This Week at Work: Reflections on Our Research Culture

Yesterday I received a reminder from the Mellon Foundation about a follow-up survey they are doing of people who did Ph.D.s supported by Mellon Fellowships.  I remember how exciting it was when I learned I had won one of these fellowships, which was both generous and prestigious. I had mixed success with my actual Ph.D. applications–indeed, I was rejected by many more schools than accepted me–and I’ve often thought that the crucial factor in my winning the Mellon was the interview. I was (am?) more charming in person than on paper–it’s something about my sense of humor, I think, which apparently doesn’t carry over much into my writing! In any case, winning a Mellon Fellowship made me a more attractive target for the schools that had offered me places: I ended up with the luxury of comparing complete five-year funding packages from a couple of excellent schools, and the even greater luxury of comparing these North American alternatives to using a Commonwealth Scholarship to go to the UK. In the end, I chose Cornell, starting in 1990 and finishing in 1995 with job offer in hand–job offers, in fact: while my job market success was also mixed and I got a lot of rejections, when I got close, I did pretty well (speaking of rejection, though, I’ll never forget the message telling me I was not offered the job I wanted most of all, which hit me like an emotional bomb when I read it in the dank basement computer lab where, in those olden days, I had to go to check my email–would it have been so hard to give me a phone call so I could have absorbed the blow in private?). Anyway, I chose Dalhousie, and (though I have made a few attempts over the years to move on) here I still am today.

The Mellon survey focused primarily on career paths and job satisfaction. Most of it was pretty easy stuff (how many peer-reviewed articles did you publish before tenure? what kind of pre-tenure mentoring did you get? were there explicit expectations about the kind or quantity of publications you’d need for tenure?), but towards the end there were some more open-ended ones, and the very final one proved a real poser: If you had to do it all over again, they asked, would you do the same? Same degree, same school? Same degree, different school? Different degree? Or no Ph.D. at all?

Maybe this would not have been such a stumper of a question if they’d asked it on a different day, but yesterday was kind of a tough day for me at work. It’s not that I was busier than usual or overwhelmed with new tasks or dealing with confrontational students upset with their grades, or dead-ended on a writing project or behind in my class preparation. Rather, it was a day (one of many recent days) in which different priorities clashed in the department and I ended up feeling that more and more, we are steering by (or allowing ourselves to be steered by) the wrong values. There are a lot of moving parts behind the motions we have voted on recently, but the net effect is that a majority of the department has carried through an agenda by which we will reduce class offerings at all levels and increase class sizes at the undergraduate level, in order to bring our nominal teaching load down and thus clear more time for research during the academic term. I emphasize that last clause because we have dedicated research time already (the spring and summer terms, when we do not regularly teach undergraduate classes, as well as our sabbaticals); the argument was being made for the importance of making more time for research while teaching, and thus the new plan deliberately favors reducing our contact hours and prep time. We’ll remain individually responsible for the same number of students, so any time savings won’t come from reducing our grading. Now, I find marking assignments as tedious as the next prof. What I don’t find tedious or want less of is face time with my students. My hours in the classroom are almost the only hours during which I have no doubts about my answer to the Mellon Foundation’s question. It’s true that class prep can be relentless, and in the middle of my heavier teaching term, I’m too busy with it–too overwhelmed by it, in combination with the marking–to do anything ambitious regarding other research or writing projects. Not nothing at all, but nothing much. But class prep can also be  intellectually stimulating, and often is itself research, or feeds into ongoing research interests: I didn’t like the presumed opposition between teaching and research that dominated the arguments for the latest motion.

