A Response to Mark Bauerlein’s Productivity Post

I had planned to return to the topic of for-profit higher education and write a couple of posts about recent developments about Daymar College, a privately owned for-profit string of colleges in Kentucky and Ohio which is currently undergoing intense scrutiny (to say the least) from Kentucky’s Attorney General.

But I have to take a detour and write a response, elaboration, reflection—call it what you will—on Mark Bauerlein’s amazing Brainstorm blog post of July 27, “Faculty Productivity is Coming.” At the very least, my recalling attention to that post might lead more Chronicle readers to take a look at it.

The post is exceptionally well researched for such a short entry. Its thesis is simple but, not surprisingly, deeply disturbing to an English professor like me. Bauerlein argues that, especially at research institutions, university administrators measure “productivity” in terms of scholarship. The extent to which a scholar/professor can contribute “new knowledge to his or her field” justifies the workload that that professor carries.

At the typical research university, the teaching load is 2-2, leaving the professor with plenty of hours (not to mention winter and summer breaks) to do research and publish it. The rub is that Americans value some research more than they do others: If a biochemist is researching a cure for cancer, her research time, her out-of-the classroom time, is reckoned in popular opinion as far more important than the research of an English professor on vagina imagery in Emily Dickinson’s poetry—and, yes, there is scholarship on that topic.

The back story to all this is simple and compelling, at least in my field. When the job market in English collapsed in the early 1970s, the result was a buyer’s market for English departments across the country. With more job applicants than tenure-track positions, English departments, especially at research institutions, chose scholarship as the metric by which they separated the wheat from the chaff:  applications who had published articles, or whose dissertations looked like promising first drafts of monographs floated to the top; the rest simply didn’t find jobs. The absence of a job market in English for the last 40 years has kept this selection mechanism firmly in place. The collective assumption that research, in all fields, was paramount, led to different working conditions for professors, conditions that encouraged research. In my 23 years at Ohio State, the teaching load (in English) has been reduced twice, and my publication vita has benefited accordingly.

Bauerlein’s post (surprisingly controversial, given the comments) suggests that the tide is turning. He cites two especially frightening facts in his post. First, a survey of university CFO’s on how to cut costs if they didn’t have to worry about outraging constituents yielded the following responses: 1) raise teaching loads (38 percent), 2) raise tuition (19 percent); 3)eliminate tenure (17 percent). Well, as everyone knows, tuition is being raised beyond the cost of living at many institutions, tenure is being eliminated (see virtually everything Marc Bousquet has written), so that leaves raising teaching loads. So far that’s been the third rail of university budget cutting, but not for long, according to Bauerlein. The second frightening fact is that two journals in Bauerlein’s field, namely ESQ and Poe Studies are currently being threatened with closure. My hunch is that, given shrinking library budgets, this is the trend in fields other than American studies as well. That means, ultimately, that even as the pressure for graduate students and assistant professors increases, the venues in which they might be able to publish are decreasing. Not a comforting thought.

So what’s Bauerlein’s conclusion? In an era where “accountability” is on the lips of every administrator, fields like English find it increasingly difficult to justify the value of their research. Martha Nussbaum’s histrionic Not For Profit:  Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, about which I’ve written earlier here, epitomizes the desperation we humanists feel to demonstrate that, yes, we are accountable. Bauerlein’s saying we’re not, and the consequences will not be pleasant: “the 2-2 load, small undergrad classes, one or two graduate seminars, frequent sabbaticals, etc,—aren’t going to last.” Much as I hate to envision it, he’s right. At some point in the future, and who knows when, the worth of English professors will be measured not by the amount or even quality of the scholarship they produce, but by how many students they teach.

Epilogue: The commenters who described Bauerlein’s post as “right-wing” are, for lack of a better word, crazy. If ever there was a bi-partisan problem for humanists, this is it.

OK, I’ve opened this can of worms in another Chronicle blog venue. What do you think?

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