On Fast Knowledge, “Slow Professors”, and Talented Youth (Part II)
01.05.2017

- Professor Galazhinskiy, among other things, we are talking about the phenomenon of “fast knowledge”. Therefore, I cannot help but ask you the following question, how fast should a university generate and commercialize its new products to be highly competitive on the global market of “intellectual fast food”? 

- Ideally, the speed of producing knowledge and doing research today must be close to the speed of capital flow and closing of sales on a global scale. This means it is supposed to be close to milliseconds.

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But I am talking about the technological paradigm that represents a dream come true for cybernetic capitalism that I mentioned earlier. Thank God, this dream is barely achievable because the anthropological paradigm should be taken into consideration as well. People cannot and do not want to teach and do research, keeping time with a stopwatch. This is true not only for Russian academicians, but for international ones as well.

- In one of our previous conversations, you have also mentioned the trans-humanistic paradigm. If current professors cannot and do not want to produce knowledge fast enough, future professors-cyborgs with Elon Musk’s brain implants will easily do that.

- In fact, this is the same technological projection of the reality but even more advanced, regarding the future prospects. What I am talking about now is how professors and researchers of today feel. Last year, two Canadian researchers, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, published a book. The title of the book and the title of the paper the book was based on speak for themselves: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.

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The book gained many reviews. Its main idea is that academicians should slow down and start working on changing the system they deal with. The authors did profound research and analyzed a huge amount of data, including national surveys conducted in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. They concluded that people who belong to the university communities represent the professional group that has been experiencing the most stress since the beginning of the 2000s. The stress level is so high that it influences their psychological and even physiological conditions. About 22% of professors and researchers questioned during the survey found direct connections between their diseases and their professional activity and the culture of speed, enforced by the academic environment. And this happens despite long-term contracts, flexible schedules, and long vacations!

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The source of the stress can be found in a constant lack of time for solving an infinite number of professional problems, including bureaucratic ones. At the same time, professors and researchers have to stay in shape informationally, which demands being continually updated and keeping track of the latest news from the world of science and education. As a result, people are exhausted, because they spend their free time, including their vacations, working. They prepare new programmes of fast knowledge, write papers, exchange mail with their students, check texts, and so on… But guess what? They still are short of time! Moreover, the quality of their work decreases. It is impossible to conduct brilliant lectures and seminars when you are tired and barely alive! Professors experience frustration and feel guilty in front of their students.

- And what solution do the authors propose?

- First of all, they propose switching from the question, “What is wrong with us?” to the questions, “What is wrong with the academic community?” and “What can we do in the given context as professors?” Along with Gorge Ritzer, who has pointed out one of the biggest flaws of modern society, which is its McDonaldization, Professors Berg and Seeber confirm the same diagnosis for the system of higher education. They call on the academic community to establish a movement of “slow professors” that will be against the system of fast knowledge, by analogy to the movement of small and medium-size farmers against the monopoly of large agricultural businesses and their production of  fast food.

Макдональдизация науки

I am sure that food must be natural and slowly prepared, just like knowledge must be fundamental and slowly generated and digested. Taking time to reflect is not a luxury but a key to sufficient research and teaching.

- These are very humanistic thoughts. However, in the context of the cybernetic capitalism that is prevalent in the digital age, it sounds utopian…

- In this case, when we say “slow movement” we do not mean to be nostalgic about “the good old days”. We talk about the process of reflecting on the world around us and about being attentive to life in general and to knowledge in particular. We talk about the search for living and working according to a personal rhythm instead of some enforced standards, enjoying the results and the process of achieving them. This involves establishing personal intellectual and emotional stability. Only a few people might be against such an attitude on living and working. That is why the “slow movement” is not a utopia. It is a very strong anthropological paradigm that is capable of opposing the endless and risky increasing of speed and of standing against emasculating science and education. Along with the technological paradigm, it creates a necessary balance between the development of the society in the age of revolutionary technological changes and the opportunity for people to maintain their human nature, avoiding turning into cyborgs or, even worse, some kind of technological waste.

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- What could the concept of such a balance mean for a university?

- A university must learn how to simultaneously function both in technological and anthropological paradigms. The former is based on the concept of fast knowledge and makes it possible for a university to survive under the conditions of severe competitiveness of cybernetic capitalism. The latter represents its life as a combination of all the factors that help to generate slow knowledge and provide students with quality education. In the technological paradigm, university managers and administration are mostly responsible for efficiency. The anthropological paradigm imposes responsibility on researchers and professors. These two paradigms are infused with each other and it is important to be aware of which particular paradigm is used in each particular case when we evaluate some event, process, or result of activity. This is not easy, but we need to strive for it. 

- Those readers who are familiar with the classical systems approach may disagree. It is impossible for a system to function efficiently if we constantly switch from one mode to another.

