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book review

The two books deal with crises at postsecondary institutions – one deals with that confronting instructors and research, while the other says there are too many liberal arts students in university.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

By Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber

University of Toronto Press, 128 pages, $26.95

Dream Factories: Why Universities Won't Solve the Youth Jobs Crisis

By Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison

TAP Books/Dundurn, 232 pages, $21.99

Is there anything universities can do right? From allegations that they don't prepare graduates for jobs, to charges that they exploit short-term instructors to do much of the teaching, to questions about excessive compensation for senior administrators, higher education has come under steady fire.

For years now, the carcass of what was once an elite institution has been providing a feast for the critics. The latest voices have radically different diagnoses and treatment plans.

Written by and primarily for academics, The Slow Professor takes on what the two authors see as a crisis of stress among professors that is leading to middling research, underserved students and personal breakdowns. In a pamphlet-like 90 pages (works cited and an index bump up the page count slightly), the two authors aim to do for teaching what the slow-food movement did for nutrition: Turn scholarship back into a contemplative task more preoccupied with letting ideas marinate than with counting articles.

Dream Factories sees that kind of mentality as misplaced nostalgia. Universities, it argues, are surviving only because few have realized their glory days are far in the past. Unlike prior generations of students who were rewarded for earning a BA with lifelong job security and a healthy income, today's graduates enter a low-growth economy in which they will be lucky to maintain their parents' standard of living.

But of the two disaster movies screening here, The Slow Professor delivers the better return on investment, even if authors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber would reject that kind of hard assessment.

The points they make are the fairly straightforward and simple ones favoured equally by self-help books and therapists. You can't change what other people do, you can only change your reactions. Or as the authors put it, "keep calm and write on." That means taking the time to produce one thoughtful book or article instead of several forgettable ones; ditching schedules that assign writing time to the hours of 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. (rendering the writer unfit for parenting or other familial tasks after 7 p.m.); and putting students first, even if academia rewards research over teaching.

Non-academics may mutter that these are solutions for professor-people's problems. Turns out that many academics think so, too. Since it came out earlier this spring, The Slow Professor has already been drowning in shouts of "privilege" for speaking to and about an ever-declining tenured few who have the luxury of choosing when and how to work. Instructors paid by the course must teach and research and win awards, all on a fraction of a tenured salary, the critics say. If they go slow, they perish.

To their credit, the authors address this – "we have an obligation to try and improve the working climate for all," they write. Every prof who steps off their own personal treadmill puts another dent in the entire competitive race of academia.

What they don't do, however, is question the assumption that competition is bad for personal health and likely suboptimal for the academy. Many academics thrive on competition and the rewards it brings, not just to them but to their institutions, too.

For Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison, competition is the defining feature of higher education and the global economy. Unfortunately, they also argue, few students know or act on that fact.

Lulled by parents into a false sense of their own importance, today's university students follow their hearts right into unemployment. Far too many, the authors believe, major in humanities and social sciences rather than sticking to engineering – or going to technical college.

Meanwhile, students in China, Brazil, Africa and other have-maybe regions are ready and able to take technology and engineering jobs, and do them better for less pay than our coddled twentysomething generation.

Coates and Morrison have built a national cottage industry around their call for the transformation of higher education. Here, they expand on an idea they have been developing in a series of essays over the past couple of years. Their solution is to close the doors of the university for all but the select few who are dedicated to deep learning and questioning. Everyone else should do something more practical, with learning a trade or taking a job (any job) among the best options.

To support their plan, they reference Germany and its system of co-ordinated training between employers and educators. That rarely happens in North America – although Coates and Morrison show us one such example.

When the European companies Blum and Daetwyler set up factories in the Southeastern United States, they could not find the workers they needed. So they partnered with Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., found people who were willing to work and study at the same time, and paid their salaries and tuition fees.

"The companies can spend more than $175,000 per graduate – a substantial corporate cost that is made up through easier transitions into the work force," Coates and Morrison explain.

Perhaps it's not universities that need to reform, but employers and their willingness to invest in their workers. That's not quite as catchy a book subject though.

Incidentally, Dream Factories is targeted at the North American reader, but makes no effort to distinguish between our largely publicly funded university system and the tiered U.S. system. Many negative stats are followed by variations on this throwaway nod: "The Canadian results are better, in part because of a strong high school system and a lower participation rate. But the general direction is much the same."

In any case, the numbers on unemployed and underemployed university graduates are almost cheerful when compared with the book's vision of the future. Robots will do everything – though engineers and a few doctors may survive. What will happen to the rest of us is presumably too frightening to detail.

Coates and Morrison skip the part where we travel through the present to get to the future, but it's worthwhile asking: Who should be guiding the journey? The engineer with a headlamp on his mining helmet who knows how to blast ever deeper into a dark tunnel? The poet telling the story of how civilization and community came undone? Or the social scientist trying to adapt to a society without work?

Keep calm and think on. That's the one thing universities have enabled so many to do, and do (reasonably) well. The bleaker the future, the more that might just come in handy.

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail.