From the Chronicle of Higher Education comes a story that should make every mediocre academic in this country shudder in fear. Mark Bauerlein has looked under the hood of the “research” that professors in English literature conduct and he has documented what many of us know but few want to think about: nobody reads much of this stuff.
Nobody. Not even the other scholars in the field.
Much, perhaps most, of the research that American university professors do could be dumped into the ocean rather than published — and nobody, not even the other professors, would notice. Looking at two universities and what happened to the articles their literature professors published in peer-reviewed journals, Bauerlein reports:
Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.
Measuring the impact of research by counting citations to some degree tends to overstate the actual value of the research. Scholars writing articles for peer-reviewed journals are expected to show a thorough command of the research in the field; many articles are cited less because they provide valuable help to a scholar writing something new than because literature reviews complete with multiple citations are part of the game. Many, and sometimes most of the cited articles are more listed than used. If no one even cites an article in literature reviews, then the tree has truly fallen in a forest where nobody heard.
Bauerlein responds to some possible objections to his depressing findings:
Research makes professors better teachers and colleagues. Agreed, but not at the current pace. We want teachers to be engaged in inquiry, but we don’t need them to publish a book and six articles before we give them tenure. We shouldn’t set a publication schedule that turns them into nervous, isolated beings who end up regarding an inquisitive student in office hours as an infringement. Let’s allow 10 years for a book, and let’s tenure people for three strong essays. The rush to print makes them worse teachers and colleagues.
So some works get overlooked—so what? We need lots of research activity to produce those few works of significance. Agreed, but how much, and at what cost? If a professor who makes $75,000 a year spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication), the university paid $125,000 for its production. Certainly that money could have gone toward a more effective appreciation of that professor’s expertise and talent. We can no longer pretend, too, that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today, after three decades have produced 2,007 items on the poet, as they were in 1965, when the previous three decades had produced only 233.
The real problem, and if the state and federal fiscal crunches go on for much longer it will be upon us very soon, is that our society is less and less willing and able to pay for research that nobody really wants or needs.
Our universities today look a lot like the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII: vulnerable targets for a hungry state. State legislators are going to be wrestling with questions like whether to cut the pensions of retired state workers, cut services for voters, or raise taxes. In this atmosphere, the research university model (in the humanities and, economics and management excepted, the social sciences) may not long survive, at least in the public sector. (Highly endowed private universities may keep the old model alive.)
Bauerlein, who for all the radical implications of his work remains a fairly conservative reformer looking to prune the hedge rather than burn the building, underestimates the costs of “research”. If college teachers were paid to teach rather than research, they would also need to be trained less expensively. We would need (and probably do need) many fewer Ph.D programs and degrees than we now have.
Imagine the (not unlikely) scenario in which more and more state universities shift to a two and two model: almost all undergraduates spend two years in low cost community colleges and then the best of them go on to two more years at a university. It is hard to see why the humanities departments in the community colleges would need to be staffed with holders of Ph.D degrees — in part because it is overwhelmingly clear that most students need basic skills in community colleges rather than advanced courses. There might be a small “honors college” with something like the traditional structure of a 20th century university faculty, but demand for Ph.D’s would drop precipitously and the majority, possibly a very large majority of existing doctoral programs would close their doors. That would further diminish the demand for Ph.D’s, and would lead to another round of cutbacks in doctoral programs. In the end we might have a small number of excellent programs, producing a relatively small number of top scholars capable of doing important work — as opposed to large number of mediocre scholars most of whom don’t produce anything that even their fellow specialists and academic colleagues value.
This would be a distressing thing for a number of people, but would our society really suffer from the closure of dozens of mediocre programs turning out intellectual drones who publish research that nobody, even the other drones, really wants to follow?
Via Meadia thinks that the republic might survive even this.
Bauerlein is a cautious thinker; his research cuts the ground out from under the existing US university model but he does his best to limit the damage. He is thinking about tweaks and incremental reforms — though the confederacy of dunces that makes up the majority of every academic field in the country will do its best to do him in even so.
From the Via Meadia point of view, the problem lies precisely in the statement that Bauerlein accepts: “Research makes professors better teachers and colleagues”. Wrong. What makes better teachers and colleagues is a love of the beauty and truth found in a particular discipline, and a deep personal commitment to follow that love and share it with others. A professor who inspires her students with a lifelong love of Shakespeare is infinitely preferable to the industrious drone who publishes two unread and unreadable journal articles a year, an equally pointless book every four years, and bores students to tears. The first is an asset of the first order; the second is a danger to literature and makes America stupider and less cultured every year he grubs on.
In the humanities and most of the social “sciences”, the Ph.D and peer review machine as it now exists is a vastly expensive mediocrity factory. It makes education both more expensive and less effective than it needs to be. There are islands and even archipelagos of excellence in the sea of sludge but we needn’t subsidize the sea to preserve them.
We need college faculty who inspire as they teach: who infect their students with the love of knowledge and give them the skills to pursue that love on their own once they leave school. Our Shakespeare teachers shouldn’t worry about making sure their students know the latest hot craze in Shakespeare studies — but they should make sure that as many of their students as possible become lifelong fans of the Swan of Avon. A deep grounding in the twists and turns of contemporary literary theory may support that vocation — but it often does not, and the resources of a college ought to go towards the promotion of the core mission (leading students to fall in love with the life of the mind while giving them a set of skills that enable them not only to pursue that love but to function effectively in the adult world) not to subsidize academic hackery.
Worse, our current system encourages students to think that if you really love a subject, you should become a hack: a “serious” student of literature in our perverted world is someone who scribbles unreadable and unread treatises about minutiae rather than someone who takes that love into the public arena and encourages new generations to love, revere and, who knows, expand the literary heritage with which we are blessed.
Teachers must be evangelists for knowledge. We have a society that produces an ever growing torrent of unread “research” while fewer and fewer people know or care anything about the cultural heritage that the “research” ostensibly aims to examine. This is idiocy and it is madness, and the expense can no longer be borne. It will change.
There is one ray of light in the Bauerlein study. We can applaud the common good sense of a nation that would still rather read Emily Dickinson than squint over peer reviewed articles about her. However few people read her today, even fewer read the tedious pablum the hacks write about her. (I emphasize again that it isn’t all hackery; literary scholarship at its best matters. It is the mediocrity and worse in the field that needs no encouragement.)
It is a good sign, not a bad one, that most of this research goes unread. As long as most Americans continue resolutely to ignore this tripe, hope remains.