Slow academia and the neoliberal university: call for blog posts

The blog of the AESOP Young Academics network is looking for contributions on all aspects of spatial planning (see for example a general call for blog posts, including such themes as “bridging theory and practice”, and a call for insightful contributions about the values that drive the AESOP community). An additional theme that deserves discussion is the potential for slow academia to emerge in a context of an increasingly neoliberal management of higher education and research performance. What is the current trend? Are research and education all about quality (as in quality education, quality research outputs), or are they more about quantity (number of students enrolled/taught, tuition fees being cashed in, number of research papers published per year)? Is a balancing act really possible in today’s day and age?

So do send your contributions to blog@aesop-youngacademics.net, following these guidelines for submissions. Below is some food for thought: plenty of questions for you to explore and suggest answers to.

Entering the rat race? Finding a steady (s)pace?

As many AESOP young career researchers and practitioners are planning their next steps, one can wonder whether there is space for everyone in academia. A former blog post by Enzo Falco and Alessandro Rinaldi showed how grim the outlook might seem to aspiring academics in Italy and beyond, with the need to consider academic prospects across countries. But say you find a space within academia, is that space really secure? Is it all a rat race where performance criteria and quantity of outputs are more important than quality research and education? Does quantity necessarily have to outweigh quality?

A respondent to the ongoing survey about the values that drive members of the AESOP community shares his responses to the following question: How much of the values from Ancient Greece and other parts of the Ancient World live on in AESOP?

I think that values from Ancient Greece are important to build the European attitude towards democracy and for balanced and responsive territorial planning in Europe thereof. However, I also think that these values are fading away in the recent years due to multiple pressures of liberalism. This has an influence on all levels of planning and related issues.

While liberalism is affecting much of what planners do and observe, it is also affecting planners’ own education and ways of knowing the world they engage in. So how can we as practicing planners, researching planners, and planners-in-the-making manage these “multiple pressures of liberalism”?

An emerging movement within academia in general is “slow academia” or “slow science”, modeled on the corresponding “slow food” movement which started in Italy in the 1980s to combat a dwindling interest in food quality, and help revive food systems that supports well-being, the natural environment and communities. Slow science is about quality, plurality and taking the time necessary to make landmark contributions to knowledge. In today’s world of fast science, slow science increasingly has strong political implications, philosopher of science Isabel Stengers in her book Another Science is Possible. Slow science is about finding ways to address multiple challenges related to fast science, such as increasing competition and work loading, dwindling and shorter-term funding and the stakes of true innovation as opposed to innovation for its own sake.

An effective analogy of slow academia for PhD researchers can be soup-making – that hearty, warming winter-type of soup that wants to simmer for many hours to release all its flavours. In other words, a good thesis, or any other good piece of work for that matter, cannot be rushed. It needs the time that it needs to ripen and come to fruition. Even if a PhD should not be your life’s opus work, as PhD supervisors often say.

At the same time, slow academia might just be some foregone utopia. Alison Edwards shares her critique of slow academia in the Thesis Whisperer, titled: “Slow Academia is for the privileged – but then, isn’t all academia?”. As Mark Corrigan and Filip Vostal write: “to be a slow professor is a privilege. It’s a privilege available only to those already at the summit of the academic career structure”, where more junior academics would likely be making up the gap in productivity.

So does it mean the neoliberal turn in academia is unavoidable? Some critical academics advocate more inclusive systems of research and education that move beyond competition and hierarchy, and the supporting mechanisms of knowledge-production as neoliberal capital accumulation. These could  be non-university spaces for learning and research, for example, that still engage with conventional outlets for knowledge dissemination (e.g. conferences) without necessarily being dictated by neoliberal forms of management. Other academics are exploring the different ways in which academia could slow down, such as: following the way of the ant; committing to publishing less, as part of a revised ecology of publishing; or resolutely resisting the push toward consumerism in knowledge transmission and acquisition. In all, do higher education and research need to be repoliticised? Or the shift (back) to “quality” a cultural or aesthetic one?

Make haste, but slowly

The tortoise has repeatedly been associated with the idea of “hurrying slowly”, from the time of story-teller Aesop in Ancient Greece with his fable called “The Hare and the Tortolise”, to the Medici family in Renaissance Florence, or Jean de la Fontaine’s re-vamping of the Aesop fable in 1668. There are apparently many tortoise to be found in different forms in Florence, including in the Palazzio Vechio, a notable case being a tortoise with a sail on its back. The Latin phrase Festina Lente, which can be loosely translated as “Make haste slowly”, has been a popular motto throughout Western history, from the Roman emperors Augustus and Titus, to Cosimo de Medici in Florence, or the Earl of Onslow in England. The French poet Nicolas Boileau also used the idea in describing how one can become a good writer, achieving excellence and managing setbacks. So whoever said tortoise were slow or ineffective? For the record: several hundred years later after the Medici, a 100 year tortoise named Charles managed to escape from his adoptive family’s garden in Florence, Oregon, and go completely missing for two whole days.

Like the dwarf in Florence, we could ride on the turtle’s back and find our way (back?) to greatness.

Or should we learn to think fast AND slow, putting into practice some of Daniel Kahneman’s advice?

James Abbott - Festina lente - Florence Tortoise sculpture.jpg

The above sculpture, called “Searching for Utopia”, is by Belgian artist Jan Fabre, and was exhibited Plaza della Signoria in Florence (see an artistic commentary here) Picture credit: Florence 2016-07-16 044-LR, by James Abbott on Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

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