad for at least one term; and that they join an existing student group rather than attempt to initiate a new one. At the heart of Lewis’s letter is a plea for intellectual independence, and he champions further the value of imaginative flexibility and the primacy of personal choice. ‘Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled: it is the thing that enables the other things on your mind to be creatively rearranged [… ]’, he writes. ‘What matters is that you come to understand what you want; the challenge is to give yourself enough breathing room to discover your own loves and how to pursue them, your own ambitions and how to achieve them. It’s your life, even at Harvard. Enjoy it’ (Lewis, 2004). 

Interestingly, in the Summer of 2005, a year after Lewis’s letter, the American writer David Foster Wallace touched on a cluster of similar themes in his now famous essay, ‘This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life’. In its initial incarnation as a commencement speech, ‘This is Water’ was addressed to a class of gradu ating students from Kenyon College, a private liberal arts institution in the town of Gambier, Ohio. Unlike the Lewis letter, Wallace’s address does not offer practical suggestions for the har ried undergrad or postgrad. Rather, it is written in a more literary and meditative vein for stu dents leaving rather than beginning their university careers. But, what it shares with the Lewis piece is an emphasis on care (for oneself as well as for others) as well as a guiding desire to counteract communal frenzy and cultivate a meaningful intellectual independence. In particular, Wallace foregrounds the significance of personal choice and the necessity of paying attention. In his own words:

If I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to foodshop [ …] You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t [ … ] The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom (Wallace, 2005)

Fast-forward 13 years and it is clear that Lewis’s call to slow down as well as Wallace’s call to pay attention present particular challenges for incoming and outgoing university students. Most obviously, a more competitive postcrash global economy now places additional pressure on con temporary undergraduates (and postgraduates) to distinguish themselves from others via a port folio of academic excellence and extracurricular achievement. Worsening economic variables necessitate growing numbers of HE students to undertake part or full-time employment in order to cover registration fees in addition to the basic costs of living. And increased anxiety and stress, self-reported in peer-reviewed scholarship as well as public discourse, indicates a student mental health crisis developing as all-pervasive in higher education. Thus, in this particular edu cational and socio-economic context, well-meaning calls for choice and contemplation—for gift ing oneself ‘more breathing room to discover your loves and how to pursue them’ (Lewis 2004)—seem sorely abstracted from concrete realities of ill-health and under-privilege. 

But, even aside from these external considerations, it is clear that contemporary higher educa tion is becoming internally more prescriptive both in its image and in its expectation of the ideal student. As Bruce Macfarlane points out in his 2017 book, Freedom to Learn: The Threat to Student Academic Freedom and Why it Needs to be Reclaimed, the contemporary student is now expected to carry a plethora of conflicting identities (the ‘global citizen’, the ‘reflective learner’, the ‘creative practitioner’) while at the very same time enjoying less and less recognition of their own uniqueness in the university classroom. Rather, the experience of students in higher educa tion increasingly involves a ‘performance mode’, which is instrumentalised in a series of popular learning approaches—compulsory classes, attendance grading, class participation and self reflection exercises—that serve not to emancipate but to constrain and control. In these contexts, emphasis is placed not on student learning per se but on this learning’s visibility and measurability. What matters is not that students learn but, in Macfarlane’s own words, that ‘students need to be seen to be learning’ (Macfarlane, 2017, p. 47). ‘It seems ironic’, he continues, ‘that in an educational culture that emphasises respect for diversity as an article of faith, we now vilify students who prefer to learn in a private space rather than in a more public, performative space’ (Macfarlane, 2017, p. xv).

