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How to Squeeze the Humanities 101: The Case of Mark Bauerlein

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Mark Bauerlein–author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) and Literary Theory: An Autopsy–recently released a widely discussed study called "Literary Research: Cost and Impacts" for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. This short study concludes that the impact of literary scholarship "does not justify the labor that went into their making," and that "[a] university’s resources and human capital is thereby squandered as highly-trained and intelligent professionals toil over projects that have little consequence."

Before looking at the substance of Bauerlein’s claims, a word on the CCAP, the "independent, nonprofit research center" that published this study. The CCAP defines its mission this way:

We define our mission rather broadly. “Affordability” means not only rising tuition and other costs to the consumer of education services, but more broadly the burden that colleges impose on society. “Productivity” refers not only to the costs and resources needed to educate students and perform research, but also to the measurement and quality of educational outcomes. CCAP is concerned about finding new ways to do things better–to improve affordability and productivity. In particular, we are interested assessing how the use of the forces of the market could make higher education more affordable and qualitatively better.

Very openly, the CCAP regards "affordability" and "productivity" in broadly libertarian terms. On November 18, 2011, the CCAP co-hosted a conference with the Cato Institute called "Squeezing the Tower: Are We Getting All We Can From Higher Education?" It seems fair to me to imagine that Bauerlein’s report was gratefully added to the program of this conference in the hope of bolstering arguments meant to convince University administrators–and, in the case of public schools, state legislatures–that their schools are unproductive, in need of the loving and gentle invisible hand of the free market to correct the unproductiveness that–no surprise here–Bauerlein argues is endemic to literary scholarship. By "the burden that colleges impose on society" it is not hard to imagine that what the CCAP has in mind is the burden that publically financed colleges–or even college educations financed by government grants or loans–impose on taxpayers who might more fruitfully pump their money into hedgefunds or private charities. It has lately become popular to claim that there is a "bubble" in higher education, by which free-market-lovers usually mean that a higher education is only worthwhile to the degree that it contributes to getting economically remunerative post-college jobs. What’s the point of getting a low-interest government loan to educate yourself if your fate–determined by the iron laws of economics!–is to be little more than a barista? 

Given this provenance, it is unsurprising that there are serious problems with this report, which I will address below, but despite the uses to which the CCAP might want to put Bauerlein’s study there are also serious issues that it raises, albeit in a highly unsystematic way. The centrally important question this study asks — but fails to answer — can be put in the form of a riddle: When is hyperproductivity unproductive?

Studying the scholarly output of literature departments across a range of schools (the University of Georgia, SUNY-Buffalo, the University of Vermont, and the University of Illinois), Baulerlein finds that literary scholars are highly productive, even after they gain tenure, crafting high quality scholarship and criticism across the span of their careers. This is a highly inconvenient finding, of course, if you are a school administrator whose goal is to find arguments for the abolition of tenure–and for the increased casualization and adjunctification of humanities faculty. Such arguments typically rely on the myth that the University literature department is crammed with tenured radicals who do nothing but sit on their collectivized asses all day. That the tenure system is ultimately what is at stake in this debate should not be in doubt. In another article, "Is Tenure Doomed?," written three years before he released his CCAP study, Bauerlein concludes:

To fend off adjunctization, then, individuals and professional organizations need to craft and defend a different model. They need to develop employment schemes less absolute but still protective and meritocratic. One possibility might be to grant teachers some form of tenure, but on the basis of teaching duties, not research expertise. That is, they would be hired to handle undergraduate student demands more than to fulfill a disciplinary field. So, as the burdens shift in the undergraduate student body–for instance, fewer students in Romance languages, more in freshman composition–professors would shift as well, in this case, with Romance language professors reducing their language courses and assuming freshman comp duties (after some re-training). That would require, of course, that professors lighten their research identities and raise their teaching profiles–a welcome adjustment in all humanities and "softer" social science fields.