The problem is that this pitting of two of our essential tasks against each other is in large part a consequence of the pervasive research culture promulgated especially by administrators who talk about “productivity” and “output” in terms of grant dollars pursued and won, and of quantity (rather than quality and significance) of (conventionally peer-reviewed) publications. Tomorrow, for instance, we are invited to a “presentation” on “trends in FASS [Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences] research performance.” Let’s just say I will be pleasantly surprised if the emphasis is not squarely on those kinds of quantifiable measures. Everyone I’ve spoken to about it fully anticipates that the event has been set up as an occasion to chastise us for our failure to measure up, both to other faculties on campus and perhaps also to comparable faculties at other universities. But the conversation we should be having is about the adequacy of the measures, about the damage they do and the absurdities they create. We should be talking about whether it’s really a good use of time for a humanities scholar to spend weeks, months even, on a grant proposal for a program with a success rate of below 25%; we should be talking about the culture of greed and hypocrisy and cynicism that has been created by the pressure to ask for more and more money whether you need it or not, because big grants bring prestige (and support graduate students–and that’s another can of worms right there); about the flawed logic of trying to get grants because the university relies on its share of them to cover ‘indirect costs.’ We should be resisting the pressure to increase our research productivity according to such ill-fitting measures, and we should especially resist chipping away at our curriculum and at our undergraduate students’ educational experience because we want to look like the kind of “productive researchers” the university seems exclusively to recognize and reward. I don’t measure my “performance” as a scholar exclusively on my output of specialized peer-reviewed publications, or on my success at competing for external funding, and I don’t think my university should either. Here too, there are a lot of moving parts, and the funding challenges universities faced are not something I take lightly (or understand completely, given their intricacies). But that doesn’t change the oddity of trying to twist and bend humanistic inquiry into something that looks like scientific research, and of treating us as failures precisely because we don’t do expensive projects.

Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s no point in our doing our research. I don’t think it’s a waste of time; I do think that there are both intellectual and social pay-offs from our efforts to understand the world better by way of understanding its literature. But I do think we produce enough of it already. I don’t think Mark Bauerlein makes a particularly fair or coherent argument about its excesses, but I also don’t think we need to “protect” more time to produce more of it faster. I actually think we should slow down and produce less of it, especially in conventional forms. How much “output” is enough? It’s not the quantity that should matter. How much research time is enough? If we let go of the artificial urgency fueled by the kind of presentation I’m looking forward to tomorrow, I think we’d find we already have enough time.

Now, to be fair, we haven’t exactly decimated our program, and we still have plenty of classes on the small side. But the pressure is undoubtedly upward. Big classes are routine elsewhere, I’m told, and a lower teaching load for full-time faculty is also the norm at other “research institutions.” But is this a good thing? Is this the way we want our resources distributed? Well, judging by yesterday’s voting, the answer for a lot of us is ‘yes.’   I understand why, but I feel that we’re in pursuit of a model of success or excellence that I just don’t believe in anymore. Sometimes sitting with my colleagues I feel like a nonbeliever in church! And it’s a church in which two things are sacrosant: our research, and our graduate program–in the interests of which we have made all of the recent changes to our overall curriculum.

And this is why the Mellon survey question was so hard to answer. How can I be sorry that I’ve been able to pursue this career, which in many ways suits me so well? How can I regret that I can dedicate my time to things I not only think are really important, but love? In what other job can you be paid to spend hours and hours a week concentrating on literature, and working with bright, eager students to nurture their love of reading and their interest in the kinds of questions it opens up? But the other values of the profession have troubled me from the start of my Ph.D. work, and the systems of incentives and rewards, and of prestige and reputation too, skew very far in one direction. How can I not feel I’m out of step and perhaps unsuited for the career I chose when I can’t commit myself wholeheartedly to two of its central pursuits?

If I had the choice, would I do the same again? Today, I’m not sure. But ask me again  after my small group discussion of Great Expectations on Friday. I bet my answer then will be “of course!”

Mark Bauerlein’s “The Research Bust”

I have mixed but mostly negative feelings about Mark Bauerlein’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about literary research. Reporting on a study* he did for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Bauerlein argues that (most) literary research and publishing is not worth the investment of time and money that goes into it. His major evidence in support of this argument is that academic books and articles aren’t cited very much. Interestingly, he doesn’t argue that this is because they aren’t any good, that they aren’t worth doing because they contribute nothing to knowledge or understanding, or because they are opaque to the lay reader (popular forms of the attack on academic criticism, both of which are to be found in the long comments thread on his post) . In fact, he opens with the example of an article that is “learned, wide-ranging, and conversant with scholarship on the poet and theoretical currents in literary studies. The argument is dense, the analysis acute, on its face a worthy illustration of academic study deserving broad notice and integration into subsequent research in the field.” What he finds, however, after diligently entering the article’s title into Google Scholar, is only “a handful of sentences of commentary on the original article by other scholars in the 10 years after its publication.” There’s a dramatic imbalance, as he sees it, between the input (“100-plus hours of hard work by a skilled academic, plus the money the university paid the professor to conduct the research”) and the impact (” we can be sure of only a few scholars who incorporated it into their work”).

