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Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Humanities Research: The Glass Bead Game
By Selected News Articles @ 1:09 PM :: 4476 Views :: National News, Ethics

Humanities Research: To What End?

A new paper shows that the research imperative in academe has high costs but little benefit

by George Leef, JW Pope Center, November 29, 2011

In Hermann Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game, the reader encounters a fanciful society in which the best and brightest citizens are groomed to become masters of an exceedingly complex game. The book’s protagonist, Joseph Knecht, after devoting his life to studying the game and rising to become “Magister Ludi,” realizes that it has all been a pointless exercise. Knecht wants to leave the order and do something useful with the remainder of his life, but is told that he may not. After he leaves anyway, he drowns mysteriously.

I read The Glass Bead Game a long time ago, but the new paper written by Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, “Literary Research: Costs and Impacts” brought it back to mind. Bauerlein’s depiction of academic research is much like Hesse’s society where highly intelligent people devote their lives to work that has very little objective value. College professors (and many who aspire to become professors but never make it) spend great amounts of time researching topics of microscopically narrow scope, then writing papers, articles and books that almost no one ever reads.

Our “publish or perish” system has heavy costs and Bauerlein’s paper delves into them.

Identifying the financial costs is fairly easy. Professors at research universities are expected to devote about one third of their working time to their research. The average English department faculty salary at the four universities Bauerlein examined for his paper—University of Georgia, SUNY-Buffalo, University of Vermont, and University of Illinois—was around $75,000, so each of those professors was being paid roughly $25,000 per year for his or her published output.

(Bauerlein initially attempted to get data for this study from the English department at UNC-Chapel Hill, but it was not cooperative, as Jay Schalin noted in this piece.)

Department heads and deans who grew up with the idea that publishing research is what faculty members are supposed to do probably regard the cost of this research as reasonable—a good bargain. But college presidents and trustees should question whether research should be such a high priority, given the many things that compete for limited funds,

To get an idea of the kind of highly-specialized research Bauerlein is talking about, take a look at the “New Scholarly Books” section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the Nov. 18 edition, we find under the heading “literature” sixteen new books. Among them is For Love or Money: Balzac’s Rhetorical Realism by University of Illinois professor Armine K. Mortimer. The volume is described as “new and previously published writings on the French author’s varied approach to realism, and the ‘prime movers’ in his fiction: love and money.”

Another book is Postcolonial Francophone Autobiographies: From Africa to the Antilles by University of Delaware professor Edgard Sankara. The book “explores the transnational reception of autobiographies by writers from Africa and the Caribbean.”

Those may well be excellent scholarly achievements. (Bauerlein states that he found much of the work he examined to be “of superb scholarly merit.”) Writing a book and getting it into print requires a great deal of painstaking work. The labor theory of value, however, is just as false when applied to literary scholarship as when applied to anything else. Such books do not become valuable just because a great deal of labor went into them.

The real question is how valuable they are to other people. Bauerlein reports that scholarly articles and books are rarely even cited by other academics, much less read by students. During his talk at a conference on November 18, Bauerlein also said that discussions he’s had with university librarians confirm that students almost never check out scholarly books and articles. Thus, the “publish or perish” regime has substantial explicit costs, but minimal benefits.

We should also consider the implicit costs of that regime. All of the time and effort that professors have to devote to research and writing could and probably would be used more productively if they weren’t obligated to fill up pages. Bauerlein criticizes the fast and increasingly heavy pace of publication that is required for professors who want to make tenure, writing, “Projects that won’t fit the deadlines are avoided. Lines of inquiry that have no quick prospect of finding a publisher are avoided. Research becomes less exploratory and provisional, and more aligned with prevailing trends and interests.”

I agree, but would add that there is a more severe penalty to be paid. The pressure to publish also keeps rising academics from devoting much time to their students. Who is going to put in hours carefully line-editing papers by undergraduates when the clock is ticking on getting the obligatory number of articles and books published? English professor Murray Sperber contends that nothing will do as much to improve students’ ability to use the language as careful line-editing. Unfortunately, working with undergraduates is one of the first corners to be cut when publishing is paramount.

Returning to the benefits of faculty research, the argument that is most often raised is that it helps improve the professor’s teaching. Research supposedly obligates the professor to stay on top of his or her field, which in turn means better teaching.

Really? It strikes me as neither necessary nor sufficient for that objective. First, professors at teaching institutions where publishing research is not mandatory can and do “stay on top” of their fields and present up-to-date lectures and readings to their students. And there are some professors at research institutions who are paid only to teach, but they do an excellent job. Readers who are interested in an engaging discussion about the connection between research and teaching will find this Pope Center piece featuring four economics professors worthwhile.

Secondly, the pressure to publish lures professors into extremely narrow academic niches in order to find something original to say about a topic. Does that immersion in, well, trivia make the professor any better at explaining his or her academic field to undergraduates? There is no reason to think it necessarily does. Conversely, there is good reason to think that it may have the detrimental effect of inducing the professor to teach his current research project more than teaching students the basic concepts they need.

Bauerlein is not against research, but thinks that the demand for it has become far too great. (Demand by the system, that is: he shows that there is very little demand in the sense of individuals exchanging time or money to get it.) He is not optimistic that universities will take his advice that they should lower their publication requirements. Schools that did so might suffer a decline in their ranking compared with others.

Until some leading university steps forward to break the logjam, we are stuck with a research imperative that is high in cost and low in benefit. Our academic “glass bead game” will go on and on.

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