THE SOURCE: “Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research” by Mark Bauerlein, in The Chronicle Review, July 24, 2009.
About 30 years ago, literary criticism toggled from being a field of humble, if erudite, explication to one of creative and adventuresome interpretation. Gone was the critic who explained a work of art, writes Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, replaced by a performer who did “a reading” and inspired a new generation of critical jujitsu artists.
This liberating new role for the literary critic launched a torrent of written works. Older scholars had earned respect for their conclusions to the extent that works of literary art yielded up their mysteries. Very soon, Bauerlein says, “the interpretation didn’t have to be right. It had to be nimble.”
Dissertations, books, essays, and reviews in the fields of languages and literature increased from 13,000 annually in the 1960s to 72,000 in recent years. But as production rose, sales went south. In 2002, the Modern Language Association reported that some editors at university presses estimated that books of literary criticism might sell a maximum of 200 to 300 copies. At what point, asks Bauerlein, “does common sense step in?” When will the field accept that the poetry of William Wordsworth (1770–1850) may have been adequately explicated several decades ago, or that the enigmatic lyrics of Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) were unveiled quite thoroughly in 1965? In recent decades, foundations, humanities research centers, and other organizations have subsidized 225,749 new items of scholarship and criticism on American literature alone.
With so much scribbling, university tenure committees have raised the bar higher and higher on the quantity of publications required for tenure. The percentage of humanities departments that say they value research above teaching increased from 35 percent in 1968 to 76 percent in 2005.
It’s time to curb publications in saturated areas, Bauerlein contends. He suggests that can-didates for promotion be prohibited from submitting more than 100 pages for review. That would decrease the quantity of publications and increase the quality. Universities should re-emphasize teaching and student-oriented initiatives. “An essential part of higher education takes place in conversation, in face time with professors, in the give-and-take
of one-on-one discussion,” Bauerlein writes. Colleges should forgo the fruitless tilling of overplowed ground that has for more than three decades distracted professors from teaching and done untold damage to undergraduates’ understanding of the humanities.