• September 2, 2015

Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research

Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research 1

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

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James Yang for The Chronicle Review

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.


1. pmckechn - July 23, 2009 at 06:28 am

Do we blame the subeditor here? Mark Bauerlein ought to know (but maybe he does) that 'Humanities' isn't only literary criticism. As he says, 'I don't know how much the situation obtains in other fields'. He can finds out if he cares. If he doesn't, no matter. The rest of us are producing new knowledge. Yeah, we weren't sure about the critics.

2. rachelreynolds - July 23, 2009 at 06:32 am

"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." If we want to act neoliberal and go with numbers, this tendency towards over-production is a much wider issue and literary scholars should not be blamed for it (at least not nearly as much as Bauerlein says). One wonders how much scholars in STEM fields have made repetitive and unread studies per capita or better yet, per FTE, between 1986 and 2008. My hypothesis is that one would find many many more scholars in STEM fields being read even less, at much greater cost, and serving fewer students. And besides, how "unread" are these literary scholars? He cites no impact factors, numbers of citations relative to publication, or for that matter, cost-per-research item (i.e. if someone wants to publish a superfluous piece on Hamlet over the summer, how much flesh does that really pull out of the university?).

3. 22027212 - July 23, 2009 at 07:21 am

Part of the increase in publishing requirements has to do with marketing. The school is selling its brand to customers and having well-published professors on faculty is "sexy." So in a way, the "audience" Bauerlein seeks is there: in parents, students, and college ranking systems.

4. englishwlu - July 23, 2009 at 07:25 am

At the same time that Theory was changing the goals of many literary critics--now they would stop being scholars and critics of a limited canon and start being those glamorous creatures, theorists--room for scholars and critics opened up in the areas of literature that hadn't been admitted already: beyond Faullkner, Woolf, Whitman, and Shakespeare. The decades of fruitless unread productivity Bauerlein laments are the same decades of literary recovery work that brought African-American writings, Renaissance women writers, and countless contemporary and postcolonial works of literature into print and into the classroom. And yes, Theory itself was involved in the task of clearing the ground so these diverse works and hitherto unrecognised writers could gain legitimacy as reasonable topics for scholarship and criticism and appropriate subjects of study in the undergraduate classroom. That said, I agree that it would be sensible to tenure colleagues based on the quality of their published work, rather than the achievement of "hard covers" on a book that few beyond the tenure committee will read. But publication, reviews, citations, and that Holy Grail, classroom adoption is not only a mechanism for personal advancement. It is also the way a field recognizes and charts change.

5. wmamsts - July 23, 2009 at 08:15 am

I accept the overpublication argument, and I really like the quality over quantity solution for tenure and the like. But I also have to wonder if MB may miss a deeper change in English over the last decades (I agree he needs to know more about other disciplines before he makes claims about them). Maybe the subject of English is changing, that it no longer is about authors in quite the same way is was in the 70s & 80s. It's more about, well, the language cultures of humans. Sure, there are a bajillion pieces on Hamlet, but there are also all these English profs writing about, well, how the internet stupefies young Americans, and the history of joy, and what white women saw in American Indians in the 19C. And it strikes me that that's what's getting read. And taught. And it's not bad.

6. stmartins - July 23, 2009 at 09:10 am

Read the English class recitation in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and you'll see what happens when professors stop trying to write original commentary on texts. MB has an argument, but it's age old. I was told in 1958 that there was nothing left to be said about Keats. My professors published little and were not all great teachers. My fellow students, however, were both productive and excited about learning. The point of professors continuing research is that we ought to avoid spending a lifetime teaching from our dissertation and we also ought to submit our work to peer evaluation--including the evaluation of our students. If we have the obligation to evaluate their work, then we should submit to them as well. Being inventive in critical method as well as being inventive in finding neglected authors to comment on can only help keep the intellectual life of the university alive. That's why we do all this work. If we suggest there's nothing left to say about great writers, then we permit the insights of the last century to fossilize. We'll sound like the professor in Joyce's novel.

7. gjay1952 - July 23, 2009 at 09:56 am

MB's examples are all drawn from canonical texts, thus demonstrating what another commentator has pointed out: the need for research into previously marginalized authors and texts, whose work was overlooked precisely because of the mindset of people like MB. That said, MB also overlooks another current solution to the situation, which is to increase our efforts to connect the humanities to the public through public scholarship, service learning, and community engagement projects. At many campuses these have reconnected the humanities to a wider public, disseminated the results of research, given students new opportunities to learn, and brought fresh perspectives into the classroom.

