Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the value of scholarly publishing

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.


  • Peter Boumgarden said...

    I think you raise some really great points here. Do you think a model like this could ever catch on in a research university... rewarding for less tangible contributions, like blogging (or maybe less 'serious' as some would argue)? Would it be more appropriate in a liberal arts school like wheaton, or my own calvin?


  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Peter, I think we need more categories than just "research university" and "liberal arts college." There are too many universities that are trying to emulate, in their academic structure, the elite institutions, and are as a result placing a ton of pressure on their faculty to publish — and to publish in the quantity than, just a generation ago, was common only in the top 5% of American universities. This makes no sense.

  • I would recommend something a bit more structural. My understanding is that even as late as the late 1960s, faculties at the elite institutions were teaching more than two courses a semester. At least for the humanities and social sciences (the natural sciences really are a different ball of wax), what if the standard teaching load became 3-2 or 3-3? You get a strong impetus to lower publishing expectations, reduce class sizes, reduce the numbers of adjuncts/lecturers, and maybe - just maybe - help reinvigorate the sense that the university/college is as much about transmitting knowledge as it is about discovering/producing it.

  • Alan–you're not the only one who noticed this; D.G. Myers has a bunch of recent posts on the subject, and I responded here. The question to my mind is what kinds of structural changes could be made that will help the problem, which seems more one of the system than of individuals within it, many of whom seem to recognize the problem without being able to do much about it.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Jake, thanks for the links — good stuff for me to follow up on later.

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