Phi Beta Cons

Exposing Modern “Scholarship”

As Nathan notes, John J. Miller’s four-year-old list of conservative rock songs has not only inspired a 22-page academic deconstruction (in Michigan State University’s Journal of Popular Culture), but also John’s own (quite amusing) response. While John’s entire response is worth reading, here is the part that resonated the most:

Allow me a final point, gentle reader. Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has written persuasively on the problem of a professoriate that produces too many dissertations, books, essays, reviews, and 22-page journal articles. In just one broad field, languages and literature, the number of academic publications has exploded. They’ve gone from about 13,000 in the good old Gingrichian 1950s to 72,000 in the Spencerian now.

This creates a terrible conundrum for young academics. In a quest to say something new amid so much scholarly babbling, they’ve burrowed into to niche topics and proposed outlandish theories. Their need for original content is so desperate that one of them now has resorted to my list of conservative rock songs — a subject more suited to boozy dorm-room discussions than serious academic consideration.

This is exactly right — and one of the reasons why I roll my eyes whenever academics start talking about the enormous significance of “peer-reviewed scholarship” in the tenure and promotion process at every university from Harvard to Northwest Rural State. The pressure to produce scholarship is relentless, so young academics labor for years to produce a smattering of articles on “original” subjects that hardly anyone will ever read.

I put the scare quotes around “original” because the topics may sometimes seem outlandish (John points out some of the journal’s other fine works, like “There’s Genderqueers on the Starboard Bow: The Pregnant Male in Star Trek“), the point of view is relentlessly uniform.  Throw in some references to racism or homophobia, bring out the Gingrich bogeyman, and then — if you want to get really edgy — talk about the unending national nightmare created by the Patriot Act. It’s almost as if scholarship is created by computer program . . . Microsoft’s “ScholarWorks,” now with the Race and Gender Expansion Pack!  

Millions of hours of work, to create scholarship that will immediately disappear in the abyss, all prioritized over actual teaching in the hiring and promotion process, sustained through tuition payments that climb ever higher even in the midst of a recession — does anyone believe this system is working? 

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