8. markbauerlein - July 23, 2009 at 10:33 am

These are fair points, but the assertion of vibrancy in the humanities overlooks the numbers on usage. The AEI paper linked to provides ample data on unit sales, annual titles, library orders, and unit cost, not to mention more testimony from press editors. How, a Yale editor told me awhile back that 30 years ago the press could count on sales of literary monographs of 1200 copies. Now, it's around 250-300. That includes standing library orders, which means that sales to individuals run in the mid-two figures. Let's face it. Hardly anybody reads these books.

9. humgrad - July 23, 2009 at 10:54 am

I don't understand some of Bauerlein's thinking here. Is he really lamenting the fact that scholars are doing too much thinking and writing? I, for one, think it's great that Hamlet has received over four thousand "items of attention" in the last sixty years. It is a sign of vibrant, engaged, and dynamic scholarly activity in our country. Is there really nothing more to be said about many of the great works of literature of the past? Would Bauerlein similarly assert that there is nothing more to be learned about space, the human body, technology, etc? There is always more to be learned, and I am happy for the many exertions that have brought us a wonderful body of scholarship on anything and everything. Reading and studying this scholarship helps to inform and enhance my teaching. And the dichotomy between teaching and research is often a false one- I know many scholars whose research greatly enhances their students' classroom experience, and there are likely many academics who are both poor researchers and (consequently?) poor teachers. Furthermore, is it really a good idea to limit pre-tenure scholarly production to 100 pages? LIMITING INITIATIVE? I have long appreciated Bauerlein's conservative voice in academia, so the idea that scholars should be limited in their output (reminiscent of certain Iron Curtain policies) seems particularly out of character, as well as ill-advised. Finally, if humanities monographs merely end up on a shelf and are rarely, if ever, checked out of the library- we could also blame this on a culture that does not value scholarly engagement like it might. We could blame students who don't really want to be students, when it comes down to it, or the institutions that fail to prepare them sufficiently to become real students, or the culture that does not value true studenthood. And if interactions between professors and their students outside of the classroom are wanting, rather than blame self-isolating and research-obsessed faculty, might we not also blame the students who (statistically, as Bauerlein points out) seem to have little interest in this kind of interaction? Or might we not also blame the fact that many of us in the humanities have upwards of a hundred students a year (a dynamic driven, perhaps, by the business-modeled administrators who seek efficiency by packing in as many customers as they can, so as to make the "product" more cost-efficient?) and thus could not possibly have the kind of one-on-one interaction with every student that might be possible in smaller programs? And should we really look forward to a "flat reduction in research requirements"? When there is a problem afoot (and undoubtedly we have many in higher education), lowering the standards has almost never seemed like a useful option to me.

10. moreno1 - July 23, 2009 at 10:59 am

There is a difference between hardly anyone reading the book and hardly anyone buying the book. Bauerlein is only looking at the latter. I have to really believe a monograph will be important for my own research to buy it; but I often read it, in full or in part (whether my library owns it or I get it through interlibrary loan). I might incorporate pieces of it into my teaching as well (as reading assignments or just in my approaches to the text). One reason literary critical monographs are being checked out less (if they are) may be because many students rely almost solely on what they can get on the internet in pdf or html form and ignore the library's bookstacks. Surely, in an English department of (for an example) 7 faculty with 60-75 students a semester in upper-level courses and maybe a handful of MA students, the students would represent a good portion of the checking out of books from libraries.

11. plogan - July 23, 2009 at 11:05 am

"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." It's a pity that, according to MB, everything has been said that is to be said, everything known that can be known, at least in literary study (if not the humanities altogether). And that it was said by MB's own mentor and others of that generation of scholars. MB was trained to think in a particular way by this mentor. Of course, he thinks the person who shaped his own scholarly values is a kind of demi-god among mortals. Who else can think in a Riddleian manner as well as Riddel could? And who else, but a product of Riddle's own methodolgy, could imagine for a moment that the world of scholarship should reflect those same values, those same ways of understanding Wordsworth, from now until eternity? Fortunately for the humanities, others have questioned Riddle's entire enterprise (Hartmann, for one), and understood it as the product of a particular generation. The problem with Puritans, said Matthew Arnold, was that they thought they had "the" answer and stopped asking questions. He believed that self-satisfaction was the worst ignorance of all. I don't believe for a minute that we have "the" answer--about Wordsworth, literature, history, or humanistic inquiry in general. If MB is upset about the state of current scholarship, let him focus on tenure requirements and problems in academic publishing. Many of us value the research enterprise and understand that each generation of scholars asks different questions and sees even familiar topics in history and literature from different perspectives than the generation before. That constant renewal is what keeps the humanities alive, and, for all its faults, the present messy form of humanistic scholarship is far more alive than the embalmed corpse MB wants us to worship. Peter Logan, Temple University

