Writing to the Abyss, University Style

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein publishes a study the results of which every honest humanities professor should know already: Just about everybody is publishing — and just about nobody is reading.

To test this hypothesis, Bauerlein studied the literary research produced by the English departments at the University of Georgia, the University of Buffalo, the University of Vermont, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There were three elements in his study: faculty salaries, books and articles published, and the impact of these publications on the scholarly community as measured by citations.

What he found was that the overwhelming majority of publications are rarely ever read – not by students, not by the general public, and not even by fellow scholars. To give one example, “Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12.” The other schools in the study scored comparably.

The truth unearthed by this study is that most of us humanities academics are, in effect, journaling, not publishing. And that’s all right — or at least it was, until we began to insist that taxpayers shell out for ringside seats to our shadowboxing. But there’s the rub: The taxpayers are tapped out, state legislatures are cutting budgets, students and parents are pushing back at ever-escalating tuition costs, and total college-loan debt is about to hit one trillion dollars — more than total credit-card debt.

While there is virtue in the deep study of the humanities, the current system of public higher education is on a collision course with economic reality, and one of the casualties likely will be taxpayer support for research in the humanities. Bauerlein would not regard this retrenchment as necessarily harmful to teaching and learning. Far from it, in fact. To be sure, he is not anti-research, and neither am I. He agrees with the general proposition that “research makes professors better teachers and colleagues,” but he adds the qualification, “not at the current pace.” “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,” he writes. A corollary of the academy’s preoccupation with publishing is its indifference to students — especially undergraduates, whom professors all too often regard as distractions from the imperative business of getting tenure and promotion, which means getting published.

If cutbacks in funding for humanities research pull teachers away from their journaling, pushing them back into the classroom — where all but the precious few who are first-rate researchers belong — one result will be that more students will get taught by these previously absent professors, which should reduce costs at our public universities. More important, the resulting de-emphasis on publishing should help to return teaching to the forefront, where it belongs.

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