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Bear with Us, While We Think

How High-Speed Life Hinders Science


University time and scientific time are not usually viewed as being at odds with each other. Rather, they are thought to form a harmonious environment in which academic life unfolds. However, in reality, when it comes to time, the needs of a university and the needs of science might be quite different. Universities and science are active entities that are at times structured by incompatible goals and objectives. They impose not only different rhythms or time frames on people’s lives, but different kinds of work. A reflection upon time allows one to discern particularly ignored phenomena of university and scientific life. This year, the Centre for University Studies of the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities completes its three-year study on the problem of the university’s relationship with time in a historical perspective.

In the first year of the study, researchers examined the mechanisms by which different generations were culturally constructed and the influence of age as a factor in university life during the time of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

In the second year of the study, researchers focused on analysing the management of academic life by means of time structuring: the ways in which time can be used to intensify academic life, the motives and forms of resistance to this intensification from teachers and students, and teachers’ and students’ own time management practices.

The final stage of the study examines university discourse, interpretations of temporal concepts, as well as metaphors and categories of time in texts by faculty and students.

A mindfulness of the past prompts one to consider the existing temporal structures of contemporary academia. How does time function as a political resource that determines a university’s distribution of power? In what general cultural contexts can we situate the movement for slow science, and how have its ideas been received in the academic community? The authors of this text offer a reflection upon these issues, as well as on the Manifesto of Slow Science, which will be provided below.

University Time

In 1370, King Charles V the Wise of France issued an order that all bells of Paris be rung in synch with the royal palace clock tower. At that time, the many bell towers of Paris chimed at different times, rationing out the day in accordance with the needs of different population groups—monks, cloth-makers, builders, wine-growers, and so on. In other words, in the 14th century, Paris inhabited various temporal structures: different social groups had their own daily rhythms. Thus, within the boundaries of a single city, inhabitants lacked a synchronized, unified system of time.

Charles the Wise, who was a reader of Aristotle in his leisure time, decided to ‘tame’ time and unify the city’s disparate temporal rhythms into one system — the royal system of time.

As such, time is not only a symbol of power (as miniatures dating to the late 14th century and later illustrate in their depictions of rulers and their courts, which almost always feature tower clocks), but also a powerful tool for domination.

Anyone who determines our schedule or influences our daily rhythm wields power over us. Thus, when we ask the question, ‘Who does “university time” belong to?’, we are also asking who the university itself belongs to. As in 14th-century Paris, we find that different groups of ‘residents’ of contemporary universities – students, teachers, and administrators—seem to inhabit different temporal structures. And though we would like to believe that these different groups enjoy equal status and rights, which would entail independence and autonomy of separate time structures, this is, of course, not the case.

Student Time

Student Time is the most inferior and regulated of time structures. We all vividly remember the schedules we were given in our student years: ‘Let’s see, I’ve got class on Tuesdays till 6 PM. That means no sports practice on Tuesday nights.’ ‘Class on Saturday at 9 AM? I guess no late Friday night parties for me.’ These are familiar thoughts for anyone who has been a student. Students’ academic schedules break up and dictate their daily lives not only within the university’s walls but beyond them as well. If a student does not want to fail an exam, he or she must relegate his or her free time to preparing for that exam. This rule determines when a student has to cram into the wee hours of the night (or pull an all-nighter), and when a student can sleep. This kind of time structure can be called ‘task-oriented’, and it has persisted as the prevailing time structure for most of human history.

Teacher Time

The teacher lives in the same task-oriented time frame. It may seem that teachers enjoy more autonomy when it comes to time than students – the lecture cannot begin without the lecturer; it is the professor who determines when office hours will be held. This has only the appearance of freedom. At contemporary universities, faculty members increasingly feel that they are at the will of a schedule and the needs of the university system. It is almost impossible for them to maintain a division between work time and personal time.

And yet, when teacher time and student time are brought together into a single space, teacher time usually takes precedence over student time. This is neither good nor bad. If this subordination occurs in accordance to clear and accepted rules, it does not entail coercion. The university consists of a hierarchy. Moreover, this hierarchy, in accordance with conventions, leaves room for flexibility for both teachers and students as they are free to maneuver within these boundaries.

