The Chronicle Review

Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

July 20, 2009

It was sometime in the 1980s, I think, that a basic transformation of the aims of literary criticism was complete. Not the spread of political themes and identity preoccupations, which struck outsiders and off-campus critics like William Bennett, a former secretary of education turned radio host, as the obvious change, but a deeper adjustment in the basic conception of what criticism does. It was, namely, the shift from criticism-as-explanation to criticism-as-performance. Instead of thinking of scholarship as the explication of the object—what a poem means or a painting represents—humanists cast criticism as an interpretative act, an analytical eye in process.

The old model of the critic as secondary, derivative, even parasitical gave way to the critic as creative and adventuresome. Wlad Godzich's introduction to the second edition of Paul de Man's Blindness and Insight (1983) nicely caught the mood in its title: "Caution! Reader at Work!" People spoke of "doing a reading," applying a theory, taking an approach, and they regarded the principle of fidelity to the object as tyranny. In a 1973 essay in New Literary History titled "The Interpreter: A Self-Analysis," Geoffrey H. Hartman chastised the traditional critic for being "methodologically humble" by "subduing himself to commentary on work or writer"; then he declared, "We have entered an era that can challenge even the priority of literary to literary-critical texts." A writer has a persona, he stated. "Should the interpreter not have personae?"

Older modes of criticism were a species of performance as well. But they claimed validity to the extent to which the object they regarded gave up to them its mystery. The result, the clarified meaning of the work, counted more than the execution that yielded it. By the late 1980s, though, the question "What does it mean?" lost out to "How can we read it?" The interpretation didn't have to be right. It had to be nimble.

The elevation of the critic from expositor to performer had its philosophical rationales, to be sure. But it also happened at an opportune moment. For something besides theory also made it an undesirable aim to get the meanings and representations of the work right. It was that in the preceding 35 years, the works of hundreds of artists, writers, and thinkers had already undergone thousands of examinations.

This is a crucial variable in the development of literary studies, and I raise it not to rehash the history of the field since 1960, but to pose a far-reaching and difficult question: In light of 50 years of vast research production, backed by substantial resources and subsidies, is not a redistribution in order, particularly toward teaching?

In a working paper I wrote recently for the American Enterprise Institute, "Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own," I reported that over the past five decades, the "productivity" of scholars in the fields of languages and literature had increased hugely: from approximately 13,000 publications to 72,000 a year. Consider the output in literary studies. From 1950 to 1985, 2,195 items of criticism and scholarship devoted to William Wordsworth appeared. Virginia Woolf garnered 1,307, Walt Whitman 1,986, Faulkner 3,487, Milton 4,274, and Shakespeare at the top, with 16,771. Type any major author into the MLA International Bibliography database and more daunting tallies pop up. In each pile lies everything from plot summaries to existentialist reflections. But for all practical purposes, such as teaching an undergraduate class, they impart the meanings and representations to the full.

The accomplishment of the enterprise, however, was a curse for young aspirants, the graduate student in search of a dissertation (like I was in 1985) and the assistant professor in need of a book. They had to write something new and different. Theories and valuations that displaced the meaning of the work and prized the unique angle of the interpreter didn't just flatter the field. They empowered novices to carry on. The long shadow of precursors dissipated in the light of creative, personal critique. The authors studied might remain, but there were new theories to rehearse upon them and topics to expound through them, controversies in which to "situate" oneself, and readerly dexterities to display.

It was liberating and enabling, as subsequent outputs show. From 1986 to 2008, Wordsworth collected 2,257 books, chapters, dissertations, etc. Faulkner came in at 2,781, Milton at 3,294, Whitman at 1,509, Woolf at 3,217, and Shakespeare at 18,799. The model worked—astoundingly so. Degrees, grants, jobs, tenure, and raises rested on those publications, and if older criticism answered questions about the meaning of Paradise Lost, well, other questions had to be found.

Something happened, though, in the process. As striving junior scholars and established seniors staged one reading after another, as advanced theories were applied and hot topics attached, the performances stacked up year by year —and seemed to matter less and less. Look at the sales figures for monographs. Back in 1995, the director of the Pennsylvania State University Press, Sanford G. Thatcher, asked who reads those books and revealed in The Chronicle, "Our sales figures for works of literary criticism suggest that the answer is, fewer people than ever before." Sixty-five percent of Penn State's recent offerings at that point sold fewer than 500 copies. A few years later, also in The Chronicle, Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press, said his humanities monographs "usually sell between 275 and 600 copies." In 2002 the Modern Language Association issued a report on scholarly publishing that cited editors estimating purchases of as low as 200 to 300 units. Remember, too, that standing library orders account for around 250 copies. (That's my guess—also, a few librarians have told me that the odds that such books will never be checked out are pretty good.)

