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Published on: December 19, 2011
The Ax Is Laid To The Root of the Tree

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 […]

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.)

The campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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.

A classroom of empty chairs

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.

show comments
  • Will

    An interesting point to consider about reducing Ph.D. programs in humanities and social science fields is that dropping them actually raises costs. Even if you increase faculty teaching loads to 4 courses per semester from 2 which is standard in departemts with graduate programs, it still requires hiring more faculty to serve the same number of students. That kind of teaching load anyway creates incentives for multiple choice scantron exams rather than the kind of essay writing Mead (or I) would consider best for assessing and teaching humanities. Such things are pretty common at junior colleges with heavy teaching loads, poorly prepared students, and low pay. The teaching model for courses at many public universities is to have faculty teach lecture courses with 100 to 300 students with teaching assistants leading discussion groups and grading. How does that work without the teaching assistants and what financially viable alternatives are there?

  • Will

    Explain how a model where faculty teach more, give up research, and are probably paid less avoids shifting the emphasis from expertise in a discipline or field to specialization in “education.” Many colleges, as Tony Grafton recently noted, have already become part of a “K-6″ system. Won’t dropping research push good people out of the system to duplicate the patterns of publicy secondary education?

  • peter heinlein

    common sense is so uncommon these days. mead is unfortunately the exception, whereas in late 19th century america he would have been the rule.

  • Charming Billy

    As a dry-as-dust pedant manqué, I feel glad to have to escaped the academic mill before it ground my enthusiasm completely out of existence. I thought I was wise to the world when I started grad school (after all my undergraduate education in the humanities was mostly an exercise in the higher cynicism) but I discovered I was a true naïf when the grimly professional nature of liberal arts of a PhD program became apparent.

    The wonder is that anyone bothers at all. Believe me, the situation described in Bauerlein’s study is evident to every fair minded observer in academia. Although, of course they’ll close ranks and never admit it to outsiders.

  • Tom

    “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.” This is surely right. But isn’t this type of professor, who is in love with his discipline, usually also the type of person who really wants to research and write on topics that may never make it into his undergraduate teaching? What incentive is there for this type of person to become or remain a professor if he’s no longer able to pursue his love of his discipline in a more or less leisured, that is, not solely determined by the needs o his students, way?

  • Chase Crucil

    Professor Mead, YOU’LL LOVE THIS ARTICLE. (not kidding!) Roy Black, quite possibly the best all around criminal defense lawyer in America, talks about the need to change the law school curriculum in this blog post.

    http://www.royblack.com/blog/um-law-school/

  • Robert

    Boomers. It’s all their fault. (Or I suppose it’s really their parents’ fault — for having so many kids, and telling the kids how great they were and how wide-open their horizons were. Talk about setting up expectations of entitlement!)

    When events dump a large demographic cohort into any profession or industry, the economics change drastically. This has all kinds of knock-on effects, only one of which is the overspecialization highlighted here.

    The entire phenomenon of deconstruction was necessary because in the late 70s and early 80s up-and-coming Boomer academics had to seize control of university hiring. The Old Guard had to be shoved out of power as fast as possible so Boomer careers could advance, especially given the generally lower quality of Boomer academic preparation compared to the previous generation.

    Fiscal pressures may force changes on the Academy sooner, but I don’t expect a real detox to happen until Boomers (and I’m one) have gone from the scene for at least a generation.

  • http://thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    I graduated from Columbia in ’64, my father ’35. Both of us studied English and had one teacher in common. I am ashamed to say I forget his name but I signed up for his American Lit class and discovered in the first class that he had suffered a stroke and stuttered badly. I could hardly follow him and was furious that the college kept him on….until I started to hear what he was saying. Then I listened to every word. He transformed the drudgery of study and made it inspiring. It was no accident that I found a passage somewhere in the middle of For Whom The Bell Tools that prefigures the final scene. I made the case that it was intentional in a paper and he agreed saying he had never noticed it himself. Earlier this year my son, who has never studied English literature, discovered Hemingway in ‘the middle of life’ and thanks to my teacher I had some insight into The Sun Also Rises. We had a way to talk about how ‘the dark wood in the middle of life ‘ felt to my son and to Hemingway, as well as to my father and myself. As the philosopher Pirsig might say we have confused qualifications with Quality.

