Professor Sharon Todd, Department of Education, Maynooth University
The idea of the slow university, as Maggie O’Neill depicts it, challenges us to rethink not only the structure of the university (its governance, funding, and regulations) but also its very purpose as a public institution and our own lives as academics within it.
For the past three decades, critics of neo-liberalism have challenged the cultures of managerialism and marketisation that have assailed our lives within universities. They have shown how neo-liberalism simultaneously exerts its privatising influence from the ‘outside’ and, in true Foucauldian fashion, shapes academic selves from within. That is, our sense of our own value and worth has increasingly followed a frantic, individualistic logic of performativity. Who we are increasingly becomes lost in what we are, defined in terms of measurable outputs and deliverables, which we then proclaim – indeed advertise – through a host of web sites and social media. Our academic ‘selves’ become entwined with the rate at which we can produce. How often do I hear colleagues confess that they are ‘slow’ writers; or that they require time to draft and redraft a paper, as if this is some shameful, dirty secret? What kinds of academic environments are we complicit in when we apologise for having to take our time and think?
The acceleration of our academic lives, however, is not merely a by-product of neo-liberal structures, but also of the demands made upon us by the proliferation of information technology and digital culture. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, in And: Phenomenology of the End, notes a disjoint between the time of information flow and lived time. We suffer from chronopathologies, such as panic, depression and anxiety (so common amongst academics and students), because the time we live as human organisms, with our physical, emotional and cultural rhythms, can never match the constant and instantaneous flow of information that continually demands our attention. It is not merely that we feel we can’t keep up; rather, the disjuncture actually produces a contraction in lived time, where our experiences of thinking, reflection, rumination and elaboration are diminished. That is, we cannot keep up (neither physically nor emotionally), and the demands to do so drain our capacities to the point of exhaustion. As Berardi sees it, our sensibility itself becomes imperilled, along with our very ability to extract pleasure and meaning from our experience.
How do we ensure that pleasure and meaning are part of our lives in academia? It seems to me what is required is indeed a slowing down in order to revalue our very experience of university: to be able, as sensate bodies, to experience the rhythm of lived time which is required for thought and attention. The very purpose of the university has never been about extending or communicating information, but about engaging in relationships of understanding, which require idea generation alongside attention to the ideas of others. This is both its public responsibility and its personal commitment to students and academics alike. For this, we need time to think, to inquire, to question and to elaborate, as is proper to who we are, as sensate beings. Reframing the university in lived time means building ways of life that are not ciphered through endless individual demands and pursuits. Instead, it means taking seriously the educational task of the university as one that enables the flourishing of sensibility, understanding and thought. The slow university, in short, is simply a university that is fulfilling its purpose.