Report on the Senior College Colloquium The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Change – June 14, 2018

June 14, 2018, 2:00 -4:00 pm
Senior College Centre, Committee Room
Participants, including Convenor: Sandra Acker, Rosemary Aubert, Deane Bogdan, Giuliana Katz, Peter Russell (Convenor), Peter Slater, and Peter Stokes

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Change

Notetaker: John Yeomans


The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

By Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber © 2016, University of Toronto Press. 93 pp.

Made to Measure: Early Career Academics in the Canadian University Workplace. Sandra Acker and Michelle Webber. Higher Education Research & Development 36: 541-54, 2017.

Uneasy Academic Subjectivities in the Contemporary University. Sandra Acker and Michelle Webber. In J. Smith et al. (eds.) Identity-Work in the Contemporary University, 2016.

Introduction by Peter Russell:

How has the university changed since we were students or young professors?

Peter Russell listed several changes since he began here in 1958. First, a Ph.D. wasn’t required of faculty. Second, (citing C.B. McPherson) only one good book was sufficient for a successful career, so that quality was more important than quantity of publications. McLuhan wrote one book on Shakespeare for tenure.

Peter Slater agreed. Only 2 articles were expected for promotion to tenure in his field (Theology) when he started.

Peter Stokes noted that Hart House was the center of the University in the 1950s and 60s, for intellectual discussions, athletics and social life. Now Hart House is largely empty.

Does the book succeed in its criticism of changes in the university?

Peter Stokes: The idea of “The Slow Professor” was a bit offensive to him. Another way to look at change is Cecily Watson’s 1984 work at OISE on university professors. She questioned our ability to adapt to change, using her phrase “The Stuck Professor”. The Ontario Ministry of Education (where Peter worked) wants universities to respond quickly to changing social needs (not slowly based on personal academic priorities, perhaps). In particular, universities need to respond to rapid demographic changes in students, and in changes in the job markets for graduates.

Indeed, Sandra Acker is currently writing a conference paper that may serve as a reply, called “The Fast Professor”.

Rosemary Aubert was concerned that the book offered few suggestions on how to improve the working conditions for faculty.

Giuliana Katz agreed and worried that the administration won’t likely listen to concerns of faculty.

Peter Russell pointed out that the proportion of university degrees in Ontario has increased from 8% in 1958 to 67% in 2018, so that the undergraduate degree is only a first step. The economy has shifted from manufacturing work (still very much needed and valued) to highly skilled professional work, where academic skills are required. Students are now focussed more on professional studies since their careers are not ensured with an undergraduate degree.

Rosemary Aubert commented on how Catholic Universities have changed from mainly Franciscan and Jesuit professors (where no grants were required for the work) to non-cleric professors competing for grants and publications.

John Yeomans discussed biomedical research where the work requires labs, animal facilities, publications and research grants. The fields of genetics and neuroscience have changed the way work is done, requiring new tools each decade. There is less time for slow contemplation now, although thoughtful criticism is necessary.</>

Evaluation of professors, for better or for worse?

The battle for tenure was discussed by the young professors interviewed in the readings, and by our emeritus professors around the table. Tenure was instituted in the 1950s as an antidote for the McCarthy-era attacks on left-wing intellectuals. Peter Russell asked whether tenure is necessary in the present era.

Sandra Acker moved from Bristol University to OISE in 1991. By the 1990s many published papers became expected. By the 2000s, globalization and the Internet increased expectations further. Withdrawals of government funding, competition among universities and research allocations to universities in some countries that were based on publications and external grants led to heightened pressures for securing research grants across disciplines.

Our careers are influenced by the larger international audience of scholars who read our grants and papers, and then compare our work to their international colleagues. This means we depend less on our local department colleagues, since we have to keep up with the best scholars on-line.

Peter Russell was concerned that subjective quality was replaced by judgments based on the numbers of publications and grant dollars.

Peter Stokes pointed out that Governments (such as the Ontario Ministry of Universities) have difficulty judging Universities, and so numerology is an efficient way to make comparisons.