  • WigWag

    “In the humanities and most of the social “sciences,” the PhD and peer review machine as it now exists is a vastly expensive mediocrity factory.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Wow, Professor Mead is channeling Harold Bloom. How ironic is that?

    No one has spoken more eloquently, forcefully or bravely about the mediocrity of the American academic scene, especially in the humanities than Professor Bloom.

    I can only assume that Professor Mead has something against humanities faculty. In this post he aims his criticism at mediocre English Professors. In his post of November 28th (entitled “New York Times Slimes Romney”) Mead labels perhaps the most intellectually fecund and respected English Professor living today as at best an “elitist misanthrope” and at worst, a “bigot.” In that essay, Mead went on (in juvenile fashion) to attempt to insult Bloom by referring to him as “Mr.” instead of “Dr.” The icing on the cake came when Orson Scott Card wrote a comment wondering why Yale would even employ Bloom. Mead was so titillated that he wrote a new post expressing his admiration for a commentator who expressed bafflement at why Yale would be willing to employ the greatest American literary critic.

    It seems that Professor Mead just doesn’t like English Professors; he doesn’t like the great ones and he doesn’t like the mediocre ones. Who exactly does he like?

    Much of what Professor Mead says in this essay is true; the amount of garbage masquerading as legitimate research is extraordinarily large. I do think there are some caveats that temper Mark Bauerlein’s findings.

    While counting citations is an imperfect way to assess the impact of any particular journal article it does provide at least some information about how impactful that article has been. Something that Professor Mead doesn’t mention (perhaps because Bauerlein didn’t mention it) is that some journals are much more widely read and cited than others. Papers published in well respected journals as opposed to minor journals tend to be more influential, as they should be. The mere fact that a journal has an editorial board that provides peer review for submissions is not enough to make any particular journal important or influential.

    Another point worth considering is that just because an article is widely ignored now, does not necessarily mean that it will be considered unimportant forever. Let’s remember that many great works of art are widely ignored in their day only to become appreciated later on.

    We even see this in the world of academics. I am reminded of a paper published in 1924 by the great Nobel Prize winning German chemist, Otto Warburg. Warburg’s paper suggested that cancer cells use a unique method to obtain energy (called glycolysis) that is different from the method used by healthy cells. While his theory caused a furor at the time, it later fell out of favor and for decades his seminal paper on the subject was almost never cited at all. Within the last ten years there has been a new interest in the “Warburg Effect” and several drug companies are actively developing new anticancer drugs based on Warburg’s theory. After being assigned to the dustbin of history, Warburg’s paper is now being cited hundreds of times every year.

    My point is that just because something is viewed as unimportant in one era does not mean that it will forever be viewed as unimportant.

    One last point about the plethora of pusillanimous papers. In the world of the sciences and engineering , academic institutions have a strong motivation to keep their faculty publishing; of course that motivation is money. Most of the papers published in the scientific press represent the culmination of a process which begins with the faculty member’s successful submission of a research grant application to a government agency like the NIH, NSF or DOD or to any number of private foundations or voluntary health agencies. These grants come with indirect or “over-head” budgets attached that are frequently as great as the rest of the budget lines put together. At an institution like Yale, the “overhead” rate exceeds 80 percent; at a place like Bard, it exceeds 60 percent. These overhead funds support the numerous unnecessary deans and administrators who help make university life so expensive and so bureaucratic. In essence, the overhead funds that faculty members get as part of their research grants become a slush fund for the university administrators. Fix the indirect cost problem and the number of garbage publications will drop as a consequence.

  • Jonathan Silber

    A person who would devote his life to, and make a career of, studying a single poet, or even a particular school of poets, is an intellectual second-rater, at best, and undeserving of a position teaching others. No one of a first-rate mind, who might have something worth saying, would be content to focus his attention, and efforts, lifelong, on so narrow a subject.

    That’s why biographies of accomplished individuals are with few exceptions not worth reading. The authors of such works must be willing to spend hours, and years, poring over the piles papers and effects of their subject; and what very intelligent person would find that appealing? The kind of efforts required to assemble such a work are only in the most superficial sense intellectual.