But teachers’ daily routines are becoming less and less insulated from intrusions. A teacher spends most of his or her day teaching or preparing for lectures. Therefore, teachers often must conduct research, answer emails, or update their department’s website during non-working hours. One of the main features of a task-oriented time frame is an inability to create a clear separation between ‘work’ and ‘life’. The teacher (if he or she wants to publish in good journals or receive high rankings from students) is forced to let work dominate his or her life. Eagerly awaiting vacation so that we can finally get some work done—that is, conduct research, write that article, or update a course programme—is not uncommon among faculty.

Administrator Time

Administrator time, on the other hand, is something fundamentally different. Here, we are no longer in the ‘archaic’ realm of task-oriented time, but rather in business time. The administrator’s time is rationalized, universalized, and objective. In this frame, it is not tasks that set one’s daily rhythm (as a lecture or writing an article sets the rhythm for a faculty member). Rather, it is the hours of the day that set the organization and order of tasks. This rationalized form of time is characteristic of any kind of wage labor: for example, the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM are work hours, while the rest of the hours of the day are personal hours. If there are no tasks, you nonetheless are obliged to be present at work; if there are too many tasks at hand, then you may have to stay late (and, accordingly, require overtime pay). Of course, many sympathetic managers we work with are sometimes forced to accommodate or adjust to the task-oriented time of students and teachers. But their time structure is much more similar to that of business corporations.

How Can We Synchronize These Time Structures?

Synchronization of different time structures is first of all facilitated by a clear schedule (those very rules that establish a common space of university freedom). This is why, for example, the availability of all necessary information on employees’ personal pages is so important.

Secondly, borderline interactions (i.e., interactions occurring at the peripheries of different time systems) should be transferred into ‘real time’. Thus, HSE online systems such as bpm, SDOU (the management documentation system), SURP (the temporary pass management system), or the ability to order certificates and other documents required by the Personnel Office online is a natural and necessary element of university life.

Thirdly, the ‘single window’ schedule on which many offices operate should be addressed. Border interactions are localized, and this enables individuals not to waste time on searching for the right people or offices. And this is true of our university. However, due to different schedules, not all borderline interactions can take place in ‘real time’ or in a ‘single window’—sometimes different schedules are incompatible. And it is here where the political, imperial subordination of one time system to another occurs.

If you come to Myasnitskaya from 1–2 PM, you are unlikely to be able to sign any documents. You are also unlikely to be able to pick up any documents. Chances are you can’t even simply drop a document off.  This is all because some HSE departments close for lunch for a full hour (!) (or, to put it more elegantly, they close for their ‘technical breaks’). At times like this, it becomes immediately clear whose time is most important.

If you are a student or a teacher, and you have classes back to back from 9 AM to 4:30 PM, chances are you don’t have time to eat lunch – not everyone manages to get to the cafeteria during the ‘long’ 20-minute break in the early afternoon.

We do not mean to imply that lunch is an impermissible luxury. To the contrary! It is almost sacred. And to interrupt someone’s lunch because you need a signature on your document is tactless. However, the time of teachers or students (who oftentimes simply do not have a spare moment at a different time of the day to deal with documents) is no less valuable than that of the administrator. Ultimately, the university can always establish a campus-wide ‘siesta’ for all, so that during the period of, say, 1-2 PM, teachers, students, and administrators alike can all eat lunch. Many universities in the world have these kinds of breaks.

This is not to suggest we copy a foreign system, but to suggest we consider new possibilities. Instead of abruptly cutting off an engaging seminar discussion with students, a teacher could invite his or her students to continue the conversation at the table—not a ‘round table’ situated at the head of a classroom, but a table for all—a lunch table. Sometimes complicated managerial issues, which require a lot of time to resolve via email, can be resolved quickly in informal conversation over lunch. Or, for example, while standing in line for the cashier, you could strike up a conversation with a colleague from a different faculty (something we rarely have time for if there is no preexisting specific objective) and unexpectedly stumble upon a common interest that would make for a good joint interdisciplinary topic. Finally, lunch provides an opportunity to talk about life’s current events with colleagues. Even seemingly inconsequential encounters such as this strengthen comradery and form a sense of solidarity amongst members of the university community.