There’s plenty to be said about Bauerlein’s methodology, and some of the comments on the piece are sharp about the reliability of citations indexes in general and Google Scholar in particular, as well as about his very reductive notion of impact, which doesn’t consider the impact of scholarship that is read but not formally cited, read as teaching preparation, and so on. That we can’t count something doesn’t make it irrelevant, and all practising scholars know from their own first-hand experience, I’m sure, that they read and are influenced in their thinking by a great deal of material that never makes it into their footnotes or bibliographies.

But suppose we grant Bauerlein a modified version of his quantitative point: suppose it’s true that much specialized research does not change the conversation the way its authors probably hope it will. In fact, my own experience to some extent supports this–not only of watching the fate of my own publications, but of burrowing through masses of work by other scholars that really does, as Bauerlein says, “overwhelm[] the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output.” What puzzles and disturbs me is what Bauerlein believes follows from this ‘finding,’ which is that we ought to stop doing (or at least funding) literary scholarship (he doesn’t actually say this in so many words, and at some points seems to be making the more temperate suggestion that we simply scale back expectations and output). Along the way to this modest proposal he also makes some dubious further claims–or at least claims that would require a great deal more nuance and specificity to be satisfactory.

Further to his point about the overwhelming mountain of publications, for instance, he proposes that we have “reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields.” But his examples  are Melville and George Eliot, two of the most emphatically canonical authors imaginable. Yes, it’s a near impossibility to read “all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year”: I can’t do it–I wouldn’t want to do it. But the realities of specialization are also such that I don’t need to do it: there isn’t one subfield of George Eliot scholarship anymore but a multiplicity of potential angles on George Eliot, and the researcher’s task is to navigate among the available material to find what’s relevant. Yes, that’s difficult, even frustrating at times, but it’s hard to see how a continuing “cascade of research” is a sign of exhaustion: surely it’s a sign that people are still finding questions to ask, and doing their best to answer them? In these cases it may be true that the results will matter only to ” a microscopic audience of interested readers,” but that’s what happens in all highly specialized fields, not just in the humanities. The objection, then, can only be that for some reason literary subjects are not suited to specialization, which seems a suspect argument, one that harks back to a time when literary scholars were comfortably certain they knew what needed to be known and said about the books that really mattered, and those books and that knowledge could be neatly summed up and pronounced upon.

Having said this much, I should acknowledge what readers of this blog (certainly, any who have read it from its early days!) already know about me, which is that I have often complained about the pressure of specialization and the related trend towards metacriticism. I started blogging in part because of my own dissatisfaction with the norms of academic literary criticism. My early complaints about that got me in hot water with a commenter who charged me with “offering nourishment” to those who want “to eliminate literary studies from university curricula altogether.” Though I know more now than I did then about these kinds of criticisms of and attacks on the academic humanities, my view continues to be that what we need is not to end, but to diversify the kinds of research and writing that institutions recognize and support as valuable uses of academic expertise. There needs to be room for ‘knowledge dissemination’ that serves non-specialist purposes and audiences, for instance. Some researchers have less inclination and talent for microspecialization, but excel at synthesis and exposition–I think that is actually where my own strengths lie. But ask any academic whether writing a textbook or a popularization (or a series of reviews and essays in a non-academic, non-peer-reviewed journal) “counts” the same way that 5001st study of Melville will, when it comes time for hiring, tenure, or promotion, or just for earning the respect and support of your institution and administration…