  • Eurydice

    The idea of separating scholarship from teaching is awfully appealing – sort of like the Greek Orthodox church, in which married priests tend to the parishoners and the (less plentiful) celibates get to participate in the deeper mysteries of the church. And universities were originally styled along church lines, anyway, weren’t they? So why not go back to the times when scholarship was hoarded by a deserving few in “honors colleges”?

    I think the issue is that mediocrity is a by-product of freedom and openness. In earlier pieces you’ve named some of the advantages of the American system – entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to bypass hierarchy, the freedom to try, the freedom to fail. These advantages should be just as valuable in academia as in the “real world.” And we know that any valuable research is usually preceeded by mediocrity and failure – the trick is not to reward failure.

    As for whether reseach makes for a better teacher, it seems as if it should. I don’t see how a teacher can be an evangelist if he doesn’t love his subject, but that love isn’t like the faith of religion and that love isn’t only limited to the transmission to others. If he loves his subject he’ll want to keep studying it so it stays alive and useful and so his brain stays alive and useful. And students deserve that level of interest from their professors whether they’re going to Harvard or Bunker Hill Community College.

    I don’t know what to say about the cost issues, whether one paper on Dickenson is worth more than another – the problem there is that one doesn’t know until the paper is finished and goes out into the world. I suppose one could go further and say why bother with Dickenson at all? If people want to read her they can just go to the library, but then we end up with a mediocrity of a different sort.

  • http://judtscafe.blogspot.com/ Tacitus

    I agree with much here, but I would add that the Master’s degree would need to be tweaked to match the suggested increase in teaching and decrease in (mediocre) research. From my personal and recent experience with a M.A. degree (not in English), there is no emphasis on learning how to effectively the teach material nor enough opportunities to gain classroom experience. If the number of Ph.D. students were reduced, then that would go a long way to remedying the latter problem. But the former still remains.

    I can remember posing questions to some faculty members about pedagogy, and the responses I received suggested that I had asked the most non-pertinent query possible. I might as well have spoken in Aramaic.

    If there is to be an increase in the number of students passing through the community college level, then I think a real change in mentality is needed about pedagogy at at the academic level as well as a change in how a M.A. is structured.

  • Mercutio

    That universities have a goodly share of mediocrities should come as no surprise; every institution has its share of placeholders, and that’s especially so in the case of state-run institutions. Better to have someone’s slightly-below-the-median cousin or member of a favored social group teaching your kid English than operating on your heart or running a multi-million dollar merger.

    This reality tends to undermine the oft-made point in this blog that it’s more important what you study than where. Quite the contrary, it’s at a limited number of highly select institutions that one is more likely to be held to higher standards and exposed to more creative and interesting thinking. And that’s not only from one’s professors but even more so from one’s fellow students.

    The larger point, I think, is the mediocrity and failure of the universities as an endeavor. This is more than a tendency toward group think – the dearth, and then flood, of Dickinson studies — or the obnoxious and obscurantist work that typifies academia.

    The idea of a research university, and the reason why they’re so important to democratic societies, is the need for a place to pursue intellectual endeavors free of the dominant forces of liberal, capitalistic societies — the inexorable, hydraulic pressure of public opinion and usefulness. The universities were supposed to be a sort of game reserve for these sorts of exotic creatures; by harboring habits, tendencies and projects in tension with democracy and the market, they would enrich and strengthen our civil society, much like families and churches.

    The problem is that the professoriate has utterly betrayed their trust. The game reserve is overrun by garden variety species who are all the worse for their protected status. The universities are subject to a sort of ideological-driven but yet highly personal patronage system in which professors seek to promote the like-minded and right thinking, with the occasional vanity hire of the particular cocktail of class-race-gender that happens to be hot.

    Simply slimming the ranks of professors will not cure this problem. It might make it even worse, as they work ever more assiduously to ensure the promotion of their proteges. Subjecting the university to market forces may well be worse than the disease; unless your purpose is to euthanize universities, this cure runs the risk of defeating the highest purpose of the university. How much of an improvement will it be when the McDonald’s Professor of English has his students subject Shakespeare to lean six sigma?

