A short piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education has been making the rounds via FB, Twitter, and email: Mark Bauerlein on "The Research Bust." Bauerlein argues that, under the mistaken impression that the humanities will gain something substantial via research output, scholars have been cranking out essays and books doomed never to have an audience. He backs his argument up with Google Scholar citation searches, and insists that this imperfect methodology emphasizes a patent truth:
Yes, research is an intellectual good, and yes, we shouldn't reduce our measures to bean counting. But we can no longer ignore the costs of supporting research—financial costs (salaries, sabbaticals, grants, travel; the cost to libraries to buy and store material, to scholarly presses to evaluate, produce, and market it; and to peers to review it), opportunity costs (not mentoring undergraduates, not pushing foreign languages in general-education requirements, etc.), and human costs (asking smart, conscientious people to labor their lives away on unappreciated things).The comments to this essay are well worth reading. Some cheer him on, while others take him to task for many of his suppositions (e.g., that universities uniformly value sheer output and ignore quality and impact; that his argument reflects the silent and commonsensical consensus of almost all academics). A frequent refrain is that good research can lead directly to better teaching. As a former department chair I'd have placed that as a patent truth: at GW, at least, a direct correlation exists between being an active researcher and an excellent classroom presence (as measured via class observations, student evaluations, and teaching awards garnered). So I do not understand how so many people got it in their heads that research somehow interferes with teaching, as if it must be one or the other. I also question Bauerlein's assumption that publication is such a misery-inducing obligation for faculty, a chore that renders them melancholic as they realize they are being asked at once to be brilliant and ignored. Better it seems to put that brilliance -- and those newly idle hands -- to work in classroom, because that is better university bang for the buck. Really?
My colleague Alex Huang sent a link to the department this morning to a recent essay by Geoffrey Galt Harpham, just out in a special issue of Qui Parle on "Higher Education on Its Knees." Harpham's piece is entitled "Why We Need the 16,772nd Book on Shakespeare" and argues that research is
an immense undertaking in which countless people performing the most tedious small tasks are able, collectively, to liberate the modern world from the grip of doctrine, authority, and myth. The value of each contribution can, he says, be measured only in the aggregate, and in many cases only much later: many scholarly or scientific projects are like abandoned mines, awaiting rediscovery by future generations. ... Redundancy is the price we pay for other, less measurable but very real benefits. But we should be concerned about the mind-set that sees the past as inert, the humanities as old knowledge, and scholarship as the problem.Though not written in response to Bauerlein, Harpham offers what amounts to an eloquent response. I'd also add: time to move beyond the obsession with traditional books and essays that dwell behind journal-induced paywalls. There are many ways to disseminate research and new knowledge, including blogs and open access publication. Ventures like punctum books are a better future for scholarly publishing, and hold the promise of a much wider readership for research.
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 wouldn't want to steal such a research opportunity from anyone by announcing to them that they should teach more, publish less, and be happier for the freedom from misery I just granted them by making them more cost-effective.