Humanities and the black hole

Emory English professor has long argued that the academic humanities needs rethinking–and has specifically pointed out that the research imperative that for so long existed to dignify and professionalize the humanities disciplines has outlasted its usefulness. Now, most of the scholarship coming out of humanities departments isn’t, sadly, worth the paper (or the bandwidth) it’s printed on — not because it’s bad or pointless, necessarily, but because its impact is essentially nil. It’s the academic version of the old conundrum about the tree falling in the forest: if an article is published in a peer-reviewed journal and there’s no one there to read it, was it worth writing in the first place?

Bauerlein has caught a lot of flak for this argument. That’s no surprise — he’s hitting his fellow humanists where they live. They don’t like that. They feel threatened. But he’s right, and now he’s got the numbers to prove it.

Bauerlein has been quantifying and counting to see what would happen if he put his gut sense to the test. This is what he has found:

However much they certify their authors as professionals and win them jobs and tenure, essays and books of high scholarly merit in literary studies suffer the same inattention all the time. Why? Because after four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

To test that supposition, I devised a study of literary research in four English departments at public universities—the University of Georgia, the University at Buffalo, the University of Vermont, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—collecting data on salaries, books and articles published, and the reception of those works. The findings:

Those universities pay regular English faculty, on average, around $25,000 a year to produce research. According to the faculty handbooks, although universities don’t like to set explicit proportions, research counts as at least one-third of professors’ duties, and we may calculate one-third of their salaries as research pay. This figure does not include sabbaticals, travel funds, and internal grants, not to mention benefits, making the one-third formula a conservative estimate.

Professors in those departments respond diligently, producing ample numbers of books and articles in recent years. At Georgia, from 2004 to 2009, current faculty members produced 22 authored books, 15 edited books, and 200 research essays. The award of tenure didn’t produce any drop-off in publication, either. Senior professors continue their inquiries, making their departments consistently relevant and industrious research centers.

Finally, I calculated the impact of those publications by using Google Scholar and my own review of books published in specific areas to count citations. Here the impressive investment and productivity appear in sobering context. Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.

Books performed better, but not enough when we consider how much more labor goes into a monograph. A 2000 book on Gerard Manley Hopkins collected four citations in eight relevant books on the poet published from 2007 to 2010. A 2003 book on Thomas Hardy garnered one citation in 16 relevant books published from 2007 to 2010. Of eight books published by Vermont professors from 2002 to 2005, four of them received zero to 10 citations in subsequent essays, and four received 11 to 20 (four of the top five were studies in film).

Franco Moretti would be proud. (That’s an in-joke for all you humanists out there.)

Of course there is the odd breakthrough book or article that everyone cites. And of course there are the usual objections, which Bauerlein duly notes: “Research makes professors better teachers and colleagues,” “We need lots of research activity to produce those few works of significance,” and “Google Scholar and citation counts are hardly the best way to examine humanities research.” But, as Bauerlein also notes, such objections are located in Neverland. They are long on principle, but short on reality. The money just isn’t there to pay for an endeavor with so palpably little positive impact — especially when we can also calculate its negative impact in terms of dollars and time that could be devoted to higher ed’s primary mission, teaching.

As Bauerlein puts it, “The research identity is a powerful allure, flattering people that they have cutting-edge brilliance. Few of them readily trade the graduate seminar for the composition classroom. But we have reached the point at which the commitment to research at the current level actually damages the humanities, turning the human capital of the discipline toward ineffectual toil.”

There’s no disrespect for academic humanists here, nor is this an attack on them. Rather, Bauerlein is watching a profession — his own — die a self-imposed death because of skewed prerogatives and failure to adapt. He respects his field, his colleagues, and the scholarship they produce — but he’s looking at what’s real, and he’s doing the thankless work of urging a group of people who are intensely set in their ways for all sorts of institutional, cultural, and personal reasons to find a way to change before they are officially defined as intellectually irrelevant.

Two things Bauerlein doesn’t mention — probably because there wasn’t room. Those Chronicle of Higher Ed space constraints are a bear!

One is that people who are really driven to do scholarship will do it, regardless of whether it’s officially part of their job duties. Those who aren’t might just welcome the removal of an immiserating and distracting job requirement and the room it creates to focus on other things. The natural selection that would happen under such conditions might be good for both scholarship and teaching, not to mention the general repute of academic humanists.

The second thing is that humanist scholarship has harmed itself by over-professionalizing and by confining itself to the exclusive gated ghetto of peer-reviewed journals and university press monographs. While the market for such work is saturated and was never big to begin with, there is a market for genuine public intellectuals who write about literature, history, and culture in ways that take an intelligent and curious non-academic audience seriously. We could do with a little more common culture than we have now — and academic humanists could do a lot to help reconstitute and revitalize that, if –

It all does come down to “if.”

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  1. [...] Critical Mass » Blog Archive » Humanities and the black hole [...]

  2. [...] is truly where most of us produce value (and indeed, there are more and more suggestions that the humanities’ ostensible “production of knowledge” is dubious), perhaps we should reconsider its value as well. Mondoville may be closer to the heart [...]

  3. [...] is truly where most of us produce value (and indeed, there are more and more suggestions that the humanities’ ostensible “production of knowledge” is dubious), perhaps we should reconsider its value as well. Mondoville may be closer to the heart [...]

  4. [...] is truly where most of us produce value (and indeed, there are more and more suggestions that the humanities’ ostensible “production of knowledge” is dubious), perhaps we should reconsider its value as well. Mondoville may be closer to the heart [...]

  5. [...] aforementioned Erin O’Connor says it better than I ever could. O’Connor writes, …humanist scholarship has harmed itself by over-professionalizing and [...]

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