'Objectivity' and Avoiding Our Responsibility to Read

Mark Bauerlein’s recent critique of the scholarly habit of producing a voluminous amount of research in literary studies that is rarely cited has prompted a number of responses.

December 15, 2011

Mark Bauerlein’s recent critique of the scholarly habit of producing a voluminous amount of research in literary studies that is rarely cited has prompted a number of responses, both here, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. Some of the responses can be summarized thus:

  • Quite right; we should be teaching, not wasting so much time on research.
  • Oh, great; another attack on the humanities!
  • If we got rid of tenure we wouldn’t have this problem.
  • The methodology is flawed.
  • What I get out of doing the research is more valuable than the finished product.
  • Literary criticism is nothing but self-indulgent rubbish, anyway.

The responses that really surprised me, though – and I’ve seen this argument made several times recently – is that we have no choice but to rely on the record of peer-reviewed publications for promotion and tenure because teaching evaluations are unreliable and one’s departmental colleagues can be petty and spiteful, so peer reviewed publication is the only objective and fair measure of worth we can go on.

This floors me for so many reasons.

Apart from the fact that peer review is hardly a rigorously-designed and objective measure of quality, distrusting students and one's local peers so thoroughly seems a bit paranoid and unhealthy. At the Little College on the Prairie, faculty who serve on the committee that reviews candidates for tenure and promotion take the job seriously and are diligent about visiting classes, interviewing department members, and studying the record of scholarship. Committee members ask candidates a lot of questions (because when you are on the committee you’re likely to evaluate the work of a biochemist, a jazz musician, a nursing professor, a psychologist, and a professor of religion all in the same semester and nobody’s expert at all of those; in fact if you’re an expert in any of them, you’re probably in the same department as the candidate, so recused).

Research matters, but there are no formulas for how many publications define an acceptable pattern of scholarship. It various from one field to another, and in some fields publications aren't even relevant. (I admit that I really enjoyed listening to the performance recordings submitted by a member of the music department; sitting in on his lessons was fascinating, too.) We don’t outsource our judgment to peer reviewers or publications with a particular impact factor. That would be too superficial, and besides, it would leave too much that matters out. It’s our job to observe teaching, study syllabi and yes, student evaluations. And we look carefully at the scholarship, too. Candidates go to lengths to explain their work to the committee in their statements and their files include an annotated bibliography that is written for non-specialists.

I would love to see a limit placed on what can be submitted for tenure and promotion, as Sandy Thatcher suggested in a comment. If we could focus on doing a few things really well instead of quantity, libraries wouldn’t be facing such staggering bills and people would have a better chance of keeping up with new scholarship that is actually worth reading. As it happens, I just stumbled across an article by John Guillory, who argues in “How Scholars Read” (ADE Bulletin, No. 146, Fall 2008: 8-16) that most of what passes for scholarship these days is written too hastily and read too hastily, that in our bureaucratic impulse to produce volumes of scholarship, we publish too many texts that don't hold up to slow and attentive reading.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick recently took up the question of deferring to authority in the form of respected traditional publishers and points out that digital scholarship gives us a chance to read far more reactions and critiques of a work than the two or three peers who typically provide a review. But she doesn't conclude that all we need is more peers in the peer review process. She thinks we should take the responsibility to read what our colleagues write.

We must be willing to engage in the act of judgment ourselves. Reading and interpreting are, after all, what we do; they are the very basis of scholarship in the humanities. Externalizing our judgment by deferring our authority to others and appealing to objective measures of value, in the long run, can only devalue all our work.

I heartily agree.


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