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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Gospel Singer (or, Religion is a Drag)

Saturday night, my wife and I attended the "B.U.S. 8" (Bricolage Urban Scrawl) fundraiser at Pittsburgh's New Hazlett Theater. The event supports the Bricolage Production Company's theater season. The theater, and its lobby, were packed with people. It was great to see the level of community support for new, original theater in the Pittsburgh area.

The atmosphere was wonderfully supportive. Often, writing is a lonely and frustrating process. To have a theater community celebrate writers, directors, actors, and tech crews equally was encouraging.

One of my plays, The Gospel Singer (or, Religion is a Drag), was selected for Bricolage's "In the Raw" play festival. The dramaturg working with me said Bricolage received more than 80 script submissions; only three new works were selected. A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, and A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, are the classic plays to be featured during the festival. There's something a bit intimidating about having one of your plays listed alongside two of the greatest works in American theatrical history. (Tangent: The 1961 film version of A Raisin in the Sun is even better than the more famous Streetcar adaptation. Watch it.)

The Gospel Singer will be performed "In the Raw" on May 19 and 20, at the Bricolage Theater in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. Here's the kicker: The price of admission is whatever you will generously contribute to Bricolage. If you'd like to learn more about "In the Raw" (including The Gospel Singer), visit:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Middle class a matter of income, attitude

An example of why words matter in public policy debates.
Middle class a matter of income, attitude: "It's a strange thing," said Jim Brock, a Miami University economist. "There's a large difference between what our perception of a middle-class lifestyle is and what the statistics tell us the middle is." 
Strictly speaking, the median, or middle, household income in the United States today is $50,054. That's easy. The hard part is figuring out how far above or below the middle someone's income can go and still be considered middle class. 
“Even families making six figures are "much more comfortable calling themselves 'upper middle class.' They might have a lot of money, but they don't want to feel different.”
— Ken Eisold, psychologist 
Plenty of smart people have taken a stab at that question. In the past few years, the "middle class" income range has been described as between $32,900 and $64,000 a year (a Pew Charitable Trusts study), between $50,800 and $122,000 (a U.S. Department of Commerce study), and between $20,600 and $102,000 (the U.S. Census Bureau's middle 60% of incomes).
It's nice to consider yourself "middle class" — but are you, really?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Human Readers for Tests

As readers of my blogs know, I'm never opposed to using technology when it is an effective tool. I am opposed to the blind embrace of the latest trends without critical examination of the potential side effects. Computer-assisted grading, I can endorse to some extent because I use software to help me analyze student papers — and my own writings. But, I cannot and will not endorse any system that gives weight to the computer-based scoring.

If you're a teacher, consider this petition:

Now, I also want to add a critical comment on human graders.

If the graders of standardized tests are using rigid scoring rubrics, they are little better than software algorithms. Bad grading is bad grading. Inflexible = bad.

Again, I am not opposed to using a computer for fact checking, some plagiarism verification, and as formatting aids. Computers can and do help many of us write more effectively. But, I don't use computers to grade papers. Sometimes that distinction escapes my students at first, but eventually they recognize that I'm using software to help me highlight potential problems.

Software is better than ever at grammar and spelling, but it isn't perfect. There are also new applications that can fact check documents, a project funded by the Knight Foundation to fact check political speeches and papers. But, computers cannot yet grade anything that cannot be flowcharted and categorized.

Can I grade a multiple choice test with a computer? Certainly. Can I grade a spelling test automatically? Sure. But, the computer might not recognize any patterns in the errors a student makes. In time, maybe a computer will be able to grade a test and offer suggestions for future study. But, computer technology is years, maybe decades, from being able to "grade" an essay, poem, or creative work.

Even when computers do reach that capability, I want a human to have the final say on grading students. We already are reducing too much education to an isolated process, focused on high-stakes test results. We need some humanity, for lack of a better word, in our classes.

Monday, April 08, 2013

What Professors Believe vs. What Students (and Parents) Believe

Some of my academic colleagues complain about the "corporatization" and the "credentialing" of higher education. The complaint is that education is no longer about learning and self-improvement, instead reflecting a corporate mindset that emphasizes credentials.

Exactly when was education so pure? Isocrates taught Greeks to argue the law. He also trained logographers, professional writers. The Sophists taught students for professional success - not some grand idealism. If the Greeks pursued education for practical purposes, then why should we be surprised that our students 2500 years later want practical skills?

Why do professors in the humanities, especially in rhetoric and writing, reflect a nostalgia for what never was? Credentialing is not new. The desire to resist change (call it "conservative") is not new. The complaints about watering down content are definitely not new.

To engage the public on matters of education, we must first accept that voters and legislators focus on state schools that receive taxpayer funding. The top-tier universities have endowments and powerful alumni networks, so they are generally free to spend time on "less practical" content. Small, expensive, liberal arts schools can teach anything — they serve a community free to indulge in such pursuits.