The university as a space of structurally unfinished thought does not end with the enclosed space of the classroom. It can and must continue into the space of free university time. In this sense, a university-wide lunch break is not just a time for eating…

It was, by the way, under Charles V the Wise, who tamed the time of Paris, that the royal kitchen acquired an arsenal of silver forks – there were enough for almost the entire royal court.

Time to Think

It is only natural that a discussion of the politics of time at a university would lead to a consideration of the need for breaks, a reprieve from the perpetual ‘production of education and science’. This concerns not only HSE University but contemporary academia as a whole.

Colleagues in Berlin have given much thought to this issue and have turned to all researchers and scientists of the world with a manifesto of slow science. The manifesto reads as follows:


We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time.

Don’t get us wrong—we do say yes to the accelerated science of the early 21st century. We say yes to the constant flow of peer-review journal publications and their impact; we say yes to science blogs and media & PR necessities; we say yes to increasing specialization and diversification in all disciplines. We also say yes to research feeding back into health care and future prosperity. All of us are in this game, too.

However, we maintain that this cannot be all. Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadi­ly, with jerky moves and un­predict­able leaps forward—at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done.

Slow science was pretty much the only science conceivable for hundreds of years; today, we argue, it deserves revival and needs protection. Society should give scientists the time they need, but more importantly, scientists must take their time.

We do need time to think. We do need time to digest. We do need time to mis­understand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet. Science needs time.

—Bear with us, while we think.

The Slow Science Academy, Berlin

If you wish to receive more information or nominate a candidate for the Academy, please write to academy@slow-science.org


Following from the thoughts expressed in the manifesto above, we believe that such time to think and to pursue dialogue and face–to-face dispute should be made available to the current generation of high-profile, active scientists. We maintain that science, as well as the society as a whole that is funding our science, will profit greatly on the (very) long run, if a non- real- time / off line, integrative and sustain able culture of thinking is encouraged and kept alive.

Academies had been the exclusive home of science for a very long time— long before game-changing science journals were introduced. Currently, research academies do hardly play a role anymore; where they exist at all, membership is a career goal and incentive for eminent senior scientists and other honoraries rather than a career-accompanying retreat space.

The ‘Slow Science Academy’, founded in Germany in 2010, shall offer such often discredited, yet utterly needed ivory tower. It will gather groups of basic researchers alongside select brains from science-affine areas and offer them space, time, and—ultimately— resources to do their main job: to discuss, to wonder, to think.

 Science Time

The ‘Slow Science Manifesto’, published by a group of German scientists in 2010, was an event in the international academic community. At the same time, the appeals set forth in this short text were not unique; similar calls have reverberated in several overlapping contexts.

First and foremost, there is the Slow Movement, which originated in the 1980s. Its supporters oppose the destructive acceleration of modern society. In addition to its more well-known causes, such as ‘slow food’ and the ‘slow city’, the movement promotes ‘slow fashion’ and ‘slow medicine’. A voluminous body of literature has been published on ideas connected with this movement. Although supporters of the movement actively discuss the possibility of implementing their programmes in spheres such as economics (there is a ‘slow money’ movement, for example), their arguments generally concern popular psychology insofar as they believe the cult of speed is inimical to personal happiness, which is reflected in many books and articles. Among these works is the best-selling book, In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, by Canadian journalist Carl Honore. In the sphere of internet media, Christopher Richardson’s parodic project, Slow Down Now, as well as the World Institute of Slowness, an analytical centre founded by Geir Berthelsen in 1999, are very popular.