Why the disjuncture? Because performance ran its course, and now it's over. The audience got bored.

For decades the performative model obscured a situation that should have been recognized at the time: Vast areas of the humanities had reached a saturation point. Hundreds of literary works have undergone introduction, summation, and analysis many times over. Hamlet alone received 1,824 items of attention from 1950 to 1985, and then 2,406 from 1986 to 2008. What else was to be said? Defenders of the endeavor may claim that innovations in literary studies like ecocriticism and trauma theory have compelled reinterpretations of works, but while the advent of, say, queer theory opened the works to new insights, such developments don't come close to justifying the degree of productivity that followed. Also, the rapid succession of theories, the Next Big Thing, and the Next … evoked the weary impression that it was all a professional game, a means of finding something more to say.

At what point does common sense step in and cry, "Whoa! Slow down! Hamlet can't give you anything more." The system has reached absurd proportions. Better to admit that books by M.H. Abrams, Hartman, and a few others covered Wordsworth's poems for most practical purposes several decades ago, or that Joseph N. Riddel (my adviser) unveiled the enigmatic lyrics of Wallace Stevens well enough in 1965. Hundreds of excellent books and articles on Henry James have seen print and amply render the meaning of his oeuvre. Further additions to the 6,000-plus items that have been published since 1950 are, to be blunt, in nearly every case unnecessary.

I don't know how much the situation obtains in other fields, but I assume that it is so in film, art history, philosophy (in its historical side), and certain areas of history to a greater or lesser extent. Such contentions may strike practition-ers as anti-intellectual, reactionary, or mean-spirited. They threaten the tender identities that humanists have formed as self-described "creators of new knowledge." But the motives and actions of humanists are not the target of my argument.

Instead, the question of supersaturation applies to the institutions that demand and reward humanities research: departments, deans, and fund providers. Tendering jobs and money, they force individuals to overproduce scholarly goods, creating an army of researchers meeting nonexistent audience needs. In 2006 the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion noted, "Over 62 percent of all departments report that publication has increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last 10 years." Furthermore, the percentage of departments' valuing research above teaching had more than doubled since 1968 (35.4 percent to 75.7 percent).

That trend makes no sense. The MLA report, which every dean and chairman should read, underscores the shrinking audience, particularly cuts in library purchases of humanities books. The task force, however, holds off from recommending that the research mandate be scaled downward, instead advising departments to respect essays and "new media" publications, and to end the "dominance of the monograph." But it is hard not to judge a flat reduction in research requirements as the direct solution to the difficulties that junior faculty members face.

Foundations, university humanities research centers, and other organizations that subsidize humanities research also should recognize the audience decline. When they financed research in 1960 on, say, American literature, they helped scholars fill gaps and fissures in literary history and understanding. But in 2009, after the publication of 225,749 more items of scholarship and criticism on American literature, the same support means … what?

Unless institutions adjust criteria, the incentives will continue, and so will labor-intensive but audience-indifferent publishing in saturated areas.

Two policy changes would go a long way to remedying the problem.

One, departments should limit the materials they examine at promotion time. If aspirants may submit only 100 pages to reviewers, they will publish less and ensure that those 100 pages are superb.

Two, subsidizers should shift their support away from saturated areas and toward unsaturated areas, in particular toward research into teaching and even more toward classroom and curricular initiatives.

Recent findings from several national surveys of undergraduates give that redistribution some urgency. For instance, in the 2007 Your First College Year survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, only 29 percent of students reported studying more than 10 hours per week. Seventy-nine percent of them "frequently" or "occasionally" turned in material that did not "reflect their best work," 70 percent skipped class, 62 percent "came late," and 44 percent fell asleep. Their engagement with instructors outside of class is similarly tenuous. On the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, 38 percent of first-year students "never" discussed ideas from readings or classes, and 39 percent did so only "sometimes."

We should add to that finding another response, which on the surface appears altogether positive. Asked about quality of relationships with faculty members, 78 percent of first-year students on the student-engagement survey graded their instructors 5 or higher on a scale of 1 to 7 (65 percent of respondents in the first-year survey answered "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the amount of faculty-student contact). In other words, they liked their professors, they felt comfortable with them, but they didn't much care to spend time discussing books and ideas with them. They didn't realize that 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. We need support for research into the problem and more-concrete incentives for professors to integrate out-of-class interaction into the syllabus.

Before another year of hirings and promotions and awards passes, decision makers should sit down and examine the larger consequences of requiring a monograph for tenure, approving projects on well-worn subjects, and pretending that books and essays that nobody reads are a proper allocation of resources and way of judging people. I know of few professors in the humanities happy with the productivity mandate, and I know that it has done damage to the general humanistic learning of undergraduates for 40 years.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University. His latest book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30), was published last year by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.