Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Slow Professor (book review)

"The Slow Professor" by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber is a manifesto-like book about some important problems in modern academia. It was published a few weeks ago (I actually pre-ordered it), and if you have anything to do with academia, I do totally recommend that you read it. It's also rather short, which means that you can read it quickly (I hoped it would be a bit longer). Let me summarize what I liked and what I did not like about it in two lists below:

What I liked about "The Slow Professor":

  • It tackles one of the most important problems in modern academia: everybody are perpetually busy (applying for grants, publishing, working on committees), and nobody has time to think. People are ashamed to think (it does not feel like working); moreover, people are ashamed to read (in modern culture it does not feel like working either). And that's bad. The chapter about "what is bad" is the most relatable and passionate part of the book; the description is perfect, and to the point.
  • The book makes you think; it is definitely thought-provoking. It is also written a bit like a manifesto, so I felt energized after reading it. I wanted to change something! This feeling wears off in a few days, as it usually happens with manifestos, but it is definitely not a depressing book, which is really a feat for a book that in its core describes some important problems. Well done!
  • It is short, so you can read it quickly.
  • It actually offers some meaningful solutions, or at least points at some possible directions where these solutions may be.
  • It offers a nice slogan ("The slow professor" is a nice slogan!).

What I didn't like:

  • It is woefully short, and the solutions it offers are very limited. I guess it's the inevitable tradeoff, and I'd really rather read a short passionate book now, than a long thoughtful book in five years. It may be too late in five years! But it is really more of a manifesto than a guide; a pamphlet that names the issues and sets the goals. It is not a self-help book that would guide you through a series of exercises. You need to find the solution yourself. It invites you to be a part of a community though, which is really nice!
  • The book is relatively full of really bad neuroscience and psychology. It mentions serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and neural plasticity - all incorrectly, and in ways that are totally irrelevant for the topic and the message of the book. As a neuroscientist, I don't usually read pop-science pieces about the brain, because it hurts, so I was not quite aware that the pop-science surrounding the mystery of the brain got that bad over the years. When you buy this book, please just ignore everything it says about how neuroscience "proves" which teaching and research methods work, and which don't. Just skip it without reading, it's all a bunch of nonsense. Also it cites a bunch of retracted and non-replicated (but famous) studies in psychology, so take all psychological claims with a spoonful of salt.
  • Finally, I find it annoying that when professional academics try to write a popular book they still default to academese, or at least half-academese. If feels that every sentence in this book is half-way between the world of the living and the world of the dead; even though sentences are readable and clear, they still have a strong smell of dusty, deathly, cryptic, mummified academese. It feels that the authors fought this tendency to the end, but still could not quite shake off the suffocating embrace of academic writing.
A great book though; I really recommend it. After reading the first half I felt that I need to buy a copy for every person in my department. After finishing it I felt a bit less passionate, but still told everybody about it and encouraged them to buy it. It's a very worthy read!

And also, on a personal note, I am so happy that teaching colleges, and Bard in particular, and maybe even Biology program in particular, are in a relatively good shape, as far as the problems described in the "Slow Professor" go. We actually do talk to each other, and it feels like we have a bit of time to think. We have teaching and grading in place of grant writing, so there is still a monster of "busyness" to fight, but it seems that we are actually fighting this battle already; driven by a slightly different motivation (trying to become better teachers), but still fighting. And there is definitely lots of space for improvement!

If there were a pin with a snail (from the cover), I'd totally buy it. The "slow professorial movement" is something I'd love to belong to!

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I'd buy the pin too! That would be a great idea!