Secondly, in the academic discourse, the ‘Slow Science Manifesto’ was preceded by a series of much-discussed articles that drew attention to the fact that the acceleration of academic life causes endless stress for instructors and researchers. Therefore, in the summer of 2007, Canadian philosopher Brian Treanor published an essay, ‘Slow University: A Manifesto’, urging fellow scholars to follow his example and designate a few hours a day as ‘slow hours’, during which it is permissible to put off urgent matters, such as answering emails, meetings with students, administrators, and colleagues. Subsequently, a number of publications have emphasized that the increase of formal requirements for performance reports and publication activity (aptly captured in the familiar phrase, ‘publish or perish’) inevitably leads to increased stress and depression, thereby reducing the quality of teachers’ and researchers’ work.

‘Slow science’ and ‘slow university’ are increasingly being discussed outside of academia. However, it is worth noting that those who tend to debate the issue are opponents of ‘slow science’—usually, they are proponents of neoliberal managerial systems. However, the struggle for a ‘slow university’ and ‘slow science’ is hardly a result of alarmism of academic groups who have failed to adapt to the pace of changing universities and seek to be given a free pas to indulge in  professional stagnation and inflexibility.

A discussion of ‘slow science’ requires a consideration of a few other important aspects that connect the ideas of the ‘Slow Science Manifesto’ not only with the endeavors of activists and writers but also with contemporary scholarly conceptions of accelerating time (including university time), as proposed by education researchers.

First of all, it is worth considering the question of how useful the current ‘gladiatorial’ culture of academia is. Participants of seminars held at Durham University (England) in 2013 and 2014 on the topic of the ‘slow university’ discussed this very question. The current academic culture, which has entered into a symbiosis with what British sociologist Barbara Adam has called the ‘fetishism of speed’, leads to profound changes in the very structure of modern knowledge.

New Zealand researcher Michael Peters traces the influence of changing modern social and economic relations on the new demands of higher education: under the conditions of ‘fast capitalism’, higher education is expected to produce ‘fast knowledge’ and follow the general principles of ‘mathematization, formalization, and anesthetization’. And we hardly understand the extent to which this will change various scientific fields. Peters himself believes that it will lead to ‘plunder […] and the occupation of our national systems that create scientific knowledge and innovation’.

In addition, it is worth noting the attempts to understand the fundamental differences in conceptions of time in research activity versus, for example, management (in productive and consumer cultures). British researcher Paul Gibbs has studied this. It is also important to consider the differences in language in these two areas, the victim of which is the academy. American researcher Siva Vaidhyanathan describes the invasion of modern media language of academia, leading to the disastrous ‘googlization of the university’.

Scholars have proposed ways to bridge this gap (though the issue is rarely foregrounded in ‘slow science’ discourse). British researcher Ronald Barnett, for example, has put forth principles of a so-called ‘ecological university’, which strives to not only preserve but improve the social and cultural environments (ecologies) with which it is connected and become a ‘space of reason’ for these ecologies. The ecological university requires a well-organized temporal policy aimed at a particular ‘epistemic time’ (a concept dating back to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard). But, perhaps, bridging this gap (of course, after it is understood by all parties) is more likely not within the framework of general theory, but in a dialogue that takes the conditions of specific environments (country, city, university, department) into account.

This is not just about ‘budgeting time’. It is about the very essence of academic studies. It is worth remembering that time is the most important tool an academic has, and this tool requires individualized fine turning—more so than in many other professional areas. It is no coincidence that the slogan many researchers have adopted in opposition to the current situation is the assertion that they simply have ‘no time to think’ under such conditions.

On the one hand, even the most ‘efficient’ time frames can be made inhabitable. Researchers, teachers (and, of course, students) lay their personal trajectories in them, like flaneursin a city that is far from always friendly or conducive for strolling. On the other hand, even time structures that are more accommodating of academics and have been established after successful administrative policy or faculty pressure cannot take into account the myriad ways in which each person finely tunes his or her vital instrument of time. But if universities just slowed down (as opposed to accelerating and purposefully destabilizing the ‘rules of the game’), its residents would be able to ‘settle in’ to their own schedules.  Indeed, it is ‘disordered time’ (in the terminology of French researcher Michel de Serto)—the opposite of a schedule—that can lead to something new and unique.


Authors: Aleksei A. Pleshkov, Aleksandr Rusanov, September 13, 2019