Mark Bauerlein of Emory University is concerned about the “production line” of little-read and little-noticed scholarship in the humanities, and the extent to which it distracts from teaching — especially the teaching of undergraduates. (PDF here.) He makes the following recommendations:
• The Modern Language Association should convene a committee to follow up on the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on Scholarly Publishing. The Ad Hoc Committee’s report regretted the productivity requirements, and a new committee made up of distinguished scholars, teachers, and administrators would pursue the problem to its source. That is, it would address parties fomenting the problem, such as organizations that rank universities mainly by the research output of faculty, administrators who evaluate their own faculty mostly by research output, and tenured faculty members who do the same with junior colleagues and job applicants.
• Foundations such as the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which fund humanities research, should shift some of their grants and awards away from research activities and toward undergraduate teaching activities.
• Three departments in prominent institutions of similar type (for instance, three large flagship public universities) should announce collectively that they no longer require a book for tenure. Instead, these literature and language departments will review a maximum of 100 pages of scholarship in the tenure file. Assistant professors will soon realize that doing more counts for nothing, and they’ll slow the research pace. . . .
• Most importantly, language and literature departments in research universities should hire professors on the basis of teaching capacity, not research expertise. On the model of small liberal arts colleges, job descriptions foreground undergraduate teaching, and annual reviews and promotion follow accordingly. No publishing pressures, no research demands, just solid teaching and close mentoring. . . . Students count more than articles in quarterlies.
Had Bauerlein made these recommendations ten years ago, I would have said that they had no chance of succeeding. But given current and (almost certainly) future economic conditions in American universities, I think they have a real chance of success, at least at most universities (all but the very top tier). And I think that would be a good thing indeed.
Commenting on this article, Alex Reid argues that “if we can begin at least to open the question of how we value scholarly work, we can begin to see how digital, collaborative enterprises might create more scholarly value.” I agree with this too. If professors spend less time trying to write scholarly books and articles that even they are not interested in — an all-too-common phenomenon — they could devote some of that time to becoming critical, thoughtful, and imaginative explorers of new technologies of learning. Or, if they prefer, in becoming more critical, thoughtful, and imaginative readers of books. That’s a worthwhile activity too.