12. willardmdix - July 23, 2009 at 11:55 am

Perhaps it's time to release professors from the yoke of "publish or perish" and let them truly focus on teaching undergradates. Perhaps when colleges say that teaching comes first they might really mean it, and spend more time evaluating professors on the basis of their actual interaction with students rather than their production of esoteric monographs that few read, at least in the "overpopulated" fields. Of course there are always more things to be said and argued, but if bright teachers could focus more on teaching bright kids, college might be a better place for everyone.

13. winterbourne - July 23, 2009 at 01:34 pm

As others have pointed out, MB's dichotomy between professors who believe that everything that could be said about literature has already been said and professors who privilege petty research over teaching is a false one. I think my own experience provides a pretty strong indication of why this is so. I teach in a small (less than 10 faculty members) department at a private university that over the past 30 years has successfully transformed itself from a teaching- into a research-intensive institution. Several of my colleagues are near retirement age; when they were hired around 1970, my university still had a 4/4 load and required basically no publishing. It now has a 2/2 load and very strict publishing requirements for new faculty. The oldtimers in my department are definite adherents of the "it's all been said long ago and I'm going to focus on my teaching" philosophy, while the assistant professors need to research like crazy. And yet, both our standardized course evaluation system and my informal mentoring relationships with students suggest that undergraduates almost universally prefer taking classes with research-focused professors. Why? The answer is obvious. Most students no longer intrinsically care about literature (if they ever did - I'm not trying to be elegiac). The older professors, who think that the merits of canonical works were established a long time ago, are like residents of another planet for them. The younger professors, however, are struggling with the question "why should anyone care about this" every day in their research, and they bring that same attitude into the classroom. Long story short: if MB really believes that research and teaching are discrete and frequently counter-productive activities, he doesn't know very much about either.

14. minnesotan - July 23, 2009 at 03:14 pm

As a young scholar, I feel an overwhelming (and purely selfish) desire to put the kay-bosh on arguments like this. It is only the already-tenured who would argue for fewer publishing opportunities in the humanities.

15. markbauerlein - July 23, 2009 at 03:35 pm

A few clarifications. One, assistant profs are free to publish all they want, but departments will only accept 100 pages in their tenure portfolio (chosen by the candidate). Two, Riddel a hard-core Derridean/de Manian, and I was too when I got my PhD. But three years of reading C. S. Peirce and a few others on inquiry and truth led me to believe that the epistemological aporias on which deconstruction plays are spurious and distracting. Three, this is an argument not on principle but on practicality. Yes, research and teaching are not in principle discrete, but they are in practice, ever more so. This is because the topics and approaches and idioms of humanities research have drifted far away from the general educational needs of 20-year-olds. It's pretty hard to connect the arguments in Critical Inquiry with a freshman classroom. Finally, nobody has commented on the huge slide in unit sales of books, which started in the 1980s.

16. jnicotra - July 23, 2009 at 06:01 pm

The problem is that this article is mistitled: instead of "humanities research," MB is clearly only talking about single-author, single-subject literary criticism, which, yes, is getting to be something of a dinosaur. I'm surprised that you say nothing about rhetoric and composition, for example, which is generating quite a bit of lively and interesting scholarship. While I don't necessarily disagree with your point that assistant professors in the humanities are sometimes held to perhaps excessive publication requirements, I also think it's dangerous from an institutional standpoint to argue that we should do less. Like it or not, the sciences set the standard for publishing expectations, and to say that there is simply too much research happening in the humanities is to give credence to the corporate university's prevailing viewpoint that the humanities are the service sector of the university (serving up liberal arts courses for engineering and science majors).

17. markbauerlein - July 23, 2009 at 07:44 pm

My examples in this article were for single author studies, yes, but in the AEI paper I take all language and literature pieces, and the trend holds. The analogy with the sciences is precisely the problem. We have to remember that the sciences do, in fact, create new knowledge. The humanities, except for their empirical component, do not. A new theory, an interpretation of a play, a generalization about culture or genre . . . these do not count as knowledge.

