Mark Bauerlein on the Cost and Impact of Literary Research

by Reihan Salam

Let’s just say I hope Mark Bauerlein has a thick skin. His fascinating work on the resources we devote to literary research and the returns it yields will prompt an endless barrage of furious responses:

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 research identity is a powerful allure, flattering people that they have cutting-edge brilliance. Few of them readily trade the graduate seminar for the composition classroom. But we have reached the point at which the commitment to research at the current level actually damages the humanities, turning the human capital of the discipline toward ineffectual toil.

An added advantage of Bauerlein’s essay is that it is very entertaining. Bauerlein suggests that tenure decisions be made on the basis of quality of publications rather than quantity, which is reasonable enough. A larger question, however, is whether the tenure model makes sense outside of a small handful of cases.

Indeed, non-traditional schools, including online schools, that abandon any pretense of a research mission and that focus exclusively on providing students with useful skills would have an obvious advantage over research-focused schools, which could account for the hostility towards non-traditional schools. It really is true that many for-profit online schools have poor records in terms of debt-to-degree ratios, etc. But instead of applying uniform standards, for-profit online schools have been singled out for scrutiny, which suggests that incumbents perceive the disruptive threat and aim to nip it in the bud.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.