Thursday, December 29, 2011

What is the Purpose of Literary Scholarship?

English Professor Mark Bauerlein thinks most literary scholarship is a waste of time. Using Google's citations search and perusing book notes by hand, he concludes that most articles are hardly cited at all:
Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.
If scholarship is supposed to be a conversation, most publications are shouted into the wind.
Yes, research is an intellectual good, and yes, we shouldn't reduce our measures to bean counting. But we can no longer ignore the costs of supporting research—financial costs (salaries, sabbaticals, grants, travel; the cost to libraries to buy and store material, to scholarly presses to evaluate, produce, and market it; and to peers to review it), opportunity costs (not mentoring undergraduates, not pushing foreign languages in general-education requirements, etc.), and human costs (asking smart, conscientious people to labor their lives away on unappreciated things).

The research identity is a powerful allure, flattering people that they have cutting-edge brilliance. Few of them readily trade the graduate seminar for the composition classroom. But we have reached the point at which the commitment to research at the current level actually damages the humanities, turning the human capital of the discipline toward ineffectual toil. More books and articles don't expand the audience for literary studies. A spurt of publications in a department does not attract more sophomores to the major, nor does it make the dean add another tenure-track line, nor does it urge a curriculum committee to add another English course to the general requirements. All it does is "author-ize" the producers.

And from a related blog entry:
The debate over the validity and implications of that conclusion may proceed, but in one area I believe we can all agree. Research does NOT advance the cause of literary studies in material terms. It does not draw more money, more undergraduates, and more teaching lines to English and foreign language departments, and it does not build bridges to off-campus audiences. In fact, I would say, it does the opposite. Research in those areas is almost always individualized. People work on their projects by themselves, in isolation. They need lots of time alone to produce these labor-intensive goods.

The result is that research faculty regard collective occasions as a hindrance. Committee meetings, department gatherings, group efforts to promote the department . . . they take away precious hours from inquiry and composition. In the words of 1950s sociologists and culture critics, research “atomizes” faculty members.

The problem is that, in order to sustain English and foreign languages on campus, departments need concerted, collective action.
My readers know that I have attitudes similar to Bauerlein's. I believe in humanistic scholarship, but I suspect that the immense quantity of it now produced is a problem in itself. But we just don't know how else to evaluate academic excellence, so major changes to the system are no doubt far away.

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