18. humgrad - July 24, 2009 at 11:46 am

Though assistant professors up for tenure may be free to publish all they want, if only 100 pages will get looked at, guess what? We've just disincentivized scholarship.

19. winterbourne - July 24, 2009 at 01:59 pm

@MB - First, thank you for responding to the criticism that has been leveled against you, and doing so in a calm & reasonable manner. I wish more discussion on the Chronicle website were like this. That said, I still have a hard time agreeing with your basic premises. First, you have a strange conception of contemporary literary studies if you regard "Critical Inquiry" as the journal of record and think that too many young professors are being seduced by deconstruction. Let's be honest here: deconstruction is dead (except, ironically, at Emory, where it is wheezing out its last days on life-support). Take this from somebody who entered grad school 10 years ago in the naive belief that he would become a latter-day de Manian, and abandoned that course just in time to still get a job (no regrets, by the way). Contemporary criticism focuses, among other things, on the relationship between cultural works and issues of race, of citizenship, of migration and emigration, of human rights, of translation and transnational appropriation. These are issues of great relevance to 21st century students, and most of them recognize this. And yes, maybe a lot of what we do is still unfortunately jargon-ridden, but that doesn't mean we have to bring all that baggage into the classroom. I require my students to conduct scholarly research in all of my classes (many of them web-publish their findings), and we do just fine without invocating "hybridity" or "textual aporias." I'd like to believe these projects make me stronger as a researcher as well. Second point: the decline of academic monographs. Duly noted, though this is hardly an original observation. But why should this mean we have to stop publishing? Why shouldn't we instead draw the conclusion that we need to publish *differently* and become more reader-friendly? Tell me, are you on a 4-4 load at Emory? If you aren't, would you voluntarily go on such a schedule to devote yourself fully to teaching? I'm guessing this would cut into the time you have to publish books and opinion pieces like this one - which is precisely the point. We need more Mark Bauerleins, who can write about intellectual matters in a way that actually reaches an audience. Final point: as somebody who is currently compiling a pre-tenure review portfolio (roughly 500 pages and counting), I can certainly empathize with your "100 pages max" idea. But it's ludicrous to assume that today's assistant professors are just firing off article after article willy-nilly to pad their portfolios (it also contradicts your point about the constricting market). About 80% of my portfolio is devoted to documenting teaching activity (did you really think good teaching can make do without a long paper trail?) and another 10% or so is devoted to "intangibles" like organizing conferences and panels, reviewing other people's work, participating in university-wide activities. Lesson to be learned here: modern humanities research isn't just people sitting alone in a room, producing articles that nobody reads. It's scholars coming together, sharing ideas, building communities - communities that, if they're constructed well, will also involve students and open their minds to new ideas, new perspectives - and perhaps even new "knowledge".

20. markbauerlein - July 24, 2009 at 04:12 pm

It's amazing, winterbourne, how the paperwork for tenure has exploded. When I came up in 1995, all I needed was a teaching philosophy statement (1 page) and student evaluation numbers for a dozen or so courses. I attribute the paper pushing to something specific in the humanities: loss of confidence in qualitative judgment. The skeptical side of theory, politicization, interdisciplinarity--they corroded people's ability to say "This is good; that isn't good." So, we opted for more and more paper, including more productivity. In many places, tenure is just a matter of, "Does he or she have a book? Yes? Okay, then."

21. mshulgasser - July 28, 2009 at 09:36 am

"But three years of reading C. S. Peirce and a few others on inquiry and truth led me to believe that the epistemological aporias on which deconstruction plays are spurious and distracting." Pardon the digression, but could you elaborate on the above remark a bit? Is deconstruction totally useless, or merely overdone?

22. shalomfreedman - July 28, 2009 at 09:39 am

I had always assumed that there is no necessary finite end to the commentary which can be done on a great work of art. Generations upon generations have added their commentary to certain great works. Why to suppose the future will not also have its original and great commentators? True we are faced with an accelerating mass of verbiage in and about every human endeavor. But meaningful discourse still can emerge through communities of common interests and approaches. The Death of Literary Criticism is thus I believe as premature as the Death of the Novel repeatedly has been.

