Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And You Think No One Listens To You At Work

Sherman Oaks, California

An academic monograph might sell 600 copies. The typical academic book sells in the low to middle hundreds of units. A scholarly journal might have 500 subscribers.

Clearly, the market for academic scholarship is tiny. Yet there is more scholarly work being published than ever before.

In the field of English literature, the quantities are eye-popping: Between 1980 and 2006, scholars wrote 3,584 books, articles, dissertations and the like about William Faulkner. Emily Dickinson was the subject of 1,776 texts, while poet Christopher Smart -- who? -- was the subject of 192. Big Bill Shakespeare mopped up the floor with 21,674 texts.

Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein thinks these aberrant numbers -- abundant supply coupled with negligible demand -- reflect the fact that many professors publish irrelevant work simply to keep their jobs. Worse, they do so at the expense of undergraduate education.

In his recent paper titled "Professors On The Production Line, Students On Their Own," Bauerlein noted that production of scholarly books rose at three times the rate of increase in the number of instructors, but most people in the profession don't care about what's being written.

"In vibrant fields, researchers follow everyone's work because if they don't they fall behind and can't participate," Bauerlein wrote. "In literary studies, though, scholars now pick and choose, keeping current through piecemeal browsing of tables of contents and press catalogs. If they overlook much of it, they don't suffer."

"This indicates an economy focused not on the commodity or the consumer, but on the producer alone," he continued. Graduate students believe they have a better shot at a teaching position if they have published, and tenure committees evaluating an assistant professor want to see a book and three or four articles. So aspiring academics churn out thousands of unread words.

One of Bauerlein's recommendations is to limit tenure committees to a review of 100 pages, forcing an emphasis on quality. He would also like to see more universities hire faculty based on teaching ability, but that's a pipe dream that's been around almost as long as the academy.

The reality is that assistant professors are held to a standard of mere acceptability in the classroom, while quantity of publication is the pre-requisite for consideration for appointment and tenure.

Until the world changes, scholars will keep trying to say something new about John Milton (3,969 texts).



Anonymous ricks said...


6:52 AM  

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