    Yes, you might make students’ bosses happier, and ensure a smoother transitions to the market place. But you make also kill off yet another the sorts of what Toqueville called intermediary institutions that are essential to a robust and vibrant democracy.

  • Luke Lea

    English should be abolished as a separate academic discipline in my opinion. Undergraduate can read English literature (the classics) as part of the history of the periods which produced it. Same goes for philosophy and art.

  • Richard S

    I wonder if the trouble here is that the German model research university is only a good model for the hard sciences. In those fields, there is genuine cumulative knowledge. I rather doubt that’s true in other fields. Were students who graduated from good schools in the 19th century less able to read, for example, Shakespeare or Milton than today’s studends? I rather doubt it. On the other hand, todays chemistry graduates know much more chemistry.

    On further point. Many of the best educated founders thought that their undergraduate educations were seriously lacking. John Adams thought Harvard could have been much better. Jefferson thought the same of William and Mary. And Franklin only had a few years of schooling.

    To what degree is a university education useful, outside of the hard sciences. (I might agree, to a point, with Mr. Mead about economics and perhaps some other social sciences).

    Is there a related problem here of scientism? Are we applying the scientific method to fields for which it is poorly suited? Reading a summary of some resent research in David Brooks’ “Social Animal,” I couldn’t help but notice that many of the new “discoveries” are old had to serious readers of the classic works of philosophy, history, literature, etc.

  • Benjamin W.

    WigWag, if I’m not mistaken, I believe Mr. Mead received his undergraduate degree in English Literature from Yale.

    If anyone spent their youth getting familiar with the best and brightest literature professors, it would be him.

    I also don’t find it particularly surprising he’d be excited by a comment from Orson Scott Card. Science fiction writers often have interesting perspectives on society, and knowing that one as widely read as Card was checking his blog would be pretty exciting for anyone even tangentially familiar with science fiction.

  • Mike D’Virgilio

    “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 . . .”

    I think the good professor hits the nail on the head here. My daughter has the privilege of attending Hillsdale College, and that place is just not your typical institution of higher learning. Professors there, or the ones she’s encountered and we’ve met really do inspire, and she has been inspired to learn like never before in her young life. Over 96% of students return every year. They are definitely doing something right, and teaching there takes precedence over research.

    BTW, I know Mark Bauerlein, and have had several conversations about just this subject. He would love to be more bold and in your face, but he doesn’t think it will get him very far. But of course, lefties will go after him anyway.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I have said this before, most education can now be delivered online, at little or no cost to the student. Even the labs and library research could be made virtual, as anyone who has played World of Warcraft knows, human interaction online is limitless. All that is needed is some national accrediting system, to track transcripts, and award degrees as they are earned.
    What if people could study at their own speed, study subjects on a whim, without the gatekeepers in admissions measuring their wallet or skin color? What if you wanted to take a class in Physics right this minute? And you could without the ponderous red tape of first getting admitted to the University, getting registered in the right class with the professor you wanted and with a schedule that meets your needs.
    I recently took some Continuing Education classes online as part of my Real Estate licensing requirements. And I didn’t have to drive anywhere, I started and stopped when it was convenient, and I completed the classes in 1/2 to 1/3 the time it would have taken had I had to go sit in class. The videos, quizzes, exercises, and tests forced me to learn the material and go back and take a module over if I failed a test.

  • Russ

    @ Mr. Silber:

    I’m afraid that second-rate minds who happen to possess Ph.Ds are a dime a dozen, sadly.

  • Soul

    Having lived in a University town for many years, and grown up with the sons and daughters of professors, I recall it being mentioned a few times by friends about the need for their parent(s) to be published twice a year. The main idea I was told for this was to gain tenure.

  • Corlyss

    “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.”

    Well, it’s only because the stuff is unintelligible. I’ve read better-written and more timely and useful writing in the IRS regulations’ portion of the Code of Federal Regulations. To get and keep tenure, the denizens of Englishl Lit departments have to write drivel about oppressed minorities and women, straining to find relevance and echoes in the Western Cannon, or relate mind-numbingly obscure authors to mainstream movements. In the process, they’ve created a body of writings that would shame any self-respecting writer not trapped in the squirrel cage of academia.

  • doc

    This is news? Gene Garfield created the Science Citation Index nearly a half century ago. Ever heard of the Humanities Citation Index? Nope, me neither.