To return to Bauerlein’s argument, the 5001st article on Melville may yet have its value to the small group of Melville specialists, provided it is, like the article he mentions in his opening, a high quality piece of professional scholarship. But it’s true that it can’t maximize its impact if it is not widely read, and the burden of reading 5000 other studies may be too much for most scholars. I think Bauerlein is right to suggest that quantitative measures for tenure and promotion are detrimental to individual scholars as well as to the profession as a whole.  (I interviewed for one position where I was told I would need two books or six articles for tenure. That’s absurd, not least because the fetishization of books creates what I described in an earlier post as “the corrupting pressure to inflate, not only our prose and our manuscripts, but our claims.”) The MLA has been making the argument for decentering the monograph for years now, but as Bauerlein points out, “nobody wants to take the first step in reducing the demand.” Between the crisis in academic publishing and the changing demands and expectations of scholars themselves, perhaps eventually the ‘publish or perish’ model will be reformed.

But let’s consider, again, the article Bauerlein opens with. The problem Bauerlein identifies is not that the author’s time (and the university’s resources) were wasted because the article never needed to be written the first place, but because the article had little measurable impact–it didn’t make a conspicuous difference to the field. Again, Bauerlein’s claims are undermined by their lack of specificity: depending on how specialized the essay’s argument is, perhaps nobody should expect it to transform the overall discussion about that particular canonical poet. The 10-year time frame also does not allow for the glacially slow pace of academic publishing. But let’s, again, grant him a modified version of his premise, this time that the impact of the piece really was inappropriately (or unfortunately) light. Why isn’t that a reason, not to stop producing learned, wide-ranging, acute analysis, but to change the mechanisms for circulating it? What’s wrong with the processes, the apparatus, of our scholarship, if good ideas are not circulating as widely as they should? How can we open up the research and publishing process so that scholars engage each other in more direct, productive conversations? Why aren’t the scholars working in this area actually talking to each other–not face to face, but through Twitter, blogs, listservs, or other kinds of scholarly networks? Is it that there are too many of them, each of them individually overwhelmed by the difficulty of trying to keep up with the output of scholarship from others? Or is it something about their work habits–keeping their heads down, trying to beat the tenure clock, looking only so far and no further? Is the sheer pressure to publish a lot a disincentive to more exhaustive research? What are the logistical impediments, in other words, to improving the circulation of ideas? Also, how can we change the way we work so that the value Bauerlein himself claims to recognize in an essay such as that one can be perceived by readers outside the academy as well? Why is the best response to a (perceived) oversupply of exemplary scholarship to denigrate or even halt the scholarship, rather than to champion it and ask that we and our institutions work to solve the problem of its reception and distribution?

From Bauerlein’s perspective, the answer would appear to be that he thinks literary research has already run its course–that there’s really nothing left of any significance for scholars to find out, at least not on behalf of the rest of us. But here his choice of George Eliot and Melville is misleading, if not disingenuous. I’m prepared to concede that the latest articles on George Eliot are pretty specialized. Indeed, I have nearly lost interest in reading them myself, and I don’t want to be compelled to contribute to them myself. Curiosity-driven research can hardly, in consistency, be made compulsory. But I don’t think that means they have no value (why should my interests and preferences be the arbiter?), and I wouldn’t want to propose (as Bauerlein certainly implies) that “saturation” means “completion”–what would it mean to be finished studying something? how could we ever be sure we have found out everything there is to know? “We can no longer pretend … that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today,” Bauerlein proclaims, but how can he know this? There’s some irony in his relying on simple quantity of research to decide there’s nothing of interest or value left to be said. Still, perhaps in these cases scholars are working mostly for each other. Again, this happens in all fields once you reach a certain level of specialization.