In Macfarlane’s estimation, something important has been forgotten here. The student who is shy and quiet will not be rewarded for such characteristics in a university setting, as it is not obvious (to those that measure and assess, at least) that this student is in fact learning. The student who might wish to take their time—who may not feel ready to share their thoughts on a text or a topic in the quick-fire forum of the lecture or the seminar—will not be rewarded (or, in Macfarlane’s terms, may in fact be ‘vilified’) as again it is not obvious that learning is taking place. In these contexts, it is all too easy for speed and visibility to trump thoughtfulness and deliberation. The same university parlance praises particular students as ‘very quick’ or ‘very engaged’ but such praise is doled out without critical consideration of what it truly means to be transformed through educational encounter. Those of us teaching at university for any length of time will attest that the same students presenting as ‘very quick, very engaged’ may not be the same students necessarily producing the most insightful essay at the end of the semester. And yet, we are always surprised. 

In sympathy with Macfarlane’s position, Amanda Fulford has similarly drawn attention to university discourses that short-change student autonomy and diversity in their privileging of educational practices that are performative and inauthentic. On Fulford’s reading, the most per vasive and damaging of these discourses is the vaguely defined ‘student engagement agenda’, which rewards student attendance (either in the real or the virtual classroom) as well as active participation. Again, argues Fulford, there is less regard in these contexts for students who might like to learn in private or less visible ways or, indeed, for students who might achieve genuine emancipation during their time at university. Standardisation of assessment and teaching play a big role here, as does a counter-litigation concern to ensure all students get the same educational provision. In all cases, the focus remains on what is quantifiable and measurable. ‘Student engagement has become almost rhizomatic as a global phenomenon in higher education’, Fulford writes. ‘It is used by governments as a measure of institutional performance, by universities as a proxy for quality, and by academics who vaunt the latest innovations in engaging methods of teaching and learning’ (Fulford, 2017, p. 106). 

In their critique of these hyper-intensified and hyper-individualised educational contexts, Macfarlane and Fulford echo the cautions of Lewis and Wallace from over a decade before. In their focus on student constraint and limitation, they demonstrate most compellingly that it is more important than ever that we begin to demand less of our students and not more. Indeed, given the increasing demands placed on our current student cohort by the practices and discourses of a globalised Higher Education system, it is more important than ever that we challenge prevailing discourses of ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’ and insist instead on our students’ ‘freedom from pressure’ (Rogers, 1969). 

It is this increased pressure, indeed, that too often communicates to students the importance of speed (hands-up immediately in the lecture hall; quick-fire response in the seminar room or online classroom) over slowness. If Macfarlane and Fulford decry the increasing performativity of student learning, I would argue that a significant aspect of this performativity is a privileging of the rapid and the eager. In the public fora of the 21st century University, the snap response always trumps the deliberate withholding. The active always trumps the passive. However, while synonyms for ‘slow’ include ‘slothful’ and ‘sluggish’, it is important to note that they include also ‘measured’ and ‘moderate’, ‘gradual’ and ‘phlegmatic’. They include the ‘dreamy’ and the ‘unhurried’. And surely, these are all intellectual virtues to be cultivated in contemporary life. 

Directly in conversation with the work of Macfarlane and Fulford, this paper bears these virtues in mind as it explores the possibilities for a less frenetic approach to university teaching and learning. In a contemporary HE era of audit and accountability, it interrogates the value of slowness as well as speed and it does so with a particular focus on higher education in the Humanities. I turn here to the literary writings of Sally Rooney as well as John Williams. Furthermore, a key ambition of the paper is its foregrounding of the ethical dimensions of slow ing down. In this context, I highlight certain key insights from The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, an academic manifesto published in 2016 by Canadians Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. On Berg and Seeber’s model, academics as well as students are called to reject the seductive priorities of overwork, competition and endless CV-building. They are called to make a deliberate moral choice to prioritise their colleagues as well as their student peers. They 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. 

The implications of this call are profound, not only for individual academics and students but for the very idea of the university. Holding Berg and Seeber’s insights in mind, we might cer tainly concede that if one of our aims as educators is to develop a less divisive and a more con templative democracy, it might well be the case that slowing down is an ethical as well as an educational imperative. It might well be the case that slowing down is the initial as well as the most important step in the establishment of any ethical academy.

