Mark Bauerlein’s article on “Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research” gives me the opportunity to make a couple of points. There’s no question that young scholars in search of tenure — and older scholars in search of promotion to full professor — are being asked to publish too much, especially in a time when university presses are cutting back or closing down, and academic journals are folding. And “the tyranny of the monograph” is a big part of this problem. So, agreed on all points.
However, it should also be said that the pressure to publish does have at least one important benefit: it keeps scholars reading work in their field. Scouting around for something to write about, they stumble on forgotten novels or neglected poems, and they see what other scholars are working on. And the regular encounter with new texts and new ideas can be stimulating to their teaching — which is, after all, why we’re supposed to be in this game in the first place. I’ve known too many teachers in my time who give the same lectures — or conduct the same discussions — on the same texts year after year after year. It’s deadly. When I was in grad school I heard a senior professor comment that he had given some lectures so many times that he felt he could walk out of the room while in the midst of one and his voice would just keep on going. I vowed that day never to let myself get into that situation, and I believe that for the most part I’ve kept that vow. (Though you can't teach the Odyssey thirty or forty times without repeating yourself a bit. . . .)
So if the pressure to publish has the indirect effect of keeping people from falling into intellectual ruts that compromise their effectiveness as teachers, to that extent it’s a good thing. But of course there are more efficient and less cumbersome ways of achieving the goal of making sure that professors keep on reading and thinking. Young scholars should be encouraged to write scholarly blogs — group blogs are especially valuable, like The Valve and Crooked Timber — or, better still, to create and add to wikis for each of their classes. That way their students can contribute as well to the generation and organization of knowledge.
That’s enough for now, but I’ll have more to say later about the audiences of scholarly writing — and perhaps also a bit about why professors are to reluctant to make the kinds of changes I have suggested.