This semester, I’m participating in a faculty learning communities on campus which is centered on reading the book The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Berg & Seeber, 2016). Our group has met regularly through the course of the semester to discuss different chapters and examine how the authors’ observations and calls to action resonate with the culture and practice of our campus. The basic premise of the book is that the increased corporatization and standardization of higher education is undermining the joy of teaching and the quality of the product we offer. While the book examines time management, pedagogy and research, it also looks at the inter-relational aspects of our work and how the “culture of speed” is impacting our relationships with our students and colleagues. In the chapter on Collegiality and Community, Berg and Seeber write:
“In academic culture, it’s mind over matter; we are expected to ‘rise above’ whatever is ailing us; and rather than help each other, we’re taught to compete with each other.” (p. 71)
Ask any college professor and they’ll identify how competitive grants, publishing and tenure and promotion processes can be. Building on this, Berg and Seeber recognize how that this competitive culture is also isolating which can contribute to a sense of “workplace loneliness.” Writing about the isolating impact of competition, they write:
“It is vitally important that we recognize that workplace loneliness affects our well-being, interferes with professional development and makes us more vulnerable to burnout.” (p. 83)
While these are definitely concerning impacts of the culture of competition, I’d like to situate the conversation in a slightly different way. Recently, I started reading The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion by Sarah Rose Cavanagh. The book was suggested as a possible faculty learning community in the spring and I thought I’d preview it. In the book, Cavanagh examines how important emotions are to the learning process and details the critical connections between the affective and cognitive domains of learning. In the book, Cavanagh introduces the concept of “crossover” and how a teacher’s emotions can act as an emotional contagion in the classroom environment. Cavanagh writes:
“One of the strongest contributors to crossover is a process by which instructor emotions lead to changes in instructional behavior which then leads to changes in students’ feelings of value and control and that this significantly impacts learning.” (p. 49)
While Berg and Seeber examine the impacts that the competitive culture has on our well-being, it’s clear that it can also impact student learning as well. Cavanagh drives this point home.
“Research demonstrates that teachers who reported more positive emotions are more likely to provide adequate examples, to give more clear and comprehensible explanations, to make more connections between the subject matter and the real world and to teach with greater enthusiasm. Conversely, teachers who experience more negative emotions such as anger or anxiety are less likely to show beneficial instructional behaviors… teachers with better emotions may use better methods, which translates into better control and value appraisals and thus better learning.” (p. 49)
While some argue that competitive environments help people be more productive or helps to elevate the quality of work being done, it’s clear that there are larger impacts potentially at stake. The negative emotions from stress, anxiety and professional loneliness that can emerge from an isolating competitive culture can negatively impact our teaching which can result in reduced student learning. While I doubt this line of thinking will cause any great change in the academy, it’s important to recognize the larger pedagogical effects that culture can have.