Are you a productivity ninja or a turtle-walking flâneur?

Ninja vs. Ninja vs. Ninja (Unmasked)

(CC BY-SA 2.0 Wired For Lego)

That was the question (sort of) posed by this article on the LSE Impact Blog. With the intensification of workloads throughout the academy, as the ‘efficiency agenda’ leads to spiralling demands to do more with less, the resulting time squeeze seems inevitable. Far from being resisted, this is embraced in some quarters, with the rise of things like ‘academic speed dating’ (eugh). The author deftly summarises two prevailing responses to these conditions: reclaiming academic slowness and becoming a productivity ninja. The deliberate embrace of ‘slow scholarship’ can be an attractive antidote to the growing fetishisation of speed and efficiency. In embracing it, some have actively developed the notion in relation to the ‘slow food movement’:

You have likely heard of the “Slow Food Movement” — the momentum of diners, chefs, gardeners, vintners, farmers and restaurateurs who have taken a critical look at how our society has shifted to a position where for most, food is something to be consumed, rather than savoured, to be served up and eaten “fast” on the way to doing something else. “Slow Food,” by contrast, is something to be carefully prepared, with fresh ingredients, local when possible, and enjoyed leisurely over conversation around a table with friends and family.

“Slow Scholarship” is a similar response to hasty scholarship. Slow scholarship, is thoughtful, reflective, and the product of rumination – a kind of field testing against other ideas. It is carefully prepared, with fresh ideas, local when possible, and is best enjoyed leisurely, on one’s own or as part of a dialogue around a table with friends, family and colleagues. Like food, it often goes better with wine.

In the desire to publish instead of perish, many scholars at some point in their careers, send a conference paper off to a journal which may still be half-baked, may only have a spark of originality, may be a slight variation on something they or others have published, may rely on data that is still preliminary. This is hasty scholarship.

But as Filip Vostal argues in the LSE Impact post, “Slowness appears somewhat remote from the disciplined and path-dependent organizational tactic postulated by modernist speed-up”. It might function as a cultural palliative which ameliorates some of the more deleterious effects of the worship of speed but it’s perhaps difficult to imagine slowness as an “organizational principle of academic life”. Furthermore, it will always encounter resistance given the longstanding equation of slowness with that which is  “regressive, idle and reactionary”. In the abstract I can see the appeal of ‘slow scholarship’ but in a practical and affective sense it is not for me. Perhaps my dispositions have been too thoroughly moulded by the world of blogging. Heather Mendick from the CelebYouth project talked abut her experience of how blogging was changing her academic practice at the BSA Digital Sociology event last July. Then appropriately enough she blogged about it afterwards:

I love this website that Kim, Laura and I have created. I enjoy doing online communication – the immediacy and supportive feedback  are more to my taste than the long timescales and anonymity associated with publishing via peer-reviewed journals. Yet I am disturbed by the alignment between fast academia and going digital.

Writing a blogpost rather than an entry in an research diary generates fast responses and produces a useful and measurable output. By using google analytics I can track how many people accessed which parts of our website, how long they spent there and whether or not they stayed on the site. I can find out how many people each of our posts reached through Facebook and how many people are talking about them. Twitter and YouTube too provide multiple ways of measuring the ‘impact’ of our work – which tweets get favorited, which retweeted and which disappear without trace? This all fits remarkably well with the insistence on accountability, and with the growing impact agenda. Moreover, documenting a project online aligns with the contemporary compulsion to tell (what Michel Foucault called confession).

Of course there are choices about how we engage, and as Laura discusses weve done it collectively – I really like the way that no-one knows for sure which of us is behind the Twitter (though it is usually Kim). It seems to subvert the emphasis on the individual, entrepreneurial academic, that the internet might otherwise fuel. I feel we need to be continuing to ask: How is it changing research? What are the alternatives?

I end with one way that I feel this aspect of digital sociology is changing my practice as an academic. While, there’s no clear distinction between the descriptive and the analytic, the need to formulate my ideas into something that can be blogged or even tweeted is moving me more quickly from a more descriptive to a more analytic register. My favourite example of this is from an Amy Hempel short story The Harvest cited by Chuck Palahniuk in Non-Fiction. Here, instead of being offered the pre-analysed formulation that ‘the boyfriend is an asshole’, Hempel describes how, after a car crash, ‘we see him holding a sweater soaked with his girlfriend’s blood and telling her, “You’ll be okay, but this sweater is ruined”’. While the second account is far from innocent, it is very different and it allows one’s thoughts to follow different lines of flight. Which lines of flight does the internet open up and which close down?

The approach to blogging I’ve gravitated towards in recent years is one which shares the work in progress. I treat blogging as a public notebook in which to develop ideas and iteratively work them up into more coherent wholes. So on this level the dichotomy between ‘slow scholarship’ and ‘fast scholarship’ doesn’t quite make sense to me: the extremely fast bits of it slowly lead towards more fully worked out publications. Nonetheless I sometimes feel frustrated by own tendency, which I don’t entirely understand, to rush… to constantly be looking towards the next idea, the next project and the next paper. My ambivalent inclination towards being a productivity ninja comes in part from this rushing. There are so many things to do, to read and to write that I experience inefficient habits as internal constraints on action. So while ‘productivity’ culture can be disciplinary, particularly when it’s imposed from the ‘top down’, I would also insist that it can be empowering. I think the problem is that much of productivity culture is bullshit. The LSE Impact post does a good job of summarising this tendency and the problems with it:

University senior managers seem to understand the busy academic and offer the typical managerial solution: attention and time management training. However, rather than questioning the very causes that lead to and co-produce the conditions of hurry sickness, academics are advised to adapt by keeping up, going faster, press ahead, be resilient and agile, boost productivity. Using the uncanny #HigherEdBiz Newspeak, staff development departments encourage academics to clench their teeth and become undestroyable time warriors. Training sessions such as ‘How to be a productivity ninja’ and courses offering time management techniques to enable regular academic writing, effective reading and to help handle information overload emerge. Not only that: these initiatives present themselves as cures for hurry sickness – as newage-ish zen-like ‘time therapies’ for ever-busier academics: ‘A “Productivity Ninja” is calm and prepared, but also skilled and ruthless in how he or she deals with the enemy that is information overload’ we can read in the ad for this training. The key problem with such programs is that, next to producing a group of fast-moving response-able ‘speed winners’, they also render the increasing academic workload and associated time-shortage, alienation, burnout and demotivation (experienced diversely at different institutions; variables such as gender and academic rank dramatically affect this experience) as a personal and individual issue – rather than stressing their origin in the structural transformation of the academic environment.

Democratic decision-making, deliberation, will-formation and policy implementation need to be underpinned, as Robert Hassan says, by natural unforced rhythms (which do not have to be slow). This principle seems entirely salutary – if not straightforwardly necessary – in the academic environment. However, if academics and universities are not taking the lead in such a program, one wonders whether anyone at all can resist oppressive nature of late modern fast time. In order to resist academic hurry sickness, it would perhaps have to be those academics holding senior administrative positions who need to legislate the principle of scholarly time autonomy as an explicit political demand – and perhaps as an ethical principle integral to the education and science governance.

I’m not sure what I think about the politics of this but on a personal level I find it extremely plausible. The problem with productivity culture is not the productivity per se but rather the lack of autonomy implicit in its valorisation. When productivity goes hand-in-hand with autonomy then much of my objection vanishes. The genuine productivity ninja cannot be anything other than autonomous.

Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes

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