Wednesday, April 24, 2013

(Almost) Pointless Research, by Few for Few…

As I read the Spring 2013 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum, I found myself wanting to thank one of the contributors. Mark Bauerlein's "How (Not) to Measure Faculty Productivity" (p. 14–7) makes the case that much of the scholarship in English departments is of limited practical use. The research isn't even of much scholarly use — because so few other scholars read and build upon their colleagues' efforts.

The problem is not that professors don't want to be productive. As Bauerlein notes, most of us in academia work a lot of hours trying to write articles, conference papers, and books. The problem is that this work is too often focused on our peers and our desire to earn tenure. We do a lot… for a small audience — and our own careers.
But while it may please naysayers to cast professors as entitled do-nothings, it's a false picture. Yes, the academic year runs merely 30 weeks, give or take, and professors at research institutions typically teach only two courses per semester, averaging five cumulative hours of weekly classroom contact with students. (Teaching load and class size at small schools vary widely.) But academics don't spend the rest of their time in idleness. Far from it. They contribute — to their campus, to their community, and, for the purposes of this essay, to their field.

In my area, English, professors labor diligently on sundry manuscripts, conference presentations, and professional service (from joining committees to keeping up with recent studies). Research projects are particularly toilsome. For example, in my 25 years of experience, I've found that a substantial essay takes 200-plus hours from start to finish. And, of course, a book requires years of inquiry and revision.
I spent a lot of time in the last two years working on academic paper proposals. Most were rejected, which is normal. There are too many junior faculty members seeking the few available publication slots. I had a book chapter and an article accepted — that's pretty good. Enough for tenure at many institutions. My colleagues spend a lot of time chasing publication opportunities. The fear of not earning tenure runs deep.

If every faculty member publishes two academic works a year, or more, and various "B" scholarship (essays, columns, and some creative works), that's a lot of publishing. I write twelve magazine columns a year, one or two scripts (stage or screen), and a lot of other content. In 2012, I estimate that I wrote over 100,000 words for publication. That's not counting my websites and blogs.

All for the chance of earning tenure.

Bauerlein notes how productive English departments are:
My November 2011 study of English departments at four large state universities bears this out.

(online at

A review of publications by assistant, associate, and full professors at University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, University of Georgia, University of Vermont, and what's now called University at Buffalo confirmed all four units as industrious and productive. From 2004 to 2009, University of Georgia's 39 English professors published 37 books (as author, coauthor, editor, or coeditor) and 200 essays, for example, while University of Illinois' 57 English professors tallied 41 books and 188 essays. […] Even the smallest department, University of Vermont's 20 English professors, made big inroads to the corpus: 25 books and 74 essays.
We write a lot in higher education. Unfortunately, there aren't many readers. We write for each other. I'll admit, I really don't have time to read all that's published in the fields I follow. Can you imagine trying to read the journals for philosophy, English, communication, rhetoric, theater, and creative writing? You have to skim and look for the "must read" articles. It's overwhelming.

Since I can't possibly read everything, I know my own academic works won't have many readers. That would be depressing, if we weren't all playing the same tenure game. Still, I'm certain most of us also want to share what we have discovered. Oh, well.
Apart from the rare exception, scholarly essays collect but a few citations in the six years following their appearance. For example, University at Buffalo English professors published 13 research essays in 2004, and in the following six years 11 of them collected 0-2 citations in essays by others. Subsequent books by others picked up those essays at no higher rate. For instance, a 2000 essay on fiction writer Henry James in a prominent literary journal garnered only one citation from among 23 relevant books on the towering 19th-century American expatriate published from 2007 to 2010. Books themselves fare slightly better, but not much, with most averaging only a couple of citations per year. Of the eight authored books by University of Vermont English professors published between 2002 and 2005, four received 0-10 citations in subsequent essays and four 11-20 citations.
No citations? So much for the idea that scholarship builds on the research of the past. There's just too much research to digest.

