Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Righteous Outrage from the Comments on the so-called Research Glut

by KARL STEEL

There's a comment in response to Jeffrey's recent post that inspired me to write "if I could get away with it in my office, I'd stand on my desk and shout my approval." The blogging equivalent of shouting approval is front paging, that is, promoting--or, to put this in medieval ecclesiastical terms, translating--a comment from below up to the main page of the blog. Here it is, slightly edited, from our very own esteemed "I" aka Irina Dumitrescu:
I'm going to be less even-keeled than most of the folks on here and claim the following: only someone who is a stagnant and unreflective teacher could make the claims Bauerlein did in his article. I read it a while ago, so the details are not completely fresh, but aside from the problem of using only Google Scholar (heavily weighted towards science, in my experience) to track citations, there are serious problems with using citation tracking anyway.

In my teaching I:

- Regularly consult many books and articles by fellow scholars, both for material I am teaching for the first time and to gain new perspectives on material I've taught before. I do not cite this material anywhere in my published work (where would I fit a citation to Oscar Wilde into an article on Aelfric Bata? Oh wait...), but I read it, I condense the material for my students, and I give them references in-class to scholars they might read for their papers, general education, etc.

- Include secondary material in syllabi, especially for upper-level courses. This is cited nowhere but in my students' papers. This may seem to an anti-intellectual like Bauerlein as just me making students read my colleagues' work. But anyone who was present for my Medieval Violence classes last semester knows that the twenty-five students who read Esther Cohen and Jody Enders and Mitchell Merback and Allen Frantzen and Mary Carruthers were not carrying out some kind of abstract exercise-- my students were brilliant, insightful, and moving in discussing how these ideas applied to their own lives as well.

- Increasingly assign research papers. I don't know how many google scholar citations Albrecht Classen has, but I can tell you that my Medieval Epic students found, read, and used a lot of his work in their essays and presentations, to the point where they all had gotten to know his name through their own research. He didn't get a single Google citation out of it. If someone really wants to tell me that the ability to read, evaluate, and digest information is not an important skill for today's society, I call that person a doofus.

- Regularly discuss the process of writing and research I'm going through -- both so that they have a better understanding of how their knowledge is created, and so that they get a sense of writing, revision, and criticism being a lifelong process, one that goes beyond the term paper.

The thing is, students are not stupid. They know when you're teaching them the same thing that was taught 20 years ago, and they know when you're an active scholar. And my students mention on teaching evals that they appreciate being taught by someone who is working in the field. Research is good for teaching. Period.

I react angrily to this because I find the thoughtlessness of Bauerlein's argument fundamentally anti-intellectual. I also don't think that bad teaching and research practices should be used as a standard for measuring good teaching and research practices. Is too much scholarship produced? I'd say probably not, though the tenure stuff is often produced too early. But I would also argue against the claim that too much poetry is written, too many novels are published, or (no longer the case at all) too much journalism is in print. A healthy art culture is one in which a lot of material is produced, and it doesn't necessarily all have to be brilliant, as long as some of it is. Frankly, I don't even think too much television is produced; not every show needs to be "The Wire," and anyway, in a hundred years, "The Wire" will endure, and the Kardashians will be forgotten.

Now, please excuse me while I fan this steam away from my ears...

4 comments:

i said...

I should add a note: the discussions of writing and publication are usually not on our syllabus, but I've found that students are really interested in finding out what their profs do the rest of the time, and how publication, peer-review, etc. work. No one ever talks to them about it! My students who have taken science classes tend to be much more familiar with the concept of peer review, but even then they might not know the step-by-step process of publication.

This is also important to me from another perspective. When I criticize my students' writing, I want them to know that I do so in the faith that they will use that feedback to improve, and that I myself repeatedly subject myself to the criticism of my peers and superiors in the field. I want them to know that this is part of the process, not only of being a writer or a scholar, but of being a grown-up and a thinking individual. I'm not sure how I would do this if I didn't also put my work out there to be evaluated, improved, torn apart, by others.

Kath said...

"When I criticize my students' writing, I want them to know that I do so in the faith that they will use that feedback to improve, and that I myself repeatedly subject myself to the criticism of my peers and superiors in the field."

Amen.

Holly Crocker said...

Thanks, Karl, for calling attention to this comment, and thanks, Irina, for writing it. I’d like to endorse Irina's powerful articulation of the importance of subjecting ourselves to critical peer review, especially as that sentiment relates to the close of Jeffrey’s original post:

“But you know, even if seven or eight people in the world ever read the book I'm working on, that is OK. My life has been profoundly affected for the better for having worked upon the project. My students, colleagues, family, and university have benefited in ways tangible and invisible.”

I couldn’t agree more. Today is my last official day of research leave, and I find myself reflecting on the accomplishments and frustrations of this precious time. I believe it is extremely important for scholars to publish significant research projects, regardless of citation counts, since these make us responsive to the intellectual demands and offerings of others. And although this endeavor is thoroughly collaborative,(& the classroom shows the process of working through ideas better than anywhere else, probably), we should also continue to value the solitary struggles required of such work.

Sabbatical leave, research release, and fellowship time remain crucial to the intellectual/pedagogical process. While I know that I benefit directly from conversations and engagements with scholars and students, I also need time away to nurture my own intellectual investments. Really, I should say, too, much of this time is spent figuring out how *wrong* I am about many of my presuppositions (including those I might have trumpeted in my original application for research time). During the past year I’ve spent a lot of time reading philosophers, mostly women, whose work I really had only “survey class” knowledge of before now (including Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Marion Young, Martha Nussbaum, Bonnie Honig, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Annas, Elaine Scarry, and Seyla Benhabib). Many of these writers give me fits—I think some of them are deeply wrong about certain formations of politics and ethical life—but all of them make me confront my own assumptions with freshness and vulnerability (what Eve Sedgwick, with characteristic honesty and clarity, describes as being “pressed against the limits of my stupidity”). This confrontation, I believe, is most powerful for its terrifying, if somewhat fictive, solitude. Of course, I don’t labor alone (as my reading list—itself a compilation of reading suggestions from others—affirms). And I don’t intend to keep all this thought to myself, either. But time away to think, reflect, and revise is important to teaching and writing, too. If I ultimately do nothing citable with some of this reading, it will affect my students and colleagues, because it will have lasting influence over my thinking.

So, while I applaud the collaborative scholarship model that is being developed at present, I will always believe in the importance of the traditional monograph, or the long scholarly article, as well. Even if monographs or journal articles have little direct “impact,” they make better scholars, teachers, and colleagues. As we formulate new models of research, Bauerlein’s reductive article demonstrates, we also need to be precise about the values of scholarly research (at once personal, collective, intellectual, and pedagogical) that we are seeking to enrich and protect. Impact isn’t everything, and many scholarly virtues, Jeffrey and Irina rightly note, are conferred invisibly but tangibly, in daily interactions that are both profound and mundane.

Karl Steel said...

AMEN!