    How about the Angry Studies Index? Diversity Studies? Studies Studies Index?

    Humanities and liberal arts degrees are being revealed for the scams they (mostly) are. Enjoy.

  • Anthony

    “…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…and the measures 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)….” The aforementioned capsulizes root/purpose of higher education WRM.

    WRM, referencing Ph.Ds the degree historically inferred committed research scholarship by scholars seeking to advance cultural knowledge base; the general sterility and mediocrity of which your essay speak has had many fathers – however, I believe its fundamental source began with the Carnegie interest (beginning in the 1900s) endeavoring to support education thereby placing a premium on University Department Ph.Ds (doing good is complicated business).

    Hope springs eternal: perhaps, MLA can begin setting trend (quality/quantity) that you infer; “sheer output is a pretense ready to be exploded” but societally advancing academic research scholarship (Doctoral effort) remains always beneficial.

  • Ron

    Why leave STEM out of the topic? Publication factories are the same. As an industrial scientist badly needing to use research on basic principals I have been continually disappointed by technical publications and graduate thesis product. Original thought and inquiry has been abandoned to “publish or perish”, quantity versus quality but at much greater cost to the taxpayer. Good instructors are badly needed, not producers of repetitious “research”.

  • http://proteinwisdom.com/pub dicentra

    “In that essay, Mead went on (in juvenile fashion) to attempt to insult Bloom by referring to him as ‘Mr.’ instead of ‘Dr.'”

    You’re still on about that after people rightly pointed out that it’s perfectly within the bounds of style guides to refer to someone as “Dr” in the first instance and then “Mr” thereafter? Don’t you have any new material?

    As for the Orson Scott Card comment, OSC has for years railed against various types of stupidity in literary studies programs, with good reason; it’s not just a star-struck thing for Mead to enjoy it. OSC frequently corresponds with “regular people,” so it’s not as if Mead were being showered with a special favor.

    And I say this as someone who used “Anxiety of Influence” and “Map of Misreading” in my masters thesis to good effect.

  • Dotar Sojat

    I filled in for a professor and taught a couple of Property I classes at my law school. I had a great time. I was asked if I thought about teaching, but my answer was no, I would only want to teach. There was enough publishing to avoid perishing going on that I was not interested in having to do the same. There was no room for just a teacher.

  • JohnMc

    The cost factor is actually worse than perceived. In many disciplines the Masters and Doctorate programs are overly represented by foreign students. Now for the educational institution, the enhanced fees are a draw. But for society as a whole it is a drain. For no sooner has the taxpayer been shorn or his shillings for the effort involved but that the newly minted individual flies back home. America as a consequence gains not from the experience.

  • Russ

    Mr. Sojat, my experience was much the same. Did time in the Community College circuit, enjoyed the heck out of it. You could spot the guys who really wanted to hit the tenure track a mile off — and with rare exception, their teaching was lackluster.

    My own research is nothing resounding. I like to think that one or two of my (three or four) articles is actually worth something…if you’re really that into Crecy or Cuman tactics. Not a lot of citations gonna happen that way, and certainly not enough to bother going the Ph.D. route for, when one can do every bit as well doing research as an independent scholar. That’s right, the guy who can actually do what I did last year: withdraw a paper from publication entirely because I decided that my hypothesis was tangentially useful but fundamentally incorrect and therefore should not be published.

    Tell me I can get away with that on the tenure track, and when I retire, maybe I’ll get piled higher and deeper and teach as a dollar-a-year man. Until then, forget it.

  • Passingby

    The article, and nearly every comment, is too long. “Vigorous writing is concise.”

    And that is what ails academia.

  • George Purcell

    Don’t be too quick to jump on the 2+2 bandwagon, Professor Mead. We’ll have some research coming out in the next year or two that suggests that’s a recipe to crush bachelor degree completion rates.

  • Adrian E. Tschoegl

    Full disclosure: I have published lots of stuff, but have never achieved tenure and am a pretty lowly part-time lecturer at a pretty good university.
    I would like to defend research, or as I prefer to refer to it, learning. The learning-oriented faculty at my school spend as much time on the student side of the classroom as in front of it. They just call it seminars, job talks, conferences, brown bags, and the like. They may never cite the papers from these events, or many of the papers they read, but that doesn’t mean that those papers are wasted. Frequently the material feeds through to their own teaching.