Thankfully, I know that my creative works and online posts have thousands of readers. I also know there are links to my posts and my websites. When you write a script, you know there is an audience. That's why I prefer writing for general audiences. I am affecting far more change by reaching general audiences than when I write for or speak to my academic colleagues.

How small is the market for academic works? Miniscule. I can't imagine there being much of a market in another 50 years. Then how will professors earn tenure? Thousand of unread online journals? Consider how small the market is today:
The mismatch of production and consumption is glaring. Considerable talent, expertise, and sweat resulted in intelligent books and articles that went into the library — and were forgotten. It wasn't always so. An editor for Yale University Press told me a few years ago that every work in literary studies it had published in the 1970s ran up sales of 1,000-1,200 units. Today, she said, her press can guarantee only 250 units sold, and almost all of them standing orders from academic libraries. Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, stated in "Rescue Tenure from the Tyranny of the Monograph," an article he wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2001, that monographs in the humanities published by his press "now usually sell between 275 and 600 copies, no matter how good they are."
Selling 250 copies of a text? Those books are going into the library stacks never to be read by anyone. Heartbreaking. We are victims of the publish or perish tenure game. The over-publishing is shocking:
Starting in the 1960s, publication in literary studies exploded. In 1959, according to the Modern Language Association International Bibliography, the fields of English and foreign languages and literatures produced 13,757 books, essays, reviews, and other scholarship. Every year afterwards the total went up; it now hovers around 70,000. Charles Dickens serves as a revealing but by no means unusual example. From 1935 to 1964, about 23 works of scholarship on the Victorian writer were published each year (684 total). But from 1982 to 2011, the annual output shot up to 133 per year (3,993 total). The same trend holds for every other major poet and novelist written about. For example, disquisitions on the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson averaged only eight per year from 1935 to 1964, but jumped to 66 annually from 1982 to 2011.
We do exactly what we tell our students to avoid: we inflate our writing to appeal to editors — and to impress our colleagues. Again, I prefer writing for general audiences. I do not like the pretentious "academese" of journals. My wife and I collect silly examples of academese, because it is easy to mock.

I agree with Bauerlein's description:
The language is arcane and the allusions are fleeting. Appealing to readers who have undergone the same education as the author, this coterie communication expels anybody but experts and the most passionate of acolytes. […] The first book on a new theory or breakthrough interpretation gains attention, but others that follow oversaturate the field, competing with one another for scholars' limited time, and winning little of it.
What do we lose while spending those hours researching and writing? We lose our connections to students.
Every hour professors spend crafting recondite studies of literature, they don't spend in office hours with sophomores puzzled by Shakespeare's sonnets. Immersion in critical discourse to an exponential degree distances professors from the undergraduate mind. Individuals not far from high school can't understand theory and interpretation circulating among professors, who often try to outdo each other in profundity. Students need patient introductions to readings on the syllabus. If professors devote most of their time to impressing a dozen specialists dispersed across campuses hither and yon, they lose touch with the novice freshmen or curious senior waiting down the hall.
Some of my colleagues take a different path and choose to work at "teaching colleges" and small liberal arts schools. There can be a snobbery in academia that doesn't respect this choice, but I understand why someone would want to focus on teaching. Since I dislike much academic writing, I don't know my own "place" in academia. I love research, but I want to publish in something close to "normal" (understandable!) language.

I do want to thank Prof. Bauerlein, at least on this little blog.

Less publishing, with the goal of reaching wider audiences, would be great. It's time to do away with the publish or perish treadmill.
Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University, analyzed conflicting expectations between college faculty and students in the fall 2009 edition of this magazine. His other work related to the academy appears in industry periodicals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and mainstream newspapers such as The Washington Post. Bauerlein's __The Dumbest Generation__, which attracted wide attention when released by Tarcher/Penguin in 2008, remains influential in social media circles.

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