On 1 February 2018, Barbara J. King’s “Would College Students Retain More if Professors Dialed back the Pace” appeared on NPR.org. In the piece, King asks whether or not “slow teaching”–described in the text as spending a full course on a single text, concept, or small set of concepts–would allow students to engage more deeply with materials and thereby learn them better. She arrives at the question–and something of an answer to it–through reflecting on her own experience of reading and not retaining what is read, of reading an Atlantic piece by Julie Beck and stumbling onto a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Paula Marantz Cohen shortly thereafter, and reading a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber that discusses a phenomenon similar to that King herself addressed in 2016. Her regard for the practice is clear throughout, although she cites Cohen and presents herself as having questions about how broadly applicable the technique is.
The idea of slow teaching is a good one, and one that has informed seminars in which I have participated. In some ways, it is at the root of dissertation writing, at least in my field, where spending months and years with a single text is not at all uncommon. Yet I know that my experience as a student has not been the norm, and that in the teaching I have done, I have not had the luxury of orienting my classrooms around such a framework. As part of the precariate faculty, usually lacking full-time status and always absent tenure protections, I have in almost all my classes been obliged to follow specific assignment sequences. That is, I have had to have my students write æ number of papers or cover ð years of literature, or þ works in ƿ genres, and not seldom with the demand that the assignments come in at specified points in the term. And I know I am not alone in facing those demands; I was one of many who labored under them at a Big 12 school, and I am one who faces such things again at the for-profit for which I currently teach.
The practice, then, comes off as do many that get discussed by those secure in tenure or in retirement. The idea is a good one, but it is one that demands certain luxuries of position to be able to enact. I and my peers at the margins of academe do not have those luxuries; we are not the masters of our classrooms, the determiners of our curricula. And I and my colleagues–presently, at the for-profit, and previously, at a land-grant school that explicitly claims workplace readiness as part of its mandate, cannot avoid the “corporate-style focus on rush-rush productivity” King is not wrong to decry. Nor can we reasonably expect that our students, most of whom claim job placement as their reason for going to college, will welcome something that does not seem to help them get jobs–and the productivity model seems more likely to help with that getting than the slow teaching model King prizes. (Insofar as any teaching is helpful to that end, about which there is no shortage of disagreement, albeit not all well informed.) Perhaps with the kind of students who can afford, or believe they can afford (rightly or wrongly), to slow down from the rush of trying to survive the present to get to a better future, taught by faculty who have the support of their institutions to do such things, slow teaching would be a good thing–but my students are not in that position, and neither am I.