23. markbauerlein - July 28, 2009 at 10:11 am

To mshulgasser: I think the ontological writings of Derrida ("Differance," for instance) are of lasting value, but the epistemological side on knowledge and interpretation doesn't, in my opinion, hold up to arguments by Peirce and other philosophers of inquiry. Yes, shalomfreedman, "there is no necessary finite end to the commentary which can be done on a great work of art." But there is a practical end to it, especially when we've had an avalanche in the preceding decades and we have to eight the incentives for it as we move more and more, in the humanities, toward disengaged students and uninterested administrators.

24. exitr - July 28, 2009 at 11:02 am

"We have to remember that the sciences do, in fact, create new knowledge. The humanities, except for their empirical component, do not. A new theory, an interpretation of a play, a generalization about culture or genre . . . these do not count as knowledge." Jeezum crow, what a cramped, restrictive definition of "knowledge" you seem to be working with. "Facts" or "information" would be a better term for what you describe - and these can hardly be the sole (or even primary) object of academic research.

25. markbauerlein - July 28, 2009 at 11:18 am

Yes, a restrictive definition of knowledge, exitr, as it should be. What is your definition?

26. goldenapple - July 28, 2009 at 11:36 am

I wish Mr. Bauerlein had mentioned that translations are still not considered scholarly publications. Both scholars and the general public would benefit from more translations (literary and non-literary), but universities actively discourage professors from producing them.

27. exitr - July 28, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Is the notion that knowledge is not equivalent to the accumulation of empirical data really in need of defending? Really? That would seem pretty fundamental to any idea of the humanities as something worth doing. This is hardly an exhaustive definition, but I would say that knowledge is a process, not a product, and that "producing" knowledge involves an examination of the premises of knowing. I'd add that that this is a pretty conservative definition, one that Kant (and probably Plato) would have no trouble recognizing.

28. markbauerlein - July 28, 2009 at 01:29 pm

Good point, goldenapple. To exitr, I don't see your definition, other than you saying it's more than "empirical data" and it's a "process." That doesn't tell us much of anything. And I don't see why you think the humanities need to be tied to knowledge. Better to tie them to humanitas.

29. lassider - July 28, 2009 at 07:29 pm

Could you guys be wasting any more time? It's absurd how much academic writing goes on in proportion to how much is read and how much has anything even remotely novel and/or relevant to say. Such a waste to have so many bright-to-brilliant minds spending (pun intended) their energies on what if for all intents/purposes intellectual onanism. How about 99% of you ivorytower scriveners go into medicine or engineering (or anything else arguably productive)and actually acomplish something of tangible value to the culture that feeds, shelters and clothes you?

30. pjm929 - July 29, 2009 at 10:39 am

In all the discussion about the validity of research, one has to wonder, particularly about literature, if anyone really enjoys the works in and of themselves? Or, as I suspect, are books (canonical and others) merely a means to an end? That seems the more likely picture, with scores of academics more interested in what was written about a work than the work itself. In my own experiences in literature courses, knowing when and where to drop the names of theorists who came before rode high above demonstrating a true understanding of the text in question. Students were reduced to dogs sniffing around the fire hydrant of literary theory looking for an opening to leave a mark upon.

31. nowhat - July 29, 2009 at 11:18 am

In my humble opinion, this issue has already been resolved by print-on-demand technology. The need to stock quantities of books that will never sell has therefore been eliminated. By the way, every year, millions of perfectly good cell phones, computers and other household items are discarded, simply because we no longer want them. Academic publishing makes up a minute part of this abundant productivity.

32. joshuasiegal - July 29, 2009 at 05:35 pm

@lassider - the fields of science and business require more humanities instruction (we could start by mandating ethics), not less. The evidences for this are unfortunately pandemic, not least including the proclivity of colleges and universities to base decisions on dollar signs and to form ethically dubious partnerships with private companies whose influence now pervades scientific research and the training of our young financial wizards. Anyway, why not re-examine the entire tradition of tenure? Can it be proven to protect academic freedom when the existence of this freedom is now in serious doubt? Why not trash the whole system and let a prof's accomplishments - in the classroom and beyond - speak for themselves?

33. harfield - July 29, 2009 at 06:59 pm

Trends come and go, that's to be expected. Disillusionment is a discord of memory, expectation, vision, authority, and historical circumstance. One can't really say that Derrideans are rebutted by Peirce, for it was never epistemology that procurred the large following. It has to be placed in the growing cultural liberalism movement of the time. I can say, as a student who defected from English to something more "practical" (law), that this piece really resonates with me. I regret this position is micharacterized if the proponents are perpetually caricatured as grizzled eulogizers of by-gone days. We can think of another C.S.. Lewis, that is, and the observation that when we emphasize production, we forego reception. WHile periodic revolutions in the humanities do clear the air, I fear we do have something new on our hands, for while the "end" of criticism has always been disputed, the spirit of educational progress has placed duty in deferment. No wonder so many English graduates are poorly qualified for leadership. Or worse, they are not even well-constituted societal participants.

