Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Stop the Research Machine!" / "We need Shakespeare Book #16,772!"

by J J Cohen

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.


Steve Mentz said...

Webby ironies: I was hoping that your link to the #16,772 article would provide an e-back door for me, since St John's Project Muse (or whatever it is) doesn't include Qui Parle, which made me unable to follow Alex's earlier link. Many fences still exist in the e-verse.
I'm with you on the larger point about writing, teaching, and what we might call community-building as mutually reinforcing practices. I think the third often gets short shrift. When I wrote about Bauerlin's essay, I got a very sensible FB comment suggesting that we counteract this sort of foolishness by reading (and citing) each other's work more. It'll be interesting to see, over the next decade or so, how open-access might change our habits.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

GW also does not enable access to Qui Parle as part of its Project Muse subscription, so I can't read the essay in its entirety either. That's why I added the line about journals and paywalls.

Community-building: absolutely. Great point.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And, readers, check out Steve's post on the essay.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And ... it's funny, Steve, I obviously read your blog post when you wrote it and clearly it was in the back of my mind as I composed my own, but in a vivid illustration of information overload I did not remember that I'd read it until you posted here. All the good parts of my argument are stolen from you. Please don't sue.

My department chair circulated a link to the Chronicle essay, and Alex answered with the Qui Parle link, and this my post this AM.

Rob Barrett said...

Did anyone note that Bauerlein fails to count the massive amount of tuition money that humanities profs bring in for their institutions? (Money that supports science research, otherwise a financial drain)

Prof. de Breeze said...

I agree with all of your points, JJC, and I certainly support the mission of humanities research in general. To argue that science needs research but the humanities don't draws a line between the two fields that does not really exist, in my opinion.

But I do think Bauerlein is on to something. While I would never argue that we need less research in the humanities, I do think it's true that we may not need all of the research that is currently being produced. Book #16,772 on Shakespeare is absolutely necessary if it's the product of genuine intellectual exploration, but if it's simply the product of tenure requirements, I'm less sure about it's value. As more and more schools require more and more product from its scholars, I think it's almost certainly true that people will sometimes produce scholarship simply to meet those requirements. I suspect that the historical trends Bauerlein alludes to (i.e., the increasing number of scholarly books and articles on specific authors in recent years) can be largely traced to the emergence of "book for tenure" or even "two books for tenure" requirements. As teachers, we all know that papers written purely to fulfill a requirement are often of little value.

Furthermore, Bauerlein is right that there are practical implications to these numbers, though the important ones, in my opinion, are not the ones he lists. The real impact of increased requirements for scholarship is the reduced teaching load which usually accompanies those requirements. If enrollments are increasing while full-time teaching loads are decreasing, the result will be an increased reliance on contingent faculty and the inequities that accompany such reliance.

I guess my point is simply that some faculty would probably be relieved by a slight decrease in publication requirements. Those faculty could then perhaps teach an extra class each year (or possibly even each semester), which could help slow down the movement away from tenured positions toward contingent ones.

Jennifer said...

This seems like such an important, on-going discussion right now. I don't know if any of you saw this, also from the Chronicle:

Although I've no doubt that the author has some relevant complaints, I couldn't help but bristle against the suggestion that all "good" scholarship follows a predetermined format. Occasionally, the most compelling work (to me, anyway) is that which tries something new, ventures into new formats and methodologies, and often moves away from conventional scholarly format. However, it is often hard to find venues for such work, precisely because of the expectations that the author lays out.

Karl Steel said...

in grading hell today, so just dropping by to say THANKS for this, and thanks to Steve for your post, and also to say this:

here's a very good take down of Bauerlein's most recent assault on the academy: basically, he used a crap research methodology.

Bauerlein's a long term crank, whether he's crowing about how the internet makes us stupider (shades of Thoth anyone?) (and, incidentally, No, it doesn't: see item #5 and follow the links), or going after Bérubé. I think he's worth debunking, but not much else.

i said...

Also in grading hell... and about 21 final exams away from leave. But this really got my goat.

I'm going to be less even-keeled than most of the folks on here and claim the following: only someone who is a shitty teacher and a shitty researcher 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 was not 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...

Karl Steel said...

Irina, if I could get away with it in my office, I'd stand on my desk and shout my approval. What a great comment! I think we should post it on the front page, if that's ok with you.

(and if you could send me a medieval violence syllabus, I'd be VERY grateful)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

See this link for more context for this post.