Unread Monographs, Uninspired Undergrads

Increased scholarly output and student disengagement are linked, according to a new white paper that calls for relieving the "research mandate" in the humanities.
March 18, 2009

Scholarly output rises; undergraduates are disengaged. “This is the real calamity of the research mandate -- 10,000 harried professors forced to labor on disregarded print, and 100,000 unwitting students missing out on rigorous face-to-face learning,” Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, writes in a new paper on relieving research expectations in the humanities.

“I think these two trends -- to do more and more research and less academic engagement on the freshman level -- are not unrelated,” Bauerlein said in an interview about “Professors on the Production Line, Students on their Own." The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research released the paper Tuesday.

“The incentives are obvious. If you’re a professor whose future depends on the amount of pages you produce, then all those hours you spend talking to freshmen about their majors, about their ideas, about their summer reading … really paying attention to these wayward 18-year-olds who are fresh out of high school, you’re hurting yourself," says Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Penguin, 2008).

Bauerlein considers research on student engagement and data on trends in scholarly publishing -- and sales -- in arguing his case. He cites 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement figures showing that 38 percent of first-year students “never” discuss ideas from readings with their instructors outside of class, while 39 percent do "sometimes."

Meanwhile, he writes that scholarly book output in literary studies has outpaced growth of the professoriate by a magnitude of three. Scholarly consumption has not kept up accordingly. Average sales for literature and language monographs are in the low to mid-hundreds, Bauerlein writes, and he cites Association of Research Libraries data finding that the number of monographs purchased by research libraries rose just 1 percent between 1986 and 2006.

Bauerlein writes of “a disturbing possibility” -- that “literature professors feel no urge or need to monitor publications in the discipline in order to keep up with research in the area. … If they overlook much of it, they don’t suffer. Meanwhile, throngs of scholarly compositions appear each year only to sit in distribution warehouses unread and unnoticed. The fields and subfields proceed without them, and the grand vision of a community of experts advancing knowledge, broadening understanding, and closing holes in the historical record fades to black.”

“The fifth and sixth and seventh book on Moby Dick matter,” Bauerlein said via telephone. “The 105th and the 106th, the 107th, they just get lost, even if they’re brilliant. How can you really take them into account when you’ve already got 105 out there? Things just start to blur.”

The report includes a number of recommendations -- that, following the model of liberal arts colleges, language and literature departments in research universities hire professors based on teaching capacity, as opposed to research expertise; that departments evaluate no more than 100 pages of scholarship in tenure decisions (eliminating the expectation of a book); that foundations funding humanities research shift some funds from research to teaching activities; and that the Modern Language Association convene a committee to follow up on the work of its Ad Hoc Committee on Scholarly Publishing. (The MLA's executive director was not immediately available for an interview Tuesday afternoon.)

Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, emphasized teaching issues during his tenure as MLA president in 2008. "I agree that requiring a Book (or more) for promotion has gotten way out of control and that quality should replace quantity as the primary measure,” Graff said via e-mail, in response to the report. “But I'd rather see research used in teaching instead of replaced by teaching. I like the idea of undergraduate research, which overcomes the old research-teaching split by encouraging us to teach our research and to make it worthy of being taught.”

Bauerlein said he hoped that a decrease in raw output of scholarship would lead to it being better utilized in the classroom. But he said the focus on research over teaching must shift, at least at most universities. “I’ll tell you, I think we should have maybe 20 to 25 research institutions in language and literature in this country. I do not think that we should have professors at 500 universities who conceive of themselves primarily as researchers," said Bauerlein.

“We should really say that for the vast, vast majority of language and literature professors, your job is primarily an educational one, a teaching one, and that your main job is to reach the entire undergraduate population and acquaint them with the literary and language inheritance.”

“I’m hoping,” Bauerlein said, toward interview’s end, “that this paper isn’t viewed as an attack on research in humanities in language and literature but actually points the way to self-preservation. I believe everyone should take a couple of years of language and literature. I think we should have a freshman comp course, a sophomore comp course, a junior comp course, a senior comp course. ... But in a research-oriented world, the undergraduate classroom is a throwaway in all too many places."


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