To create a convincing case for an emphasis on teaching over research, a change of emphasis that eviserates the reason for having tenure in the first place–the whole point of tenure isn’t job security per se, but the securing of academic freedom from the market and the state–Bauerlein must devise some other way of discovering unproductivity in this curious situation of–if anything–hyperproductivity. What he points to, via a methodology of citation-counting that many have criticized but which for this blog post I am happy enough to accept, is that though scholars are highly productive their research has very little "impact" or an impact that should not be regarded as "significant." On average, articles and books receive very little attention in the years immediately following their publication. What is the justification for paying scholars so much money, Bauerlein asks, if what they write receives so little attention from other scholars in their own field? It’s a good question.

Bauerlein concludes, very much in keeping with his already long-established preference, that there isn’t a justification. Institutions of higher learning should reduce the demand for scholarly production in favor of service and teaching. Whether or not the individual scholar finds her research personally enriching, contemporary literary scholarship is a waste of valuable time when viewed from a systemic perspective. At times, Baulerlein even tries to suggest that "[c]ampus leaders may, in fact, find a grateful constitutency among the faculty" when they change the balance of teaching, service, and research!

The problem with this argument should hopefully be apparent: the norms guiding Bauerlein’s study, especially around the definition of "impact," are so thinly defended as to be almost meaningless. What is the purpose of scholarship? Why should citations count more than, dare we say it, truth-value? What is the mission of a University if not to produce excellent scholarship? This is, it must be emphasized, different from the problem of overproduction in particular subfields. The relative lack of impact of every subsequent essay on Dickinson–compared to every essay on David Foster Wallace–is a separate question from the norms that should systematically guide the balance of scholarship, teaching, and service. Moreover, without comparative data, it’s hard to know what sort of comparative impact English departments are having. How do they compare to mathematics departments? Classics departments? If a physicist devises a successful unification of gravity and the other forces that is only legible to three other theoretical physicists in the world–and is therefore infrequently cited–was the money that supported that research a waste of University resources?

If the purpose of the University is to produce knowledge–and by Bauerlein’s account the English department is successful at producing knowledge–then the cost of producing knowledge is whatever it costs to produce. If anything, the cost of producing literary monographs and articles is neither more nor less, in our current system of higher education, than the market rate of hiring faculty to do the work that is expected of them. (And given that literary study doesn’t require particle accelerators, the costs are actually comparatively pretty low, though one shouldn’t doubt that the Department of Defense would quickly step up should the new quantitative turn in literary study require a couple billion dollars in taxpayer support.) It is, moreover, the conditions of the market that propel an arms-race-like escalation of demands on scholarly productivity. To the degree that universities arrive at collective agreements that modify disciplinary norms–whether in literature departments or any department–they are making the environment within which literary scholarship is produced less market-like. Making conditions less market-like might be a good thing, if the de-escalation of scholarly hyperproductivity weren’t also taken as an excuse to dismantle the already fraying system of tenure. The negative response to Bauerlein’s study is grounded, I suspect, in the fear that it was commissioned and will be used as an excuse to increasingly adjunctify the humanities. Far from being an alternative to adjunctification, an emphasis on teaching and service often facilitates its acceleration.

What Baulerlein doesn’t really consider is the possibility that a less manically competitive set of tenure requirements might be devised as a way of allowing, on the one hand, more time to be devoted to each essay or book and as a way of facilitating, on the other hand, a raw increase in the number of citations, if that’s his preferred metric of impact (rather than truth-value). After all, if fewer essays and books were published each year on Dickinson relative to the total number of Dickinson scholars, might it not be increasingly likely that each of those essays and books would get a higher number of citations? That that scholarship might even be widely read? The change I am suggesting would entail not the substitution of teaching in place of scholarship–but rather a new emphasis on the article or essay as the coin of the disciplinary realm. Of course, no such academic arms control agreement is likely to be adopted unless the broader trend of adjunctification is addressed.

This process of adjunctification, which is often misunderstood as an "overproduction" of Ph.D.s, is the ground upon which the "insignificant" scholarship we are asked to produce currently stands. It is the ground that must change if we hope to make more of an impact on our respective fields.