29.7.09

PUBLISH (SOMETHING USEFUL) OR PERISH. Emory's Mark Bauerlein suggests there are Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research. I'll behave myself ...

Substantively, his focus is on the absence of a market test for scholarship.

Instead, the question of supersaturation applies to the institutions that demand and reward humanities research: departments, deans, and fund providers. Tendering jobs and money, they force individuals to overproduce scholarly goods, creating an army of researchers meeting nonexistent audience needs. In 2006 the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion noted, "Over 62 percent of all departments report that publication has increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last 10 years." Furthermore, the percentage of departments' valuing research above teaching had more than doubled since 1968 (35.4 percent to 75.7 percent).

That trend makes no sense. The MLA report, which every dean and chairman should read, underscores the shrinking audience, particularly cuts in library purchases of humanities books.

The trend does make sense, under both of the received models of investment in higher education. Under the signaling model, a degree from a more highly-regarded university is a stronger signal of ability (never mind that some combination of test scores, the essay reader, and the rising earned run average of the Milwaukee Brewers is what got the signal-bearer admitted). Under the human capital model, a degree from a more highly-regarded university implies a better bag of intellectual tricks (never mind that it might be interaction with other motivated students, not anything that goes on in classroom, lab, or library, that fills the bag). But in either model, there is a strong correlation between highly-regarded and research-intensive. There's nothing wrong with that, as today's core principles of any discipline were frontier research once upon a time. On the other hand, the competition for greater regard is a positional arms race, and Professor Bauerlein is looking for an arms reduction treaty.
The task force, however, holds off from recommending that the research mandate be scaled downward, instead advising departments to respect essays and "new media" publications, and to end the "dominance of the monograph." But it is hard not to judge a flat reduction in research requirements as the direct solution to the difficulties that junior faculty members face.
The trick is to scale back the research mandate in a way that does not encourage shirking.

Two policy changes would go a long way to remedying the problem.

One, departments should limit the materials they examine at promotion time. If aspirants may submit only 100 pages to reviewers, they will publish less and ensure that those 100 pages are superb.

I don't buy that. Sometimes, departments do such things on an informal basis, asking a candidate to provide only the ten or fifteen best articles for external review, and sometimes those ten or fifteen articles are in high-grade journals and they've stimulated additional research. On the other hand, tenure candidates having been good students and knowledgeable about student games, there are likely to be tenure dossiers in which accumulating the 100 pages, irrespective of outlet, irrespective of conciseness, trumps polishing one or two of the projects to land something meaningful if less bulky in an outlet where it's likely to be read, and there are likely to be departments that will go along with the game, never mind that the effect is still the same.
Two, subsidizers should shift their support away from saturated areas and toward unsaturated areas, in particular toward research into teaching and even more toward classroom and curricular initiatives.
I don't buy that either. Professor Bauerlein's elaboration suggests he's skeptical.
Recent findings from several national surveys of undergraduates give that redistribution some urgency. For instance, in the 2007 Your First College Year survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, only 29 percent of students reported studying more than 10 hours per week. Seventy-nine percent of them "frequently" or "occasionally" turned in material that did not "reflect their best work," 70 percent skipped class, 62 percent "came late," and 44 percent fell asleep. Their engagement with instructors outside of class is similarly tenuous. On the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, 38 percent of first-year students "never" discussed ideas from readings or classes, and 39 percent did so only "sometimes."
Perhaps a little research into the deleterious effects of access-assessment-remediation-retention, grade inflation, beer-and-circus, and the latest fads from K-12 would be helpful. You say that already exists?
We should add to that finding another response, which on the surface appears altogether positive. Asked about quality of relationships with faculty members, 78 percent of first-year students on the student-engagement survey graded their instructors 5 or higher on a scale of 1 to 7 (65 percent of respondents in the first-year survey answered "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the amount of faculty-student contact). In other words, they liked their professors, they felt comfortable with them, but they didn't much care to spend time discussing books and ideas with them. They didn't realize that an essential part of higher education takes place in conversation, in face time with professors, in the give-and-take of one-on-one discussion. We need support for research into the problem and more-concrete incentives for professors to integrate out-of-class interaction into the syllabus.
Unpackage this. Professors can provide office hours (some of that 20-30 percent that studies and talks about readings outside class will show up, and they're a delight) or agree to meet by appointment (the responsible students won't stand you up) or pay for a coffee house session before an exam (some universities set money aside for such things). The students who disengage ... we used to speak of a gentleman's C. Perhaps a re-examination of student-credit-hour per faculty member as a measure of productivity, or a more careful look at technology-as-panacea are more fruitful areas of research.

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