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Sustainable scholarship

Metaphors we live by

In The Netherlands, academic work is often described in metaphors of competition rather than cooperation. In policy documents as well as in practical information sessions, an ‘excellent’ researcher is often compared to an elite sportsperson who is at the top of his or her [1] game. The grant system of the Dutch National Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has grants called Veni, Vidi, and Vici, named after Julius Caesar’s victorious message to Rome after slaughtering Pharnace’s army near the town of Zela in 47 BCE.

Encouraging relations of competition, the image of the elite sportsperson or the conquering emperor has isolating effects. Even if the format of the research grant proposal asks for the ‘embedding’ of their project, successful academics are encouraged to see themselves as entrepreneurs running their own businesses, or as generals leading their personal armies.

Fortunately, academics do not take the image of slaughtering their competition literally. But these metaphors of competition do work to shape academic practice: they are metaphors we live by. Practices of teaching, research, outreach, and service are shaped – not only by the structures and processes – but also by the language of the neoliberal university.

Practices of scholarship

Self-help books for academics provide valuable insights into the effects this model of scholarship has on our practices. One of my favourites in the genre is W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen’s collaborative book Write to the Top: How to Become a Prolific Academic. The authors of this thoughtful book are aware of the stress and sleep deprivation that the current research climate can cause. They are certainly not averse to cooperation in academic writing and suggest mentoring, coaching, and shaping a network of writers around oneself. At the same time, they project an image of direct colleagues within the department as a threat to writing time. They urge their readers to “avoid the factory mentality, lunch crowd, and politicking while at the same time remaining collegial with fellow academics.” They recommend having lunch with colleagues to discuss academic writing or “exchange vital information about the publishing world” but seem to consider departmental lunch conversations about teaching and service as counterproductive — these kinds of lunches can be attended once a week as a way of “walking this tightrope” (33-34). One of the book’s authors even requested the installation of a portable toilet in the office room, because a trip to the regular toilet “necessitates passing the offices of each colleague and being exposed to the lurking danger of extended social interactions” that would interrupt the writing flow (13).

Slow scholarship

In a collaborative article, Alison Mountz, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu, Risa Whitson, Roberta Hawkins, Trina Hamilton, Winifred Curran (I deliberately do not use the et al. convention here) call for practices that challenge the accelerated time and elitism of the neoliberal university. They think through the effects of the requirements of high productivity in compressed time frames on embodied work conditions on the university work floor. One of their crucial observations is that:

Counting culture leads to intense, insidious forms of institutional shaming, subject-making, and self-surveillance. It compels us to enumerate and self-audit, rather than listen and converse, engage with colleagues, students, friends and family, or involve ourselves in the meaningful and time-consuming work that supports and engages our research and broader communities. [2]

Their list of ten strategies to resist these pressures of the neoliberal university include creating spaces for new modes of scholarship such as reading and writing groups, office “break” rooms and workshops; self-care and taking care of others, taking time to meet with colleagues and students to discuss and exchange ideas. I admire their work, and I do believe that resistance from the ground up can work changes. At the same time, I also think we need to work at this in a more systemic way to enforce structural changes to make academic practices resonate with the university’s core values of teaching and service to the community.

Sustainable scholarship

In the many conversations I have had on this subject, I have noticed that in the Dutch context, and especially among those at a higher managerial level in university circles, the words “slow scholarship” evoke undesirable associations. Inevitably, they remind people of a certain type of “academics in the 1970s” who “never published anything” and occupied desirable positions in academia nevertheless. They consider the output-based valuation of productivity that is so current today as the answer to these legendary academics’ slowness. The mention of a movement called slow scholarship, then, seems to work to reinforce their initial idea that scholarly output needs to be measured in some way.

I therefore favour the term ‘sustainable scholarship’ to refer to a change in modes of working. Sustainable scholarship values academic practices based in:

trust and a culture of possibilities rather than of distrust and auditing;
care, cooperation, conversation and open exchange of ideas rather than competition;
connections to the local community (of colleagues, students, the university’s surrounding environment and communities) rather than the desire to quickly outgrow it;
slow growth – time for ideas to ripen, side-tracks to be explored, creative connections to be made – rather than quick results;
the long term rather than a project-based timespan.[3]

As an environmental humanities scholar, I am aware that I may be stretching the adjective “sustainable” somewhat here. I am using it in the sense of scholarly practices “capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level,” modes of work that “avoid the long-term depletion of natural resources” (OED) – if we can stretch the natural resources to include human bodies. I think, by the way, that such practices would align naturally with sustainable practices in the environmental sense of the word (as for example in the NIOO’s living building).

I hope to write more on slow scholarship (and the many valuable books and articles on the subject) in later posts. I welcome your ideas on metaphors and practices of sustainable scholarship and would love to start a conversation here – do leave a note in the comments section!

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[1] On gender inequality in Dutch academia, see the amazing initiative Athena’s Angels.

[2] Alison Mountz, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu, Risa Whitson, Roberta Hawkins, Trina Hamilton, Winifred Curran, “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University,” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies (2015). Page 9 in the online version of the article.

[3] These ideas are not mine, they are based on my reading on slow scholarship. For a possible Dutch translation of the term “sustainable scholarship,” see also the KNAW report “Duurzame Wetenschap,” esp. p. 20ff.




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