The Slow Food approach to scholarship

Reading Anthony Grafton’s recent NYRB blog post on the impact of budget cuts on British universities (and especially the paleography program at King’s College London), I was struck by the following paragraph:

There was a Slow Food feel to British university life, based on a
consensus that people should take the time to make an article or a book
as dense and rich as it could be. Good American universities were never
exactly Fast Food Nation, but we certainly felt the pressure to
produce, regularly and rapidly. By contrast, Michael Baxandall spent
three years at the Warburg Institute, working in the photographic
collection and not completing a dissertation, and several more as a
lecturer, later on, writing only a few articles. Then, in 1971 and
1972, he produced two brilliant interdisciplinary books, which
transformed the study of Renaissance humanism and art, remain standard
works to this day, and were only the beginning of a great career.
Gertrud Bing, E.H. Gombrich, J.B. Trapp, and A.M. Meyer, who
administered the Warburg in those days, knew how to be patient. Their
results speak for themselves.

If American universities weren’t Fast Food Nation then, they are now, in the age of massive and permanent adjunctification. Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while knows how cynical I’ve become about the likelihood of any change in the situation; it’s disheartening to think of universities elsewhere going the same way.

The thing is, I passionately believe in the Slow Food approach to scholarship. I believe in taking as long as the project needs. I believe in not rushing to publish every half-baked idea.* I believe quality trumps quantity. I believe in patience. I believe the two-books-for-tenure requirement (or whatever it is now) is a formula for a deluge of mediocre monographs, and this benefits no one in the end. I believe in the sheer pleasure of discovering things, of deep and thoughtful and playful conversation about ideas. And I believe in unprofitable, obscure areas of knowledge, the more impractical the better. Poetry makes nothing happen, after all. Not every human endeavor is or should be about raking in the funding as fast as we possibly can.

I would love to start a Slow Scholarship movement, dedicated to the pursuit of intellectual discovery under unhurried and convivial conditions.** But the eternal question is: how do people who have to pay the rent and the utility bills manage this sort of thing? Whether one is an independent scholar with a day job, or a faculty member trying to squeeze out X books and Y articles while serving on Z committees and grading N papers (where N = some number always greater than time allows), there just aren’t enough hours in the day, either for slow unhurried thinking or for long thoughtful conversations with one’s (equally rushed) colleagues—or for the preparation of amazing Slow Food dinners every night, for that matter. When people complain about the perceived elitism of the Slow Food movement, one of the things they’re objecting to is the amount of leisure time it requires, which just plain isn’t available to most of us.*** And I most certainly don’t want scholarship to be feasible only for people with the luxury of a lot of spare time.

I don’t think it would be impossible to wave the flag for Slow Scholarship; I just wish I had some idea how to make it happen. At this point, I seriously doubt academia will change itself. Reader, do you have any ideas?


* Except, of course, if one is blogging. Although my own current blogging pace is far more Slow than Fast, due more to laziness than to anything else, I’m afraid.

** After a bit of Googling, I see that Lindsay Waters called for something similar a couple of years ago. I don’t think academic publishers will necessarily change things by updating their standards, though. The problem is not just mediocre writing; it’s mediocre writing that people have to churn out in ever-increasing quantities in order to compete for an ever-dwindling pool of tenured positions.

*** I also want a Slow Life movement. Down with the expectation that everyone must work 60+-hour weeks to be considered successful! Up with having time to dream or think or explore or cook or stand and stare!

3 Responses to “The Slow Food approach to scholarship”

  1. Purity says:

    Oh where do I sign up???? Me too, me too!!

  2. Johanna says:

    I love the idea of Slow Life. Oh, to make it happen!

  3. Dave Lull says:

    Slow Love Life blog: A Conversation with Dominique Brown
    “I want to write about moving at a gentler, more loving pace in everything I do, learning to appreciate the beauty of everyday moments, the wisdom of thinking things over.”
    For background see:
    New York Times Magazine
    Losing It
    “The former editor of House & Garden describes how she was laid off — and learned to love life again.”