34. tailorsggson - July 30, 2009 at 01:33 pm

Humanities research that produces new knowledge (accepting Mark Bauerlein's definition for the moment)? The digital humanities would seem to be a prime example of this - which might be ironic, although the brain-deadening effect of the reading the chronicle online and the general density of my age cohort prevents me from being sure.

35. petrouchka - July 31, 2009 at 12:44 am

an interesting book that has dealt with this topic is Professor Bernard Bergonzi's 'Exploding English'. as a student with an interest in literature, I myself have been suprised by the lack of interest by the general public in the subject. it would seem that people would want to study something that will sharpen their minds and give them greater insight into the unique human condition, or as my french professor said in class, "Why not read something that will enrich your soul." but I must admit that as much as I have tried reading literary criticism, the reading can be very difficult, requiring a very subtle intellect. the truth is that most people are not intellectuals, their minds (mine included) are not that highly sophisticated. thus, they are content with pop culture. so I am not sure there's anything that can be done about this. as for myself, i have sort of given up on literary criticism and have been reading books on history instead. as far as the issue is concerned for those in academia, just because there is not a wide readership for all of these publications doesn't necessarily mean that they are useless. it's not like all those publications are being read by a professor, so when he or she publishes his or her own book, he or she may independently come up with some of the same conclusions. even if it seems like there's not much more of importance to say on a literary work, the process of writing a book of criticism may be beneficial just as students write papers that may not have any value to anyone to themselves. and it may be a useful way for the department to handle tenure. whether it is really time and money well spent for the department and professor involved, i don't think i am qualified to say. and the sciences are advancing the cause of humanity, not just producing "information/facts."

36. richardvanoort - July 31, 2009 at 11:50 am

I'm sympathetic to Mark Bauerlein's analysis, but I would trace the "diminishing returns" of the humanities much further back than 1980. I think you hit the nail on the head with this follow-up comment: "The analogy with the sciences is precisely the problem. We have to remember that the sciences do, in fact, create new knowledge. The humanities, except for their empirical component, do not." The thing about the humanities is that they are, as Ernest Gellner put it in 1964, "cognitively feeble." What does the humanities student learn? Basically a slightly ennobled set of concepts that are continuous with the moral and social world of everyday life and therefore utterly accessible to anyone with sufficient time and inclination. This fact is often turned into a virtue, a charter theory for doing a humanities degree: it produces well-rounded individuals who know how to communicate clearly. No doubt this is true. But contrast this with the natural sciences. Even the most mediocre science student comes away knowing something that separates him/her from the non-specialist, and this specialized knowledge of totally unintuitive concepts provides him/her with a genuinely useful skill. In other words, the returns on knowledge are productive rather than "diminishing." So the "diminishing returns" of the humanities must be seen in terms of the increasing returns of the sciences. The irony is that the humanities professors, in their futile effort to keep abreast of the sciences, have upped the ante on their "productivity." But the claim that this productivity is "useful" is, as you point out, laughable. I disagree, however, that things were all that different when critics discussed the "meaning" of poems rather than the "theory" of making meaning. Harold Goddard's 1951 "The Meaning of Shakespeare" is every bit as idiosyncratic as Stephen Greenblatt's 1988 "Shakespearean Negotiations." Both are brilliant, but the dichotomy you make between the older critics, who stopped when they had finished explaining the meaning of the work, and the newer ones, who abandoned this idea to embrace the project of making meaning itself, seems artificial. Goddard has a wonderful line about Hamlet being like looking into the mirror: each reader sees something different. The real dichotomy, it seems to me, is not between generations of critics but between the humanities and the natural sciences. You ask: Why yet another reading of Hamlet? I ask: Why ANY reading of Hamlet? I think that once you decide you need one reading of Hamlet, you have no way of stopping the onslaught.