I begin by delving deeper into Wallace’s idea of ‘paying attention’. Interestingly, Sharon Rider has recently argued that it is the practice and development of this very capacity that makes Higher Education higher. Paying attention, in Rider’s assessment, is the essence of thinking and of all serious study. This essence is exemplified in the ability to listen to long complicated argu ments and the ability ‘to gaze together’ at the same intellectual material; in the ideal sense, it involves advancing educational community in the very practice of cognitive attunement. It involves moreover facing up to uncomfortable truths and contested knowledges, stepping care fully through our doubts as we are challenged in what we think we know. Of course, this prac tice of paying attention aligns directly with the venerable conception of the university as an arena uniquely enabling these very virtues—as a place of peace, respite and focus that tran scends all cluttering distractions. Such, at least, is Michael Oakeshott’s powerful conception of education as an arena of ‘detachment’, one that releases students from the intrusive imperatives of the outside world (Oakeshott, 1972, p. 69).

And yet, as Rider rightfully points out, these practices and settings are slowly but steadily fad ing away. Listening, deliberating, and going back before going forward is no longer the rule. The new norm, rather, is skimming—word browsing or word spotting throughout the written text or even in live conversations with others—a practice compounded by our increasing dependence on digital rather than ‘analogue’ modes. ‘The materiality of print encourages a technology of re occurrence, a spatial thereness’, writes Rider, ‘which encourages a looking back that locates the text in space and time’ (Rider, 2018). In direct contrast with this form of textual attention, how ever, our current cognitive climate habituates our brains to speed up rather than to slow down, ‘not to look but to see’. Thus, even at the so-called ‘higher’ levels of education, the practices of reading and writing and even of thinking itself are progressively at risk of degeneration. In Rider’s account:

The speed of response in social media together with the contemporary penchant for reducing complex relations and connections to simple rankings and tables that can be scanned in a minute as ‘facts’ encourages a habit of mind in which the point is to be first and fastest, rather than to respond through reflection and reason. In present-day culture, to quote the great essayist Fran Lebowitz, the opposite of talking isn’t listening, it’s waiting (Rider, 2018). 

Insisting in this way on the habit-forming dimensions of really listening and really paying attention, Rider concurs with Wallace that these are all precious practices in need of careful cultivation; they demand at the very least ‘attention, and awareness and discipline, and effort’ (Wallace, 2005). Rider invokes Kant, indeed, to characterise the paying of attention as ‘a matter of the will’ mandating a deliberate mastery of the emotions. She is clear also that paying atten tion is a moral as well as an intellectual achievement. If we can slow down and take greater care in our readings of texts as well as our readings of people, we are far more likely to fully appreci ate and to fully respond to their complexity. We are far more likely, as Stanley Cavell would say, to allow for acknowledgment rather than to insist on knowledge. Of course, in his career-long engagement with the problem of other-minds scepticism, Cavell would argue further that epis temologically as well as ethically we owe deep reserves of attention to the ongoing mystery of otherness. As individual persons working towards community, we owe deep reserves of present ness, of care and of consideration—giving our time in recognition of alterity. 

Indeed, the work of Cavell offers a rich resource for reconsidering ‘slowness’ as philosophical con cept. It is one of the key achievements of his extensive philosophical oeuvre (from The Claim of Reason in 1979, through Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare in 1989, to Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow in 2005) to pursue the rich similarities between our encounter with persons that we have not created and our encounter with texts that we have not composed. In all cases, to be observed are certain measures of intellectual and emotional humility; there is an implicit recommen dation that we measure our steps carefully, that we slow down. Comparable to our affinity with those others that we love and cherish, Cavell urges, we can never assuredly know or possess the texts that we encounter. Rather, our attitude towards these texts must be one of receptivity and openness. The injunction is to remain calm—phlegmatic, again, but not in any pejorative sense. The best that we can achieve is acknowledgment of these texts’ complexity and their difference; the worst that we can impose is predetermined evaluation of their constitution or their worth.