Suppose we consider if every subfield is as densely populated as those he cites, however. I’ve been looking up Winifred Holtby: there’s very little scholarship about her novels, compared to the vast output on her Bloomsbury contemporaries. That absence of material is already provocative, to my mind: what has given one literary movement so much more critical value? In learning more about Holtby and Brittain, I feel that I am also learning (again) about the ways our scholarship is shaped by expectations and priorities that are not intrinsic to the literature but may, in fact, interfere with our understanding of its forms and ideas. Much was made at one time about the “end of history”: does Bauerlein believe we have reached the end of literary history? Surely not. The landscape of literary studies is in constant flux, not just in the theoretical apparatus readers bring to primary texts, but in our selection of primary texts to look at in the first place. Imagine if we had concluded, as a profession, that Leavis’s The Great Tradition was the last word on the British novel, or that the list of Oxford World’s Classics as of, say, 1970, was definitive. In my own undergraduate course on the Victorian novel, in 1988, the term “sensation fiction” never came up–and neither did Elizabeth Gaskell. In our discussion of Jane Eyre, at no point did we consider whether British imperialism was a significant context. In my own academic lifetime and my own specialized field, that is, there have been enormous changes in just a couple of decades. It’s easy to take the horizons of our own interests and knowledge as actual limits on what is worth asking or knowing, but surely the last 100 years of literary studies have shown us just how limiting and even dangerous that assumption can be. What a depressingly anti-intellectual proposition, that we have nothing more to learn or say, or that even if we do, it’s not worth finding it out. It’s precisely because we can’t foresee the significance of research that we need to preserve a space to do it open-mindedly, in a spirit of sheer intellectual curiosity. Up close, in the moment, it may be difficult to discern how or where the multitude of individual projects is moving us–but yet, look back and see what a different place we are in now. Who, in 1900, or 1950, or even 1980, could have told us what would turn out to make the most difference?

Ah, but you see, all that research is expensive. As Bauerlein says, “we cannot devote our energies to projects of little consequence”–but note the presumed correlation between measurable impact and “consequence.” And, again, “impact” is a complex issue, one hardly amenable to simple metrics. What will those “undergraduate reading groups” Bauerlein wants us to lead (in lieu of going to conferences or archives) be talking about in 10 or 20 years, if specialized research grinds to a halt? Exactly the same things we would bring to them today, I suppose–but why would we want time to stand still in that way? Or, how will he decide who will carry on the research while the rest of us focus on mentoring undergraduates (not, presumably, to be scholars) and “pushing foreign languages in general-education requirements”? (How that last is the particular responsibility of English professors, I’m not clear.) Bauerlein argues,

 If a professor who makes $75,000 a year spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication), the university paid $125,000 for its production. Certainly that money could have gone toward a more effective appreciation of that professor’s expertise and talent.

But that professor’s “expertise” is surely in part defined (and expanded) precisely by that long-term effort to know more about Dickens. Why is it a “more effective appreciation” of that professor to discourage  (and perhaps even to prevent, by withholding time and resources) the research and publication of the book? (How can you judge the importance of the book’s ideas from the number of times it has been checked out, anyway? Haven’t you ever just sat in the stacks and read stuff?)

Bauerlein is right to challenge the reigning paradigm that values quantity over quality and specialization over synthesis and accessibility. But throughout the piece, there’s an uneasy slippage between making the case for a more rational, deliberative research model and a wholesale dismissal of the entire enterprise. At one point he acknowledges that “research is an intellectual good,” but then he shrugs it off as “ineffectual toil.” He concedes that those who object to his position are not wrong “on principle”–but then rules them out of order on grounds of pragmatism. He agrees that research “makes better teachers and colleagues” but then he characterizes it as the pursuit of an identity that is alluring because it “flatter[s] people that they have cutting-edge brilliance”–as if literary research is no more than egotistical posturing. (Perhaps he has been reading Eugenides?) He concludes by looking forward to the waning of “the research years of literary study.” As many of the comments on his piece show, this kind of thing is music to the ears of those who see no value at all in what we do–his gestures towards moderation and reform are eclipsed by his larger narrative of excess and waste.

That Bauerlein’s column is clearly having a large impact (as measured by external links–including both Arts and Letters Daily and the Book Bench–as well as by the number of comments it has garnered) seems to me pretty good evidence that we need better ways to measure what a piece of writing is really worth.

*I haven’t read the entire study; my response is just to the presentation of its main ideas in the Chronicle article.