Mark Bauerlein asks the "so what" question

I have read with some interest Mark Bauerlein's working paper for the American Enterprise Institute titled "Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own." Bauerlein makes some important observations about the current climate of scholarly production. He then looks to make an argument that connects the pressure to publish with perceived issues in undergraduate teaching. It's an argument that is at least worth further consideration.

But first there's the problem in scholarly production. I won't cite all the numbers in the report, but the basic problem is obvious. Over the last 30 years there has been a rise in undergraduate population and a rise in the number of faculty. During the same period, there has been inflation in publishing expectations (real or perceived) in terms of the job market and tenure. In short, more and more articles and books have been published each year. And since humanities research has a long half-life, those articles you didn't read 10-15 years ago are still relevant. It just keeps piling up. Meanwhile, in the field of literary studies, which is Bauerlein's chief focus here, the body of work to be analyzed remains fairly stable. As he writes,

yes, novel and provocative themes enter literary studies every few years—deconstruction, race theory, postcolonialism, gay and lesbian studies, etc.—but notwithstanding their notoriety they don’t change the raw empirical existence of the texts, only the topical or theoretical angle one takes toward them (including, we should note, the angle that the text has no raw empirical existence).

Certainly, we have expanded the field of literary investigation but Bauerlein's point would seem to hold that for the most part that most scholarship remains focused on the same "empirical existence," i.e., the same set of texts. All of this leads him to observe that

professors simply can’t read all of the works published each year in their fields, as the numbers cited above make clear.  An expert in Herman Melville can’t cover the 11 books (2,684 pages in total), 56 articles, and 12 dissertations devoted all or in part to the novelist that appeared in 2007. And underlying those explanations lurks a disturbing possibility, that is, that literature professors feel no urge or need to monitor publications in the discipline in order to keep up with research in the area.

In short, Bauerlein is asking the "so what" question: why are we publishing all this stuff?

The cynical, though maybe not unreasonable, explanation for this looks at tenure. But in my view, there have got to be other motives. I would think that if you are spending years writing a book on Melville, you must have a rhetorical reason for doing it, right? There's got to be something in you that says this is important, that you have something to share, that needs to be said. Maybe you have misread your audience. Maybe, in the end, others won't share in your perception of exigency. But it still has to be inside of you, or so I would imagine. I don't think I could have finished my book without that sense for myself.

Bauerlein then basically makes the following argument. Because faculty put their efforts into scholarship that they feel pressured to publish (even though no one reads it), they have less time to devote to teaching undergrads, who really need their attention. I think there is a degree of truth to this. It certainly makes sense on the surface. Actually though, I think these issues are less directly related. I think the challenge we face with undergraduate teaching has to do with larger cultural issues regarding attitudes toward education and intellectual life.

I worked my way through college. Many of my students do the same. If you look at something like Wesch's "Vision of Students Today," you see that students feel very crunched for time. And maybe this is just a value statement. That is, if they valued education more, they could find the time, but I don't know. If students are working 20-25 hours a week and we recognize that having a social life is an important part of being 20, then is it so surprising that students find less than 15-20 hours a week to do schoolwork outside class? In other words, I'm not sure the issue here is that faculty aren't available enough for students.

If there's any problem here that one might put at the feet of faculty, it's that students can struggle to understand the relevance of the curriculum they are taking. And I think students today, moreso than in the past, expect their work to be meaningful. But as I tell my students, in the end, I can't make their education meaningful to them, b/c that meaning ultimately has to unfold inside their heads. And I'm not going in there!

That said, I think the scholarship inflation issue is an important problem unto itself. I think that if we can begin at least to open the question of how we value scholarly work, we can begin to see how digital, collaborative enterprises might create more scholarly value.


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