Certainly, Cavell’s readings display an openness and a generosity demonstrably out of tune with his postmodernist contemporaries. There is a therapeutic dimension to his reading practices, particularly in the interpretations of King Lear and Othello, one counselling patience and work ing-through in the face of dispiriting odds and the inevitability of disappointment. Cavell cham pions the ability to read slowly, in other words, to be open to a text’s destabilising moments. He expands on this idea when prefacing his discussion of moral perfectionism: ‘What I call slow reading is meant not so much to recommend a pace of reading as to propose a mode of philo sophical attention in which you are prepared to be taken by surprise, stopped, thrown back as it were on the text’ (Cavell, 2005, p. 13).

We might draw a comparison here with Cavell’s philosophical contemporary, Richard Rorty, who distinguishes in his late work between ‘methodical’ and ‘inspired’ criticism, between ‘knowing what you want to get out of a text in advance and hoping that the person or thing or text will help you want something different’ (Rorty, 2009, p. 145). While there are important dis junctions between Cavell and Rorty, at the very least on the topic of scepticism and the problem of other-minds, both philosophers acknowledge the importance of reading as ethically deliberate practice. Both philosophers resist textual strategies intending to pre-empt or foreclose. For Cavell, in fact to a much greater extent than Rorty, slow reading requires response before asser tion and anxiety before triumph. Slow reading is first and foremost a risky act; though it can promise redemption it can never guarantee repose.

One evocative example of riskiness through alterity comes from the young Irish writer, Sally Rooney. Rooney’s Normal People, her second novel, which was published in 2018, tells the story of Connell and Marianne as they navigate sex, romance, friendship and family in messy transition from secondary school to university. The pair transitions also from their native County Sligo, where Connell is a social success and Marianne a social pariah, to the urbane undergraduate arts scene of Trinity College Dublin. Here their roles are interestingly reversed as Marianne’s class privilege makes for an easier fit with the complex social hierarchies of Dublin in general and Trinity in particular. However, the pair’s relationship is sustained as the emotional and narrative touchstone of the piece. Their experiencing of other events and other relationships feels always secondary, always incidental: 

What’s left for them, then? There doesn’t seem to be a halfway position anymore. Too much has passed between them for that. So it’s over, and they’re just nothing? What would it even mean, to be nothing to her? He could avoid her, but as soon as he saw her again, even if they only glanced at one another outside a lecture hall, the glance could not contain nothing. He could never really want it to. He has sincerely wanted to die, but he has never sincerely wanted Marianne to forget about him. That’s the only part of himself he wants to protect, the part that exists inside her (Rooney, 2018, p. 248). 

As one might expect from Rooney’s teasing title, there is nothing ‘normal’ about Connell and Marianne. Their young lives in concert are presented with such clear-eyed honesty and with such careful restraint that the reader of Rooney’s prose feels almost assaulted by its precision. In interview, Rooney has said that she does not really believe ‘in the idea of the individual’. Rather, ‘I find myself consistently drawn to writing about intimacy, and the way we construct one another’ (Barry, 2018). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that as readers of her work it becomes increasingly difficult to extricate ourselves from the tumult of Rooney’s personae. Connell and Marianne upset and unsettle even on a deliberate distancing from the text. About these young fictional lives, there is something uniquely tangible—if uniquely vulnerable, and intimate in that most difficult sense. As apprehended so sharply by Anne Enright in her Irish Times review: 

Connell and Marianne’s feelings are so real they have a shape, they are sometimes experienced as a physical force. The book switches point of view but it stays very close, so we know how the characters feel but not, somehow, what they are (Enright, 2018).

With Enright’s incisive commentary in mind, it is interesting to consider Rooney’s Normal People as a text for discussion in the university classroom. Given its school and university setting, in particular, it is tempting to consider the significance of the book as bildungsroman— with potential insight into how the young person might learn and live well. Certainly there are clear parallels to be drawn between Rooney’s Normal People and Belinda McKeon’s Tender (2015); the latter similarly foregrounds the education of a central female and male character who as teen agers move from the rural midlands to study poetry and photography in a progressively liberal 1990’s Dublin. In the difficult territory of youthful friendship, obsession and loss, McKeon’s novel—also comparable to Rooney’s—unlocks broader philosophical questions about any educa tion in the liberal arts: Might the reading or writing of narrative fiction expand moral awareness? Can the viewing of artworks fine-tune emotional response? And does the study of poetry culti vate sensitivity or self-deceit?

