I find myself thinking about slowness a great deal these days. It might be the shift to a new semester–I do love to reflect and reset each term–and it might be that zero on the calendar moving us into a new decade. I suspect, though, that my reflections on slowness might have more to do with the way we imagined the term back in 2010 when we gave it to the blog.
Fast feminism? That feels intuitive to me: fast feminism signals the need for attention and action. But slow academe? Well, I’ll admit that even in 2010 it didn’t feel intuitive so much as it felt illusory.
Slow academe, as the originators (me included!) of this blog imagined it, took up slowness as the slow food movement describes it: good, clean, fair. Good, here, is not virtue signalling so much as it means quality; clean, according to the slow food movement FAQ page, means sustainable production that is good for the environment. Fair, meanwhile, means accessible in terms of price for consumers and in terms of way for workers.
Ten years later these feel like pretty solid touchstones for me in this project of public-facing academic feminist scholarship. And yet, as I look back (hastily, because I am posting late after a weekend that, while pleasant, was also filled with trying to fit in skating lessons, socializing, cleaning the house, admin work that spilled into the weekend, and, oof, our kiddo being quite sick), I see I have always struggled to put my finger on what slow academe meant to me. I have no idea if it ever were possible to engage in the slowness that the (semi-controversial) advocated by The Slow Professor. It certainly hasn’t been for me, at least up to this point. I wonder, genuinely, if a slow academe is possible in smaller, more micro ways.
I spent the first seven years of my association with the blog as a member of the precariate. I wrote about it so much that I worried I had lost who I was in my own research. Whether or not that was true, it makes sense to me why “slow academe” was illusory as both concept and material reality. I didn’t know how to slow down, and the conditions in which I worked rewarded me (sometimes) for doing as much as I could. When I shifted into my tenure track position (& by shifted I mean something I can’t quite articulate even still) I didn’t do much to slow down. Not at first. And when a blip caused me to pull back from social media as a means of networking, connecting, and (frankly, for me), frittering my time away I didn’t so much slow down as I did spiral. Who was I if I wasn’t plugged into what was happening in my field? In my discipline? I didn’t have a good answer. I felt lost.
This summer, while I was out jogging–the one activity I can truly say I always do slowly–I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts. It is called Keep Calm and Cook On, and let me tell you, Julia Turshen’s interview style (not to mention her voice) feels like free therapy. In this particular episode she was talking with Jia Tolentino. The conversation was about how Tolentino came to be interested in cooking. I learned that she took it up as a life-sustaining hobby while doing her training for and work in the Peace Corps. Cooking was a kind of slow pause in the affective intensity of her work. On this slow jog down the same road I jogged on all summer, I also listened to Tolentino talk about optimization. Sure, I knew the term already (how could I not? After all, I was striving to be an HQP!) but listening to these two people be smart, serious, and funny sent me to the closest bookstore to get Tolentino’s book.
Trick Mirror has had a great deal of press, and in my mind that’s warranted, but I won’t rehearse it here. Suffice to say, I’ve been thinking about her essay “Always Be Optimizing” for going on six months now. In this essay Tolentino outlines the ways in which people have been streamlined into little self-regulatory optimization machines. Sure, its not a new theory (hello, Foucault!), but Tolentino makes our current moment sharp and hilarious (I dare you to read the section on the rise of barre class without weeping with laughter) and searing. I see myself in these examples, even as I chafe (while pliéing? Kidding.).
In the first class I taught this term, I invited the students to keep me on task. The task, for me, is to consider slowness and intentionality integral to my pedagogical praxis. Intentionality is always something I am working towards, trying to hold myself to, striving for. Slowness? Not so much, as it turns out. Now, this might be a difficult term to take this on–never have I been on more committees than I am now, never have I over-committed myself to writing projects in quite the way I have this term. But as we spent the first ten minutes of that first class thinking about where and how we read, something kind of magic happened, for me at least. I started to become aware of how even with reading I tend to race. How many pages? How quickly? The pleasure of the text gets lost (hi, Barthes…!) in the reach for optimization.
So, as I work always and forever towards balance this semester I will try to keep thinking about slowness and the ways in which it might, gently, interrupt the optimization imperative.
If you need a place to go for some inspiration, might I suggest colleague, pal, and friend to the blog Dr. Hannah McGregor‘s Secret Feminist Agenda? The January episode on cozy reflections vs. resolutions was, for me, inspiring.
2 thoughts on “Reflections on Slowness”
I love this post! (And not just because of the shout-out.) I’ve been thinking about Tolentino’s writing about optimization nigh-constantly since I finished the book, both for what a tremendously helpful framing it is for how I find myself thinking about my own life (if I could just get my routine exactly right then my body would disappear and I would become a pure intelligence) and for what is missing from the essay. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I was talking to my friend Aimée about the book, and she nailed it: Tolentino doesn’t quite take the step into recognizing that being thin is NOT BETTER than being fat. There is, underneath the surface of the essay, some level of faith in the virtues optimization extols: thinness, fitness, conformity to certain ideals of health and beauty. And while it can pry open how those virtues are in service of capitalism, it can’t quite make it to the next logical conclusion.
This feels, so me, pertinent both for how we all think about the relationship between our bodies and our minds and to how we think about productivity in general. I might be good at critiquing how the university transforms us all into workaholics, but can I wrap my mind around the idea that being more productive isn’t actually better? That’s harder.
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AHHHHHHH!!! Yes yes yes–and thank you. What generous thinking you’re offering me here. I love // am horrified // recognize myself in your phrase “if I could just get my routine right then my body would disappear and I would become pure intelligence.” The implicit value on optimization remains! I see, too, in my post that I couldn’t quite get to the place where I dealt with the idea that bring more productive might not actually be better, either. Wow wow wow, you’ve got me thinking!
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