Is humanistic research a waste of time?

3 minute read

Academic work in the humanities is a giant waste of time, claims Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“The research bust”). Few read, and nobody outside academia really wants, scholarly articles and books. The public is getting a bad return on its investment in education; while the academics themselves are mired in a bog of their own devising.

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. More books and articles don't expand the audience for literary studies. A spurt of publications in a department does not attract more sophomores to the major, nor does it make the dean add another tenure-track line, nor does it urge a curriculum committee to add another English course to the general requirements. All it does is "author-ize" the producers.

Bauerlein ran the numbers on citations for research articles and books written in the humanities. What he found was sobering. Scholarly books are rarely cited – he describes one that received only one citation, even though more than a dozen other books were later written about the same subject (an author). The details fuel an effective, short polemic.

I agree most strongly with his description of the “human cost” of the current system. Smart, conscientious people, as he writes, should not be asked to “labor their lives away on unappreciated things.” Embalming so much thought in a journal distributed only to a few libraries would in the best case be a waste of postage. As Bauerlein shows, the thoughts themselves amount to a university-subsidized vanity press for scholars, because a name on a book spine is academic wampum.

The artificial currency is rapidly being devalued by overproduction. But Bauerlein proposes no plausible solution.

Although universities routinely structure their workflows based on a separation of research from teaching activity, in fact the growth of research caused a decline in the seriousness of teaching effectiveness. For this reason, the two cannot be separated from each other in this equation. Research papers may never be read, but they are assiduously counted. It is no accident that grades have inflated right along with the growth in research publication by academics. Teaching won’t earn a young academic tenure, if research leads her university’s mission. For many tenure-track academics, it’s better to have a happy student clientele with no complaints. Nobody’s measuring the knowledge and skills of undergraduates after each course anyway.

Many departments have effectively abdicated their undergraduate mission. Engaging students in reading and analysis is hard work, for which there are few rewards and no pay incentives. Having a high publication count, in contrast, has become the only way to keep up with the current job market. The academic job market doubles as a pay plan for many universities, as pursuing competitive offers has become the most common mechanism for career advancement.

All this is to say that the system is deeply entrenched. The future must involve replacing our current assessment strategies with alternatives that go beyond syllabi and surveys to focus on student achievement. The four-year research university is often a miserably ineffective way for today’s undergraduates to pursue a broad liberal arts background. Students can and will go elsewhere for their breadth requirements. Humanities and social science departments rely heavily on the enrollment of freshmen and sophomores in their introductory courses, but these departments do little to add value to these courses beyond that available on two-year campuses and by correspondence or internet.

The scholarly publication bubble cannot continue indefinitely. It is hard to cast stones at humanities research, knowing that some of my own research articles have had comparably few citations. My reaction is atypical – I cannot be as charitable to this research as Bauerlein, because unlike the typical academic I try to make every article as clear as possible to people outside my speciality, adding value where I can.