But in the final analysis, Normal People will always strain against generic classification or straightforward artistic comparison—though Rooney’s potential affinities with Greta Gerwig as well as Lena Dunham have both been ventured. Neither will this novel present itself in answer to any pre-determined set of questions. Certainly, it is a book that lingers with and troubles its reader but like a lot of contemporary fiction and it deliberately resists neat summary or para phrase. What it offers is more mood than message.

Read in the educational context of the university seminar, the possibilities for this text are manifold. Students might not extract meaning so much as dwell with Rooney’s novel, retreating from it now and coming back to it later. This movement involves the cultivation of a certain text ual mindset, undoubtedly, a reading with care and with patience and with full readiness to be surprised. Marielle Mac e captures this attitude well in her encouragement that we consider read ing ‘as a conduct, a behaviour rather than a decoding’ (Mac e & Jones, 2013, p. 216, emphasis mine). The guiding thought here is that in our engagements with literature we ought to exercise similar virtues as in our engagements with people—care, patience and thoughtfulness, as well as an openness to radical uncertainty. Again we might remember Rorty’s distinction in this late work between the ‘methodical’ and the ‘inspired’, between ‘knowing what you want to get out of a text [… ] and hoping that the person or thing or text will help you want something differ ent’ (Rorty, 2009, p. 145).

Of course, this idea of reading as ethical practice has a distinguished philosophical heritage. Beyond the work of Rorty and Cavell, several of Martha Nussbaum’s key publications, from Love’s Knowledge and Poetic Justice to Cultivating Humanity and Upheavals of Thought, have as their central theme the importance of the humanities—specifically, the importance of narrative fic tion—in educating a learner’s moral sensibility. For Bernard Williams and Iris Murdoch, similarly, readers have their moral and emotional sensibilities distinctively deepened and finely tuned in their experience of narrative fiction (Murdoch, 1970; Williams, 1965). And in the work of Cora Diamond, most compellingly of all, poetry and short story illustrate that the moral life is not an objective reality to be matched by subjective speech. There is much more to moral philosophy than the interweaving of fact with general principle and only in our engagements with literature is the messiness of moral life truly brought to the fore. 

In his article, ‘Reading, Engagement and Higher Education’, David Aldridge unites with all these thinkers on the moral significance of readerly conduct. ‘The text does not teach by instruc tion or by offering a substantive proposition to which the reader must assent’ (Aldridge, 2019, emphasis mine), he writes. Rather, drawing on the work of Gadamer, Aldridge ventures that stu dents of literature might do well to consider the potentially ethical dimensions of reading. Students might do well, in his own words, to approach the text as if it is itself provisional and as if both reader and text are dissenting voices, ‘as if [the text] has something to teach about a shared concern that is not yet fully understood or “agreed” by each party’ (Aldridge, 2019). Students adopting such an openness of attitude must move at a slower pace, no doubt. Their progress in their reading will not be straightforwardly linear. It will involve pausing, going back, progressing slowly or perhaps abandoning the book altogether.

In this meandering movement, we might suggest that students are more open to the text’s contradictions and confusions and that they are more vulnerable to its transforming possibilities. But, true learning at university level will always involve this openness, this vulnerability and this time—again, the kind of time and patience it takes to leave Connell and Marianne alone and to come back to them later. Such slowed-down experience exists in direct contrast to the Macfarlane and Fulford notions of student ‘engagement’ and student ‘performance’. What is sug gested in its orbit is not assertiveness and immediacy but responsiveness and pause—not straightforward agreement, potentially, but carefully considered dissent. In the context of the broader discussion re slowness and the contemporary university, such an approach to Rooney’s text—taken as example—illustrates one way in which a model of slowness might benefit stu dents and researchers alike. I turn now to a second way, illustrated through the literary work of American writer, John Williams.

