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The Productivity Perplex
November 22, 2011 - 9:56pm

In the New York Times this past Sunday, there was a front page article on the inadequacy of law schools in preparing lawyers for the work they will do. The culprit? The faculty write too many law review articles, according to the reporter. If they were teaching (or even practicing law) instead of writing arcane articles they wouldn’t be so out of touch. The journalist cited a law review article on how few law review articles get cited.

Now there’s a report out from Mark Bauerlein that argues English professors spend too much time writing up research that few people will ever read. I don’t always agree with Bauerlein, but in this case I think he has a point. The percentage of institutions that measure faculty quality by number of publications has grown and so has the number of books and journals published. Libraries struggle to keep up; actually, they aren’t struggling much anymore in the case of English literary studies; they can’t afford to buy all the books that tenure committees require.

The problem isn’t so much what we do—Bauerlein, unlike the Times reporter, doesn’t think it’s poor scholarship—it’s the amount we do. Why did we ever buy into the notion that knowledge should be measured quantitatively? Whatever persuaded us that wisdom can be accumulated as artifacts, and the more pieces of it to pile up, the better?

Admittedly, most faculty are erstwhile schoolchildren who suffered anxiety attacks if they thought they’d get less than an A. We’re overachievers, and we’re trained in graduate school that to most productive goes the spoils. So we produce, and produce, and produce. And we keep doing it after tenure because it’s what matters. Productivity.

Bauerlein argues that we’re misusing our resources by insisting on so much productivity. It’s also bad for emotional well-being and for the kind of reflection wisdom requires. On top of that waste, the way we do things ensures that what we produce becomes scarce. That which is not scarce is not valued, but libraries can’t possibly buy it all back. A book that consumed its author for three or four years may have a print run of 100 or 150. That's not productivity, it's waste.

We call it productivity, because we’re very busy and in the end we can count the number of things we produced, but if nothing comes of it, what is the point?

On the eve of a holiday devoted to giving thanks for what we have through ritualized overeating, I have a suggestion: let’s stop producing and start thinking.


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