What do the taxpayers (voters) want? Consider the GI Bill and the Morrill Land-Grant Acts. Both represent an endorsement of creating a skilled managerial class. That's credentialing, no question about it. Universities with Ag and Mining or Engineering in their names had a clear career-focused purpose. These were not "liberal arts" institutions — they were meant to continue the Industrial Revolution into the Atomic Age and beyond.

I listen to a fair amount of old-time radio and watch classic films (pre 1950). Whether it is an episode of "The Saint" or "I was a Communist for the FBI" there are glowing references to Yale and Harvard, accompanied by the requisite insulting of "state schools" in the scripts. There has been suspicion of the public universities from the moment Land Grant institutions were formed — notably you can find "Wisconsin" mentioned as a home for radicals and progressives.

The implication in the pop culture of the time is that there are radicals in the state institutions, trying to corrupt the values of hard-working future managers and technicians. We will be protected by the elites at the Ivy Leagues, those well-rounded special people elected to higher offices.

Universities have always been about "credentials" and sorting the classes. A friend from France once told me, "Tell me a man's university, and I will tell you his future in France." There are some good articles about the leadership class in France and the power of the École normale supérieure. The NY Times has similar data on U.S. universities and later "success" in life — political, financial, etc. The "credential" might not be a standardized test, but it is the diploma with Latin phrases.

There is an old article I read about Yale's ending of Greek and Latin requirements. The alumni feared Yale was starting to be like those "state universities" that produced workers instead of religious and political leaders. It doesn't seem to have hurt Yale (or later Harvard), since most of our Supreme Court and many of our national leaders remain Harvard, Yale, and Princeton graduates.

We shouldn't look back at a time that never was. State institutions were created, funded, expanded, and continue to be industrial / technical (STEM) research centers.

My wife, an engineer, attended a U.C. campus for a credential: the Engineer-in-Training certification needed before you can work under a Professional Engineer (PE). Doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, engineers, et al, have attended universities for the last century to obtain credential or pre-professional clearances. Most teachers earn a "certificate of clearance" before a "clear credential" — education departments exist for credentials and how many colleges were "teachers colleges" or "normal colleges" before becoming universities?

Those of us working in education should understand and appreciate the historical position of public higher education compared to the elite private institutions. To believe public higher education was ever about the "journey of the mind" for 90 percent of students is idealistic — and inaccurate.

Most professors of rhetoric and writing loved being students. Actually, most professors in all fields were likely unusually dedicated students. My wife and I would take classes endlessly, if possible. But most students want to earn the credential, enter the workforce, and cheer on the school teams.

We were not "average" students and our views often reflect this disconnect from others. If you listen to parents and students, they remind me of the great philosopher Lewis Black, as Dean Lewis in Accepted.
Dean Lewis: Do I have to spoon feed it to ya? Look, there's only one reason that kids want to go to school…

Jack Gaines: Which is?

Dean Lewis: To get a good job! To get a good job, with a great starting salary!

Jack Gaines: I couldn't agree more.

Diane Gaines: It is so refreshing to have somebody approach education so rationally!
I assume the parents of Isocrates' students said much the same thing. Even the parents of students at those great elite schools with plenty of resources to study simply to learn probably say the same thing.

If we want to gain influence within schools, and then without, we have to be willing (however much it pains some people) to discuss how our courses help students develop life and work skills. Some people tune out when you start to talk about "the good life" and "learning for learning's sake."

We (professors) are not the average voter or legislator. We need to learn how they view things and what they value — so we can appeal to those audiences accordingly. Unfortunately, many of our writing programs haven't even managed to secure the necessary pull within our institutions — a much bigger concern for some of us than the world beyond campus. If we can't persuade other faculty about our value, I have no clue how to approach the "general public" outside education.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

MOOCs: Will Online Education Ruin the University Experience? | New Republic

The state of the humanities? 
MOOCs: Will Online Education Ruin the University Experience? | New Republic:
One vulnerable structure is the faculty itself, which is already in a fragile state. This is especially true of those who teach subjects such as literature, history, and the arts. The humanities account for a static or declining percentage of all degrees conferred, partly because students often doubt their real-world value. And as humanities departments shrink, some institutions are collaborating to shrink them faster (or close them altogether) in order to avoid duplicative hiring in subjects with low student demand. For example, Columbia, Yale, and Cornell have announced a collaboration whereby certain languages—such as Romanian, Tamil, or Yoruba—will be taught via teleconferencing. This is good for students, since the subjects will still be available. But it’s bad for aspiring faculty—as the number of positions dwindles, research and scholarship in these fields will dry up.
I do wonder, since my wife and I have said that we'd insist a child study a STEM major. In the end, we would rather be practical. Now, an English minor? Or a double-major in engineering and art? That's great. But to have a major in the humanities without a safety net? No.