In interview shortly before his retirement in 1985, the novelist and academic John Williams lamented the then-prevalent pedagogical attitude picturing literature as a body of work to be studied and understood rather than a set of writings to be individually experienced. The literary text, in Williams’ words, was not be enjoyed but to be known and critically dismantled. ‘It’s to be exegeted, in other words, rather than experienced?’ the interviewer asks. ‘Yes, as if it were a kind of puzzle’. ‘And literature is written to be entertaining?’ ‘Absolutely’, Williams replies. ‘My God, to read without joy is stupid’ (Woolley, 1986, p. 31).

Williams’ own ideals of reading and teaching are beautifully captured in his classic mid-century novel, Stoner, which tells the story of the eponymous university lecturer and the dedication of his life to the teaching of English. Stoner is a heartbreakingly tender and meditative work and for all the personal challenges faced by its stoic protagonist (a difficult marriage; a career-long conflict with a grotesque colleague; a cruelly frustrated love-affair; a cancerous tumour that leads to his premature death) his university lifeworld is coloured throughout in a golden glow, in marked mel ancholia for an age already disappearing. Williams’ fictional character was writing and teaching in the early to mid-twentieth century when, we might presume, technologies of speed and radical cri tique had yet to be fully articulated or mobilised in the university classroom.

Indeed, as pointed out by Maggie Doherty, the University of Stoner barely resembles the com plex context of contemporary Higher Education. When Stoner obtains his doctorate, he transi tions directly to a permanent post in the same institution and remains there until his retirement forty years later. He publishes a single monograph, unexceptional even in his own estimation, but achieves the security of tenure seemingly without struggle. As Doherty ruefully acknowl edges, times have certainly changed. The security of the tenure track has been replaced by mass precarity and casualisation and most early career faculty can only dream of a permanent post. It is this particular schism between the contemporary and the classic university that gives Williams’ novel ‘its peculiar poignancy’. At the very least, argues Doherty, reading Stoner in the current cli mate leaves one deeply nostalgic for an era of slowness and meditation. From her own perspec tive as a non-tenure track faculty member, Doherty expands:

Both the highpoints and crises of Stoner’s teaching career seem nearly unimaginable from our current vantage point. Consider Stoner’s practice of meeting with students in his off-hours, in his study at home or in his office at the university. Today, as U.S. News reported, an equally dedicated adjunct might meet with students in a parking lot, where she’ll pull relevant papers and books from the trunk of her car (few adjuncts have offices at the institutions where they teach). [… ] This fall brought with it the story of another adjunct instructor living, then dying, in poverty. Dave Heller, adjunct instructor of philosophy at Seattle University, died at 61 from an untreated thyroid condition. He’d been earning $18,000 a year, just one-third the median income for a single person in Seattle. Stoner may have suffered his fair share of indignities, but they pale in comparison to tales from the adjunct community (Doherty, 2015)

As Doherty illustrates so well, the University of Stoner is not the university of today. On a global scale well beyond the US context, early career academics encounter deeply unreasonable work ing schedules and radically variable pay; existing as a body of liminal or threshold professionals, they are often much less privileged than the students they teach. For this particular socio-eco nomic cohort, indeed, ‘slowing down’ is more pipe-dream than philosophy. 

Of course, another striking difference between the contemporary university and the university of William Stoner (or, indeed, the university of John Williams) is the large-scale migration to online learn ing. This development is radically impactful on the speed or slowness of any student experience. More specifically, Wallace and Rider’s ideal of ‘paying attention’ is profoundly threatened in the online realm where, as Hubert Dreyfus points out, the absence of face-to-face interaction effectively legiti mates student withdrawal, student deception and a singular lack of student commitment:

Experiments in computer-supported cooperation have shown that people are more inclined to defect in on line communications than in face-to-face interactions, and that a preliminary direct acquaintance between people reduces this effect. So, computer technology can even weaken trust relationships already holding in human organizations and relations, and aggravate problems of deception and trust (Dreyfus, 2001, p. 118).

