How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship

Brian Taylor

February 09, 2012

The Modern Language Association—the principal organization representing the disciplines of English and foreign languages—held its annual convention in January, and while the event was in session, I received calls from a handful of deans and department chairs. They were concerned about a trend they found alarming: the growing number of commentators there who were recommending changes in how the discipline conceives scholarly work.

Such recommendations, my callers unanimously agreed, would damage not only the careers of aspiring and new professors but also the reputation of the humanities. The proposed changes would also present substantial challenges to academic administrators charged with evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion.

Among other things, the reforms call for replacing the traditional monograph-style dissertation with alternative types of final projects; reconceiving professional scholarship to be less dependent on traditional forms and standard scholarly venues; and moving more toward open-access dissemination of scholarship. The proposals are similar to measures being considered by other disciplines in the humanities. I agree with my callers: Considered from intellectual, political, and administrative perspectives, the proposals are wrongheaded and ill-timed.

The reasons given for the changes vary. The proposal to allow dissertators to submit alternative projects in place of a standard humanities dissertation arises from a widespread sense among faculty that the time to completion for the doctorate in humanities disciplines has become intolerably long—an average of nine years, by some accounts. In addition, the scholarly monograph is increasingly considered to be an endangered species, principally because publishers are finding it difficult to sell those works and are publishing fewer of them every year.

While flexibility is certainly called for, a rush to jettison the monograph-style dissertation could have several negative implications. Some veteran faculty members worry that graduate students and young faculty members—all members of the fast-paced digital world—are losing their capacity to produce long, in-depth, sustained projects (such as monographs).

Many scholars have made a similar point. Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, makes a cogent case in her book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, that one disadvantage of the digital age is that humans are rapidly losing their capacity for deep concentration—the type of cognitive absorption essential to close, meditative reading and to sustained, richly complex writing. That loss is especially deleterious to humanities scholars, whose entire occupation depends on that very level of cognitive concentration that now is so endangered.

Learning to produce a traditional monograph-style dissertation, then, is essential training for a humanities scholar these days because the experience helps neophyte scholars overcome the cultural and cognitive sway of attention deficit to which we are all prone now.

Besides, the typical rationale for abandoning the traditional dissertation—that the time-to-degree for the humanities doctorate is too long—is not a function of the monograph as a genre; it is a function of some dissertators' personal lives, as they attempt to juggle numerous priorities along with completing a dissertation. What's more, allowing doctoral students to produce alternative projects may well disadvantage them on the job market, as hiring committees—or at least some members of them—may not be as receptive to experimental forms and may favor candidates who have, in fact, produced a monograph.

The proposals to reconceive scholarship to be less dependent on traditional forms and venues and to move more toward open-access dissemination of scholarship also present problems. In effect, those two proposals are advocating a move to "digital scholarship" in all its many forms: online journals, Web sites dedicated to scholarly subjects, and publication of scholarly works on the Internet available to anyone who wishes to access them, among other forms.

I certainly understand how the new digital forms of presenting scholarship may be more attractive to some scholars than the traditional formats. The immediacy of the Internet provides instant gratification to those who wish to see their work publicized. However, offsetting the positive aspects are several disadvantages. As the administrators who called me from the MLA convention pointed out, the new approaches would make the job of evaluating scholarship almost impossible and would put some scholars at a disadvantage in the hiring-and-promotion process.

Advocates of the reforms usually say things like "there are many ways to share scholarship with colleagues" or "the present system is clunky and delays a scholar's ability to share his or her research with the field." That language of sharing, however, simplifies the scholarly enterprise.

Scholarship is not simply about "sharing"—about disseminating research results. It's about publishing work that has been appropriately vetted by responsible experts in the area of study so that readers can approach the work with a reasonable expectation that it was well conceived, proficiently executed, and, therefore, potentially useful to other scholars.

Even before the digital age, scholars shared their prepublished work with colleagues, usually by passing around photocopies. But sharing and publishing mean very different things. Can you imagine if the Journal of the American Medical Association (the paragon of peer review) were to decide that rigorous review of medical research was no longer necessary and that all researchers need do is make their latest work available online?

Most scholars in the medical fields (not to mention the public at large) would consider that an unacceptable lowering of standards that could very well lead to serious consequences for public health were doctors to follow ill-advised procedures that they read online but that had not been properly scrutinized. Why should humanities scholars settle for lower standards for their own disciplines?

The linchpin of the process of producing and disseminating scholarship is peer review. It is what distinguishes the professional scholar publishing serious research results from the amateur or dilettante simply posting thoughts online. The first likely underwent substantial scrutiny; the latter likely did not.

It is true that more and more online journals are claiming to employ a peer-review process. That could be a positive development if we can arrive at a point where the community of scholars has confidence that the review process in online venues is as rigorous as it is in top-tier print journals. At the present, however, many scholars are still skeptical that the processes are equivalent. Consequently, scholars who rely solely on electronic venues to publish their scholarship run the risk that members of hiring or promotion committees will devalue or discount the works.

My callers from MLA were especially concerned about that. "I can just imagine how my colleagues in our very traditional department would respond to a colleague's tenure application if most of the work were digital," said one department chair. "We would have a clash of cultures and values, and, sadly, I know who would win."

By far, the biggest concern of my callers was the political implications of the changes being proposed for the profession. Humanities scholars are embroiled in an intense debate over how to demonstrate to other academic disciplines and to society at large the relevance of the field. One of the criticisms of the humanities that I have heard for more than 30 years is that they lack rigor. A scientist recently said to me, "Philosophers and other humanists live the life of Riley: All they do is read and write all day."

It is precisely that perceived lack of rigor and meticulousness that causes critics of the humanities to assume that they are inferior disciplines and therefore expendable, especially during state fiscal crises. That is why the types of measures being proposed are extremely ill-timed. The move away from the traditional dissertation will be perceived by some critics to be a degradation of the Ph.D., and the move away from traditional scholarly forms and venues without corresponding measures to certify a rigorous system of peer review is in place will be read as an erosion of standards. Those perceptions—valid or not—are ones we can ill afford at a time when every humanities discipline is experiencing frontal attacks from within their own institutions as well as from state legislatures and governors.

I am not against change, nor are the colleagues who called me. We're not trying to protect the status quo. We're trying to keep new and aspiring colleagues from making choices that might damage their careers, at least until more consensus can be established within the disciplines. And we're trying protect the reputation of the humanities.

"These proposals are a prescription for our own demise," one caller told me. "I hope we can find a way to accommodate the new digital forms while demonstrating to everyone the high quality of humanities scholarship." I couldn't agree more.

Gary A. Olson recently stepped down from the position of provost at Idaho State University and is on leave. He is co-editor with John Presley of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives from America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm). He can be contacted at