This article is about that peculiar type of guilt that students, academics, and those who have some measure of control over how they spend their hours working experience. It’s the guilt that whispers ‘but you’ve got so much work to do’ on Tuesday at 8pm, as you wither and capitulate under the hopeful, puppy dog faces of your friends as they ask if you’re coming out. It’s guilt that is forgotten quickly and experienced regularly, the iniquity of being able to decide how to spend your own time. It’s the guilt you feel for doing harm to your future self by squandering your time in the present.
This sort of guilt is all about a perceived lack of time in the future. If I don't do this now, I'll pay down the line, in grades and job prospects. The powerful but subtle feeling of using time poorly. Students are plagued by the feeling that they need to be, as universities Minister Jo Johnson put it, 'investing more time in their studies'.
What we students grasp less clearly is that academic staff suffer from this just as much as we do. All we see of them is their teaching and marking, and all they see of us is our essays and marking. But we are united by a culture of insecurity when it comes to the future, careers and security.
A 2013 NUS study found that for 26% of students, the need to secure a graduate job was a source of anxiety that could be described as a mental health problem. More and more students are using university welfare services, a welcome development that we recognise we have problems, but perhaps worrying sign of the stresses of university life.
Yet research has shown that nearly half of academics display signs of psychological distress. The reason? Greater job insecurity. Publishing papers, winning grant money and doing research, like our degrees, is often self-directed, and the stakes of not succeeding. In the UK, academic success is measured not by teaching awards from the Student Guild, but by the Research Excellence Framework (REF).
This 6-year exercise ranks academics and their departments on the quality of their research publications and the research grants they win on a national scale. It's a noble goal, but lots of researchers dislike it. Before the REF begins, a scene not dissimilar to the the transfer window emerges as staff switch and swap as departments look to polish their REF profiles. Careers are made and broken on it. No wonder the University and College Union report into staff well-being was titled ‘Higher Stress’
The desire (or pre-requisite) to publish and appease the REF gods has been rightly labelled hasty scholarship. Academics cannot ignore the pressing need to get publications out, and freedom guilt sets in quickly, even for the most disciplined. Procrastination can cause anxiety, and overwork can cause burnout.
The difference is that staff, unlike students, have begun to tackle it head on.
In April, a fantastic monograph called The Slow Professor was released. It’s a useful intervention into ways academics can slow down. The methods are incremental, and focus on combatting the chimerical desire of 100% efficiency. For example, answering emails less frequently, not working at the weekends, providing regular opportunities for communication with colleagues over lunch, instead of squeezing in 15 minutes more writing with just a tuna salad for company.
But the benefits for students described in The Slow Professor are only ever indirect, trickling down from staff as they settle into slower rhythms that will improve their well-being and, by extension, teaching. Part of the problem with the Slow Movement in academia is it is bypassing students completely, ignorant of the stresses we face. CV building, career development and achieving the grades, passing psychometric testing, 5 rounds of assessment centers and interviews, group assessment, we might not have a REF, but we have our own metric deities to keep happy. Maybe we need a book called The Slow Student.
We share similar concerns and anxieties with staff, particularly junior teaching staff and postgraduate teaching assistants. Our work and career plans will also benefit from engaging with slow philosophies. Staff and importantly, university management, need to know that methods of slowing down have to take us into account.
We need to tell personal tutors that a 10-minute meeting a term won’t cut it: how about meeting over lunch? And if staff don't appreciate wasteful formative assessment marking, it’s probably the case we feel aggrieved having to complete it.
This isn’t a simple case of asking for more time from staff. It’s about realising that like quality research, quality student education cannot be concocted from a mixture of sliced and diced into hour long lectures slots and ten minute termly meetings. Put simply, we need to factor ourselves in to the effort to reschedule university life, and not become a passive audience of silently suffering students.