Not only does the online space compromise human interaction in general but such relational dis connect is deeply damaging for educational encounter in particular. This is a point developed by Keehn, Anderson, and Boyles (2018) who challenge the extent to which online learning in Higher Education has become reified, omnipresent, and entirely taken-for-granted.

Adopting a Weberian critique of the contemporary neoliberal university, Keehn et al. express deep reservations about ‘the commercial logic of convenience’ that sells more and more online modules in a bid to profiteer from more and more undergraduate and postgraduate students. ‘The bureaucratic and economic reality is that online classes are convenient’, they write, ‘and appeal to students-as-customers’ understanding of the purpose of university life: get in, get out, and get a (high paying) job’ (Keehn et al., 2018, p. 58). On such a mechanised and instrumental ised model, the frenetic pace of a future-orientated education rationalises the student experience as one of efficiency and productivity. If academic speed translates to the publication of more and more papers then student speed translates to the pocketing of more and more modules. In both cases, speed is the first and sometimes the only priority.

In sympathy with Doherty’s piece, moreover, the authors rightfully point out that the precar ious employment of today’s university teacher effectively deprives her of her pedagogical auton omy, once a distinguishing component of the Higher Education context. This adds yet another layer of disempowerment to her experience of casualisation. ‘Teaching online classes is rarely optional; it is often required’, as the authors point out. ‘Adjuncts, part-time instructors, and graduate students are not in a position to resist the top-down pressure to offer online classes’ (Keehn et al., 2018, p. 48).

At the heart of Keehn et al. critique is the worry that online or even blended models of learn ing exemplify and underscore the bureaucratisation of university life. In other words, online or blended models of learning imagine the university as late-capitalist business in constant competition with other late-capitalist businesses for resources in short supply. Students on this schema are imagined as freely choosing and empowered consumers who at any time in the future may take their commercial interests elsewhere. But, attracted by the efficiency of online learning ‘delivery’, these same students now have the ability to opt out completely from the chaos of lived relationship. In the online educational space, students now have the ability to avoid, to deny and even to fully disconnect: 

Relationships that used to be fundamentally messy, human, and unquantifiable are suddenly regimented, sanitized, and surveilled. The myriad ways in which both professors and students are ‘held accountable’ first and foremost not to each other as human beings engaged in authentic relationships, but rather to their bureaucratic overlords, who they may well never actually meet, are illustrative of the power of bureaucracy in contemporary higher education (Keehn et al., 2018, p. 57)

Bureaucracy of course is not a global evil. Online platforms such as Moodle, Brightspace and Blackboard helpfully and creatively resolve the management of most aspects of student life; and university administrators as well as teachers would be lost without them. But, Keehn et al. are con cerned in a more lateral way with the potentially damaging consequences of online platforms entirely taking over—of technology not just assisting but actively subsuming university life. 

The implications for the slow university are of course profound. As Duncan Pritchard (2016) has explored, increasing reliance on technology in education permits students to outsource cer tain cognitive tasks to external or hand-held devices; and this outsourcing, in turn, can cultivate epistemic vices such as distractedness, laziness and a corrupting individualism. Certainly, as uni versity teachers, our reliance on educational technology increases year on year and our obliga tion to develop in our students particular cerebral skills (memorisation or mathematical calculation, at the very least) correspondingly declines. More worryingly still, as Pritchard empha sises, is the incessant march towards educational ‘technomania’—in Ian Kidd’s words, ‘an attitude of unreflectively zealous enthusiasm for promoting and entrenching educational use of technol ogy in ways resistant to criteria like pedagogical relevance or efficacy’ (Kidd, 2019).