37. todddotjackson - July 31, 2009 at 03:03 pm

As a runaway academic, I would like to propose another solution to this problem. It's called "Contemporary Literature." We ought to remember that when the academic field of English, as we know it today, ripened toward its mature form, it did so largely out of response to authors such as Eliot and Pound, Faulkner and Hemingway, Williams and Joyce. None yet dead; none yet 60. Does Allen Grossman have "2,257 books, chapters, dissertations?" How about John Edgar Wideman? Madison Smartt Bell? Hell, how many close readings, how many deconstructions, has even Philip Roth got? While we comb the dead for mediocrities our/your professional predecessors generally had the good sense to ignore, perhaps the field ought to consider that good-to-important writers are still working, and that *some* damn sort of relationship ought to exist between literary criticism and literature as a living art. Be not afraid: throw in a few polysyllables and no one will confuse such work with (let us gasp) book-reviewing. I promise, there will always be new good writers, providing the raw material that will put literary studies into a cycle of continuous renewal. We are not condemned to feigning excitement that This dull writer indicates the shift from gas to electrical lighting in St. Louis, or that That dull writer invented buggery in 1869. Is it really acceptable that one can fancy oneself a literary scholar and have no serious interest in authors who, having not yet hanged themselves, just might scribble another book or two? Perhaps we can best address Mark Bauerlein's concerns by putting the august dead on "slow boil." Perhaps the tenured Frost expert's posture toward her eager grad students ought to be "No. I wrote everything about Frost worth writing. He's mine. You find somebody else. Now GO. Get me the fresh meat."

38. markbauerlein - August 01, 2009 at 10:39 am

Not sure, tailorsggson, how "digital humanities" creates new knowledge, although I'm sure it does. And petrouchka, one of the things that the productivity model did is make criticism ever more arcane and professionalized. Each new work had to be an advance over the last. Literary criticism couldn't retain a general audience with that mandate in place. As for contemporary literature, well, younger people simply don't have the time to become conversant in it. They have to read all that theory and scholarship through grad school, and they grow ever more academic as semesters pass. What you want is more of a literary temperament, and that's something that academia kills.

39. jim1967 - August 01, 2009 at 02:12 pm

Mark, if you got out of graduate school thinking that no one could improve on your adviser's work, then you had a very poor education. Your math is also a little funny. You say that far more things are being published, but that fewer people read each one. Why is this a problem? Did you lament it when Baskin Robbins introduced more flavors, because now fewer people are eating vanilla? Why is it not surprising that a study written for a conservative think tank comes to the innumerate and unscientific conclusion that things were better in the old days?

40. markbauerlein - August 01, 2009 at 05:18 pm

Have you read the AEI paper, Jim? There you will see that the audience problem is more than just more titles with each one garnering fewer readers. Just look, for instance, at what the press editors say (I quote several of them), and look at trends for library orders. If you find any "innumerate and unscientific conclusions" there, please cite them.

41. nowhat - August 03, 2009 at 01:23 pm

I apologize, if this is oversimplifying Mr. Bauerlein's argument: The fact that research libraries cannot keep up with the pace of humanities publications is a real concern to me. Luckily, interlibrary loan services can usually make up for any local deficiencies. With regard to the bigger argument here, I do not see a problem with either applying an existing critique to a new subject/topic or constructing an original critique and applying it to a well plowed-over subject/topic. I do see it as a problem, however, that debates in the humanities have fractured in some ways, even as they have become more interdisciplinary in many other ways. Yes, sometimes the distinctions between various theoretical works in the humanities are virtually non-existent, but was this any different in the 1970s? Every decade has its treasure trove of ignored publications. The only difference is, our population has multiplied, and graduate departments have grown accordingly. We can also add that more scholars globally are publishing in English today and are no longer subject to any political ideologies that mostly would have disqualified them from competing for shelf space in our libraries during the Cold War.

42. royspeed - August 03, 2009 at 05:34 pm

Thank you, Mark Bauerlein, for writing this piece, and thanks so much for engaging with everyone here in such a patient and respectful manner. It's an interesting discussion. For my own part, I'm a businessman, but I happen to be someone who buys and actually reads works of literary criticism. The preening and posturing and jargon of many professors I find annoying. I take up their works to get closer to the original writer, and more often than not, today's professors are unhelpful. They seem oblivious to me, the non-professional reader, and my (very real) needs. It is ironic, in view of its being swatted around in this debate, that Hamlet is one of the works I've been reading closely in recent months. I had read it in college but was unsatisfied, so my reading included some comparison of the different texts (Folio, First Quarto, Second Quarto), where I found the textual labors of our many editors very helpful. But the essays included in many Hamlet editions are not just unhelpful; many are profoundly silly. The more I searched for decent analysis of Hamlet the more I found myself turning to books and essays written in the '50s, '60s, and '70s -- before the vogue for "performance" criticism dominated the field. Finally, I would like to second your vote for a greater emphasis on scholarly publishing related to effective teaching. And this is one area where I think "knowledge" is not just a distinct possibility, but a real imperative.