    My papers, though rarely cited, have drawn attention: over the last decade or so 37,320 views of the abstracts and 7700 downloads of the papers. Presumably the people that downloaded the papers did so because there was something they wanted to look at. Even the abstract views may have been of some help. For instance, today I added a bullet point to a powerpoint slide in one of my lectures based on the info in the abstract of a paper that touches on a topic I teach about but don’t personally write about.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Adrian: the post does not attack research that engages with substantive questions in compelling ways, and judging from the responses that your research gets, your work finds an audience among others who share those interests. Work that the other scholars in the field find worthless may someday turn out to have been visionary and prescient, but that is to put it mildly unlikely. It is the confusion between the (in my view, legitimate and worthwhile) concept of serious academic research in the humanities and the production of pointless filler by intellectually disengaged career hounds fattening their resumes that I worry about.

  • Milwaukee

    In Education, future professors need to be published before employment. I have suggested a simple scheme. For a mere $2.50/month, I will write and publish via vanity press, an article which cites your article. You need only pay the $2.50/month after you receive your first tenure track job, and then as long as you keep the job. Once you go to full professor the fee goes to $5/month. A small price to pay for your position. My firm will also be willing to put out multiple articles, citing your article again, and my article which cites you, to pump up your numbers. I figure a single article could reasonable cite up to 30 future professors. If I can do that twice a month for just a few years, I’ll be set.

  • Milwaukee

    Passerby: perhaps “Brevity is the soul of wit.” would be better. While it takes more words, it has fewer syllables. Is it possible that a severe lack of humor is what is ailing academia? After all, as Roger Rabbit once said “If you haven’t got a sense of humor you might as well be dead.”

  • Instructor

    The groupthink that exists in today’s academy explains the plethora of unreadable but politically correct/trendy blather. There are very few universities which actually promote free thinking, especially at the graduate level. When I was in graduate school, I was told that my literature thesis “had to” be a deconstruction. I asked why, and I didn’t get an answer. So I refused to deconstruct, and the faculty retaliated; no one would agree to be my advisor. Needless to say, I went elsewhere–another school and another field–to obtain a graduate degree.

    I have since spent my entire teaching career making sure that I never, EVER do the same to my students. I do not profess; I instruct.

  • sdb

    Salaries for professors of the humanities are among the lowest in universities, a relatively small fraction of BS/BA degrees are awarded in the traditional liberal arts: 3% in english (compared to 22% in business). Already, a huge fraction of service courses in the humanities are being taught by contingent faculty (i.e. non-research). The emerging model for libart depts will be a handful of tenure/tenure track research faculty working with majors and grad students and an army of contingent faculty handing the bulk of service courses. I don’t know if this is a bad thing or not, but it simply isn’t the case that there is much savings to be had by eliminating positions held by underproductive english profs.

    Perhaps a better question is about the value gained by a degree in business. A huge fraction of degrees are in this field, the rigor in many business schools is questionable (there is a reason that the flow is from engineering to business and not the other way around), and the faculty are incredibly expensive. Blowing up the business degree will revolutionize higher-ed.

  • Marty

    In the first couple of comments, Will assumes that there is something worthwhile going on in the social science depts of most colleges. There isn’t. It’s mostly (overwhelmingly) garbage–useless, barren, unreadable and empty garbage.

    There is no point in doing a bad thing efficiently or well, it’s still a bad thing.

    There are probably enough good sociologists and anthropologists and the like, doing worthwhile research and training future researchers, to staff decent, traditional research-oriented departments at maybe 10-20 colleges or universities; let’s say, 150 professors and associate professors in the Ivys and near-Ivys (e.g., Stanford).

    The rest of the world only needs people competent to teach a survey or 2-semester intro sequence to students who really don’t care anyway and are just clearing a Gen Ed requirement. And someone with a Master’s and a Scantron machine, and maybe a work-study person a few hours a week, can do that quite adequately for 100-130 students (4 sections) a semester, I assure you.

  • teapartydoc

    The medieval German model is in a terminal stage of existence.

