by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber
Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2016. 128 pp.
As soon as I saw the title of Berg and Seeber's book, I breathed out, as if I were finishing a session of meditation. How wonderful would it be if I could slow my teaching life down? Not obsess over the pile of papers waiting to be responded to and graded. Not worry that my annual self-evaluation would ever get written. To actually read something for pleasure, something that caught my fancy and not something that had to be assessed, deadline attached. What kind of life would that be?
A balanced one. A sane one.
The truth is that many academics in the twenty-first century function on the edge of crazy. But our work-induced desperation is not a topic any of us broaches. Thus, in order to write this book, Berg and Seeber had to push beyond two boundaries: one was the complicit silence muffling the topic, and the other was disciplinary. As Berg and Seeber point out in their introduction, discussing mental health is taboo, even though a large body of research proves that faculty incur increasing stress and work-life imbalance as they take on more and more tasks to fulfill the mandates of the corporate university. Moreover, as Berg and Seeber state, the traditional profile of an academic, which includes "the ideals of mastery, self-sufficient individualism, and rationalism" (12), mitigates against speaking up or collective action. As they state,
What began simply as helping each other became a sustained investigation of academia. We see our book as uncovering the secret life of the academic, revealing not only her pains but also her pleasures. Writing this book provoked the anxiety of speaking what is habitually left unspoken, and we continually needed to remind ourselves that the oscillation between private shame and the political landscape would prove fruitful.(12) [End Page 80]
The corporatization of one's workplace and craft; the loss of health, collegiality, and pleasure in one's work; the increasing isolation of a digitally managed life—these are all big concerns we can discuss in any profession, but Berg and Seeber invite us to focus these concerns on the university. The authors' significant innovation is to apply principles of the Slow movement to academia. In fact, the title of Berg and Seeber's book pays homage to Carl Honoré's seminal text, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. But to effect this application, Berg and Seeber had to move beyond their disciplinary boundary as literary critics—they're both professors in departments of English language and literature in Canadian universities—and engage interdisciplinary research and thinking in fields such as psychology, sociology, and management, represented by academic journal titles in the Works Cited pages such as Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Management Studies, and Administrative Science Quarterly, among others. Offering a succinct assessment of their project and the research required, Berg and Seeber state that "our book is more optimistic than works on the corporate university, more political and historicized than self-help, and more academically focused than those on stress and the Slow movement" (vii).
Stepping out of one's disciplinary comfort zone is no little feat in a business that evaluates its employees on what they know rather on investigating what they don't know. And Berg and Seeber point to this shame and discomfort: "Ironically, our feelings of lack of productivity and not measuring up have not led us until now to 'read' the institution; our self-blame has played into corporate values" (12–13). Their project was not without pushback from colleagues, some of whom told Berg and Seeber "to wake up and get with the program" and that they were "simply too busy to slow down" (11).
Berg and Seeber's diagnosis of the problem in their introduction is well worth the read. "Corporatization" is the villain, and the authors summarize the current literature—a reading list that should be required for all of us who work in academia. Berg...