- First, we are talking about combining them, not switching. Maintaining the balance between them represents a dynamic constant that makes a system stable. Second, I want to introduce our readers to the book Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers by Professor Michael Jackson. The book has been recently translated into Russian by the TSU Professor Tarasenko and published by the TSU Publishing House. In his address to the Russian audience, Jackson says the following. There is not a single systems approach that can contain all the aspects of the reality, which is super-complicated and multifaced. It is necessary to learn how to chose the right combination of approaches and use them simultaneously or sequentially. 

- Does it mean that ideally, not only a university as an entity, but all its employees (managers, researchers, and professors) must learn how to work in both paradigms, adequately responding to each particular situation?

- Apparently, it does.

- Could you then be more specific and give at least one example of such an adequate response?

- Of course, I can. Let us consider the following situation. A professor needs to test the students. Any test could be seen as part of the fast knowledge paradigm, because it does not require reflection and  comprehensive answers. Besides, the professor, developing tests and generating options for answers, is oriented toward students with standard thinking. Even if tasks require comprehensive answers, the professor expects comments from the students that correspond to what they heard in class. Now let us think of a situation when the professor receives empty test sheets from students or sheets with comments that do not correspond to the “legit” knowledge given at lectures.

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If the professor automatically grades students as those with no knowledge on a subject or even perceives it as trolling, we can say that this professor is not able to go beyond the boundaries of the technological paradigm. If the professor admits that the student might have non-standard thinking (that is why the right answer could not be found among the given options or the risk of non-standard comments was taken) and he or she is ready to take further steps to check this hypothesis, the professor acts in the anthropological paradigm. This reaction is the most productive, because it allows finding talented students. This means that the professor uses fast knowledge technologies of grading to find those who are oriented toward receiving slow knowledge. This is an example of adequate work in both paradigms.  

- If we think about it, currently recognized scientists probably would not pass the Unified State Exams because their answers would be non-standard. Parents and teachers usually panic when they have to face this way of thinking.  

- This reaction is explainable. Any society tries to reject individuals who are outstanding and too creative because they are threats to the established stereotypes.

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Only genius teachers and parents can understand and accept it. Outstanding and independent- thinking young people grow into real thinkers capable of seeing the future and predicting new trends and possible risks.  

- What are the places for such thinkers to learn?

- Schools for gifted children and classical universities. Of course, any type of university may be a place that a thinker can be found. But a classical university is first and foremost oriented toward preparing professionals with independent thinking. This is one of its key roles. We know that it is impossible to do that depending only on technologies and the fast knowledge paradigm. It takes slow, fundamental knowledge that is generated in scientific schools with strong traditions. Classical universities have always cherished slow knowledge.

There are many reasons why even classical universities cannot provide “mass production” of thinkers. Most of the graduates will be good specialists. But talent has every chance to be recognized and developed in a proper environment.

- What you are saying now amazingly corresponds to what Isaac Asimov described in his novel Profession published in 1957. 

- I know this novel. I read it not long ago and I was amazed by how precisely the author grasped the idea of the far future. In fact, he described the system of fast education that is ideal for cybernetic capitalism, so dear to Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk, and their colleagues. The novel tells the story of kids who are connected to special software at the age of 8. It takes them a year to learn how to read. At the age of 18, they master the university programme in the same way and are ready to work.

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Asimov gives a very good impression of how the system of fast knowledge can only prepare specialists to work in a certain sphere, but cannot prepare independent thinkers. In order to become a thinker, it is necessary to learn for a long time and systematically (continuously). The main technologies used in this process are books and reflection. And, of course, communication with wise teachers. I strongly advise everybody to read this novel!

- I have a last question for now. How does TSU work with talented youth?

- I have talked about it many times in my blog. This time I want to emphasize how our classical university tried to solve this problem systematically, considering all the factors I have mentioned above. We cannot avoid the technological paradigm with all its innovations, risks, and the fast knowledge ideology. But we do think and work with the anthropological image of our university. Especially when it comes to dealing with young people who come here to work and study. Or just think about entering TSU.

We have included the principle of fundamentality into the gene-model of TSU, along with the principles of classicality and openness, as pivotal under the conditions of the modern digital society. Talented people have open access to fundamental knowledge no matter what particular subject they major in. They have opportunities to develop their intellectual potential and wisdom that distinguish slow knowledge and true research thinking.

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As long as it is very difficult to develop such wisdom independently, we pay a lot of attention to training professors and researchers and making them ready to work with talented youth. We hold regular events, such as the annual international research and practice conference “Managing Talents: Building Development Teams”, which will be held on November 16–17, 2017. In May we are hosting a forum, “Talents of Siberia”, for gifted school students. 

It is extremely important to make working with talented students one of our top priorities. We must maintain this tradition, just like our teachers, our TSU professors, did in the past. The work with talented youth is supposed to be talented as well. Only then will it be successful. The quality of this work must be seen in everyday communication with students. We should respect their right to be different from others, including ourselves.

The interview was conducted by Professor Kuzheleva-Sagan