  • Jim.

    Engaging with the Western Canon is often called The Great Conversation… this, taken with the need for professors to be engaging with students, suggests that it might be more important and relevant for a professor to maintain a blog (or comment regularly on others academics’ blogs) than to publish in an obscure journal twice a year.

    It would crush more than a few fragile egos if their blogs went unread, I suppose, but egos like that might not be suited for standing up in front of a classroom anyway. And blog comments (by and large) are notorious for being as vapid as most Lit Crit. If nothing else, the two media deserve each other.

    Perhaps ideas first circulated, developed, polished, or honed on blogs could be decanted into a worthwhile book or two.

    This may be part of Mead’s revolution. :)

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    “Vigorous writing is concise.”

    Or maybe it takes all kinds? I re-read two of the longer posts submitted – #s 13 and 15, which also happen to be two of my favorites – and don’t think I found more than two or three unnecessary words in either of them (and all of those minor). I found much the same to be true of the Mead essay, with the exception of maybe one or two brief paragraphs. In fact, off the cuff I’d say it’s one of his best efforts of this length.

    Who knows? Being slow of mind, perhaps I need twenty words to drive home or clarify an author’s point, whereas nimbler wits can get by with ten or five. (Then again, what would make me a better judge than Mercutio of the number of words, images and examples he thought necessary to make his point?)

    Must admit, on the whole I found both post and responses to be, well, quite invigorating.

  • RedWell

    Been applying for academic jobs. My CV emphasizes “Unquantifiable passion for my field coupled with a broad and serious interest in human knowledge.”

    Still waiting to hear back from anyone.

    I’m told that so-called “practical” hiring committees and administrators want concrete output to assess my competence and knowledge. Whatever. I’m sure parents of State U students and local taxpayers would be happy to know the school hires people who love the material and focus on students and don’t worry so obsessively about “global competition” in the marketplace of ideas.

  • Foobarista

    The biggest irony in my college career was that the place where I ran into the “love of knowledge and passion for teaching” sorts was in junior college. After I transferred to a top-tier research university, I ran into “world-class” research profs who, other than a couple of lectures per week, left instruction to untrained grad students who could barely speak English.

  • richard40

    The article is entirely right when it says that humanities should shift emphasis from research to teaching. Technical subjects like science and engineering need research because there are alwaays new things to be discovered, but how many new ways can you do a critique of Emily Dickenson or Shakespeare.

    If professors in the humanities want activities outside of teaching, then instead of this pointless research into past works, how about encouraging actual new writing. Give research publishing credits for publishing actual new stories and poems that manage to get wide readership outside of academia, or for musicians and artists, give research credits for new songs and paintings that manage to sell in the commercial world. I would rather have one Doctor Suess or one Irving Berlin, than a hundred litarary and music critics.

  • Samantha Johnson

    The problems described by Mead and Bauerlein extend to the Ivies and their brethren, despite a tendency among some posters to apparently assume the Ivies are in fine shape. In fact, the tone for the scholasticism and the suffocating political narrowness is often set in these schools. A simple test: look at Harvard Sociology today compared to the same department 30-40 years ago. In the earlier period there were brilliant scholars who could speak to the public–people like Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell and Davie Reisman. Who knows the academics in Harvard Sociology today, even within the discipline? We have “status groups” involved in busy careerism and social climbing. Which is Harvard Sociology today and they are (with one or two exceptions) utterly mediocre. Just read their books.

  • goodonyaa

    This is the essence of what higher learning has become: a lavishly endowed jobs program for the enormous glut of Boomer academics, all of whom felt entitled to full professorships, and oblivious to the law of averages. The students of today are paying in spades for this largely unearned and undeserved largesse for a cohort whose mediocrity continues to stun and surprise.

  • Cunctator

    The difficulty of using citations as ameans of evaluation is that publications are a contribution to a conversation, often lasting generations, with others interested in the same topic. When I read a work written a century ago, I am listening to that writer. If I write something in response, then I too have become part of that discourse. We simply do not know what the impact of an idea will ever be.

    That said, Mead’s commentry is bang on as usual. Economics will likely demand some means of evaluating worth. But we should implement such mechanisms (and absorb their consequences) only after careful thought.

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