One unexpected perk of interning at University of Toronto Press was the merch. Within the first few days of my internship, I received a UTP-branded notebook, an assortment of button pins, a tote bag, and a black hoodie emblazoned with the cover of one of UTP’s bestselling titles – The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. The latter has become one of my favourite hoodies, and not just for its fleece lining that makes it the perfect garment for remote workdays.
The cover of The Slow Professor is simple: a red line drawing of a snail, with the text above it reading, “The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.” This subtitle in particular caught my attention. Although the book is geared towards the faculty side of academia, the “culture of speed” is something I’ve had a rather contentious relationship with for much of my student life.
A confession: I nearly didn’t graduate university. I came close to failing one of my final courses because I didn’t submit a key assignment in time. This was a common occurrence in my undergrad; time and time again, I would miss even the extended deadlines that my professors granted me. It wasn’t because I was slacking off, or because I didn’t care about my courses – on the contrary, I possibly cared too much, to the point where perfectionism would often impede my timely completion of an essay or exam. Ongoing health issues, the pandemic, and other factors would further compound my struggles. I don’t want to pretend that a good deal of these problems weren’t my own fault – university life taught me that I still had a lot to learn, in more ways than one. But it is also an unfortunate truth that academia isn’t often kind to disabled and neurodivergent people. Much of life isn’t, really. A term that has followed me since childhood is 磨蹭, which roughly translates to “slowpoke.” It wasn’t meant to be a malicious descriptor, but when you’ve been called “slow” for much of your life, you start to fear you’ll never be able to catch up to everyone else.
As such, my “slowness” was something I was determined to overcome when I received the offer to intern at UTP. When I received my first task as an intern – sending out books to scholarly journals for review – I told myself this would be the moment I stopped being “slow” and started living life in the fast lane.
Of course, such things are easier said than done. A whole week passed, and I was dismayed to discover I had only completed the work for three books out of the fifteen I’d been assigned. And through it all, I had made countless mistakes that I wasted so much precious time correcting – incorrectly written ISBNs, typos in my emails that I didn’t notice until after I’d sent them, and most memorably, accidentally deleting an entry in a company-wide database that I then had to shame-facedly ask for IT to fix. “This is it,” I thought to myself. “My professional career has ended before it even began. They’ll surely regret having ever taken me on.”
But when I approached my supervisor to apologize for my lack of progress, she didn’t haul me out of the office by my ear as I’d feared. “This kind of pace is to be expected,” she said cheerfully. “It’s better to go slowly and do it right instead of rushing to produce low-quality work.”
In the end, that was the key I had been missing this entire time. I was an intern, and entering an entirely new industry at that. It was impossible to expect to know everything right off the bat. Prioritizing speed at all times, over everything else, would only be detrimental to my work. And most importantly – I am a human being, not a machine, and the same goes for everyone else. “Slowness” is a natural part of life, even at work. There would be days, or even weeks, when my productivity was lower than I’d like; times when I failed to finish writing a draft by the deadline I’d set for myself, or was forced to admit that I was unable to complete the task I’d been assigned in the given timeframe. But I came to learn that making mistakes or needing more time to do things wasn’t the end of the world, as long as I was transparent about it. Furthermore, I wasn’t alone – our division was a team for a reason, and I could always turn to my colleagues and mentors for support and guidance when I needed it.
Ironically, the moment I stopped stressing about my speed at work, my pace improved. I could handle my multitude of tasks more easily and even find enjoyment in the variety of things I experienced. Processes that I found confusing at first became easier the more I did them, especially when I took the time to understand each step instead of trying to do it all as fast as possible. Understanding the tasks I worked on also helped me streamline my process and learn how long each task took to complete, which subsequently helped me better organize and prioritize my responsibilities as time went on.
It took a lot of trial and error – but everyone has to start somewhere. My biggest takeaway from this experience was that the primary job of this internship was to learn – not just about the fundamentals of the publishing industry, but also about yourself and your own goals for your life and career. What is your working style? What are the things you most enjoy doing? How do you balance your personal and professional lives? Where do you hope to go in the future?
I don’t consider myself much of an advice-giver. But if I were to talk to anybody who might be in a similar boat as me – students or early-career hopefuls, still slightly unsure of their footing in the world and where they want to go from here – I might say this: it’s okay to take it slow sometimes. It’s okay to linger when you’re absorbing new experiences, or learning and trying new things, or exploring all the possible paths that you can take in life. The world of publishing is so much larger than many might expect, and there are far more areas in it beyond just “writing” and “editing” where one can discover their niche. The same is true for many other industries out there. Much of life is portrayed as a rat race, in which one must keep scrambling endlessly or perish – but even 磨蹭 snails can and will reach their destinations eventually, so long as they simply keep going.