Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research

by Mark Bauerlein, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 20, 2009.

Excerpts from his opinion article:

It was sometime in the 1980s, I think, that a basic transformation of the aims of literary criticism was complete. Not the spread of political themes and identity preoccupations, which struck outsiders and off-campus critics like William Bennett, a former secretary of education turned radio host, as the obvious change, but a deeper adjustment in the basic conception of what criticism does. It was, namely, the shift from criticism-as-explanation to criticism-as-performance. Instead of thinking of scholarship as the explication of the object—what a poem means or a painting represents—humanists cast criticism as an interpretative act, an analytical eye in process.

…In a working paper I wrote recently for the American Enterprise Institute, “Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own,” I reported that over the past five decades, the “productivity” of scholars in the fields of languages and literature had increased hugely: from approximately 13,000 publications to 72,000 a year. Consider the output in literary studies. From 1950 to 1985, 2,195 items of criticism and scholarship devoted to William Wordsworth appeared. Virginia Woolf garnered 1,307, Walt Whitman 1,986, Faulkner 3,487, Milton 4,274, and Shakespeare at the top, with 16,771. Type any major author into the MLA International Bibliography database and more daunting tallies pop up. In each pile lies everything from plot summaries to existentialist reflections. But for all practical purposes, such as teaching an undergraduate class, they impart the meanings and representations to the full.

The accomplishment of the enterprise, however, was a curse for young aspirants, the graduate student in search of a dissertation (like I was in 1985) and the assistant professor in need of a book. They had to write something new and different. Theories and valuations that displaced the meaning of the work and prized the unique angle of the interpreter didn’t just flatter the field. They empowered novices to carry on. The long shadow of precursors dissipated in the light of creative, personal critique. The authors studied might remain, but there were new theories to rehearse upon them and topics to expound through them, controversies in which to “situate” oneself, and readerly dexterities to display.

…Foundations, university humanities research centers, and other organizations that subsidize humanities research also should recognize the audience decline. When they financed research in 1960 on, say, American literature, they helped scholars fill gaps and fissures in literary history and understanding. But in 2009, after the publication of 225,749 more items of scholarship and criticism on American literature, the same support means … what?

Unless institutions adjust criteria, the incentives will continue, and so will labor-intensive but audience-indifferent publishing in saturated areas.

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.

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.

…Read the complete article at: http://chronicle.com/article/Diminishing-Returns-in/47107/

The article is generating quite a few comments from readers as well, so check those out as well.