We might surmise that in the technomanic or technomaniac University, any foundational commitment to epistemic virtue or educational depth is increasingly overwritten by online learn ing approaches accepted as always and already pedagogically superior. Online becomes the default, the de facto and the unscrutinised mode. Understandably, a plausible concern in this context is that at the mid- or the end-point of this inevitable progression we misplace entirely the ethical and the human. We misplace entirely the significance of messy, unpredictable and slowed-down encounter. Posing a series of pressing questions in conversation with Pritchard’s paper, Kidd captures this concern very well: ‘Why bother to develop virtues like attentiveness or insightfulness if Googling can remember and explain for you? [ …] Why work with other agents, when some electronic device can do the work faster?’ (Kidd, 2019).


I have been suggesting throughout this paper that contemporary academic priorities of competi tion, effectiveness, speed, and productivity come into direct conflict with opposing ideals of thoughtfulness, reflection, dissent, and responsive attunement. These priorities have developed at least in part because of a constricting global economy and a worry from students that they will graduate university and simply not get a job. But, they are enshrined also in university dis courses of student ‘engagement’ and ‘activity’, as they are the inevitable casualties of increased prescriptiveness (hence less freedom and less diversity) in university practices of teaching and learning. In particular, the last 10 years has seen an increasingly taken-for-granted dependency on the online classroom and a corresponding student mentality of ‘getting in and getting out’ as quickly as possible. Of course, as pointed out by Michael Alhadeff-Jones, beyond the rigid dichotomy of fast and slow, our relationship with time is defined in a much more complex sense rethink our relationship with education altogether (Alhadeff-Jones, 2016).

Acknowledging the promise of Alhadeff-Jones’s work the fact remains, however, that today’s university students are increasingly frenetic; they are increasingly in thrall to a blinkered competi tiveness fostering in turn a damaging individualism. In the simplest terms, student speed oper ates in cultivation of the unethical academy. As the narrator of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest points out, student mentalities of competition and individualism lead only to self-destruction and paranoia; though the context for the fictional Hal Incandenza is the private tennis academy rather than the public university, his central message is nonetheless germane: ‘Be constantly focussed and on alert: feral talent is its own set of expectations and can abandon you at any one of the detours of so-called normal American life at any time, so be on guard’ (Wallace, 1996, p. 185). It is certainly ironic that today’s global university is increasingly concerned with the integrity of its student as well as its academic population and has correspondingly upped its yearly efforts to tackle student cheating, student plagiarism and other perceived infringements of an implicit or explicit honour code—and yet, today’s global university is far less active in addressing its own role in fostering epistemic or educational vice.

Here again is where the work of Berg and Seeber is instructive. Providing both a theoretical and a practical blueprint for a revitalised academy, The Slow Professor serves as a very welcome intervention to Higher Education discourse. There is a strong ethical tenor to their book that seeks to push back against the forces of commercialisation that have dogged the neo-liberal uni versity in recent years. On the authors’ very particular understanding, ‘slowness’ indicates a thoughtful and deliberate approach to contemporary academic practice. ‘Slowness’ involves questioning the value of productivity and reinstating the value of the local; ‘slowness’ champions the ability to create in the present and to sidestep the endless pressure to produce for the future. In the authors’ own terms, ‘slowing down is about asserting the importance of contem plation, connectedness, fruition and complexity’ (Berg & Seeber, 2016, p. 57). 

In sum, for Berg and Seeber, slowing down is an ethical choice. If we want our students to be less individualistic and less competitive then we, as academics, need to model the importance of messy and human if non-quantifiable encounter. We need to follow Lewis’s guidance to ‘slow down’ as we foreground what is eulogised in Wallace’s commencement speech as the dying art of ‘paying attention’. And at the very same time, we need to actively resist the gathering forces of marketisation, bureaucratisation and credentialisation; these are all forces that thrive together institutionally at the expense of personal and professional fulfilment. 

Quite simply, if we can exist together in these less instrumentalist and less harried modes then we might have world enough and time—for education and for each other.


My sincere thanks to Dr. Ian Kidd (University of Nottingham) for his generous and insightful com ments on this piece

Disclosure statement 

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author


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