43. tailorsggson - August 04, 2009 at 10:06 am

New knowledge in Digital Humanities: - Quantitative: Just about any analysis of style, authorship, or metrics (at this point several decades of material) - Textual: Any of a number of digital archives that disseminate high-quality facsimile of rare/unique documents and provide the raw material for quantitative analyses (check any TEI-compliant project) - Theoretical: Anything written by Jerome McGann, Peter Shillingsburg, Willard McCarty and several others in the last two decades (although perhaps new theory doesn't qualify as knowledge under the restrictive definition preferred here?) Granted, Bauerlein does exempt "empirical" studies in the humanities from his critique. One could answer, though, that empirical work without theoretical rationalization (whether in a new or established sub-discipline) is mechanized drudgery unlikely to lead to "knowledge" in any meaningful sense.

44. mjm64 - August 05, 2009 at 10:39 am

The article is not perfect. My heart sinks at the thought of reading Wallace Stevens with the help of only those who wrote about his poetry pre-1970. Criticism requires new readings if only to capture the entirely new Wallace Stevens who exists for us now and who never existed before now. And that re-creation is certainly contributing to the sum of human knowledge. As well, I think the field can bear some plain repetition just for the sake of keeping more and more people active and speaking to one another. Criticism should not be just one, centralised conversation. Nonetheless, it strikes me as absurd to deny that Bauerlein is articulating an obvious truth, a truth which there seems to be a sort of conspiracy to keep unarticulated. That is simply that critics are talking to one other and only to one another. Just as being trapped at a claustrophibic dinner party leads to a conversation of diminishing wider interest and relevance over time, so does this sort of group isolation. Even when addressing those cultural and political issues which seemingly touch upon the life of the populace, the populace themselves are studiously avoided as an audience. The best test for me, still, of a new reading or new theoretical approach to a text remains discussing it with first-year undergraduates. That's not to say they must be able to understand it before it can be seen to be valid....but I must wish very hard that they could understand it because it seems so important as an avenue to understanding life and the world.

45. harfield - August 05, 2009 at 10:16 pm

mjm64 hits the nail on the head, though "avenue to understanding life and the world" hints at a closet mysticism. New reads provide the opportunity to harmonize and integrate and find new relevance, and bring to light paradoxes of yore that require new insights. Part of the enemy is stress, of course. Busy people pass silly laws, make silly products, and make silly investments, which could be remedied by a good nap every now and then. What is ironic, however, of mjm64's views of spreading the gospel to the populace, is that the more they know, the more interested they are likely to become, and swell the ranks of the academy. People are swamped BECAUSE they are interested. Another irony is that diminishing returns has been quite fruitful for scholars who can posture in forms of apostacy. Harold Bloom is an obvious example, but so is Farrel's "Why Does Literature Matter?" (a frightfully good read), as well as all the "state of literature" conferences that mobilise troops in new territories. Humanities are a guarded discipline, always have been, always will be, so there will never come to pass an idealized state of affairs. But to the jaded scholars out there, who have defied the odds, pursued their degrees whilst battling perpetual disillusionment, I implore to find the strength and presence of mind to be the change we want to see (while trying not to be so huffed out about it). What's worse? Performance criticism or Eeyores?

46. markbauerlein - August 06, 2009 at 05:09 pm

I wish it were true, mjm64, tthat new readings and recreations are "certainly contributing to the sum of human knowledge." But the fact is that tons of recreations enter and quickly fall out of the sum of human knowledge all the time. Just because things are printed and stored doesn't mean things aren't overlooked, ignored, and forgotten. This is where we are with the vast majority of literary studies today. We have an overabundance of "recreation," and as a practical matter people just can't take much notice any more.

47. lmcmillen - August 06, 2009 at 05:18 pm

From Clifford Huffman: Grateful as one is for much of Professor Baurlein's article, its starting point is a bit surprising. He writes that in the 1980s, "The old model of the critic as secondary, derivative, even parasitical gave way" to a new and different "model." But the issue of the parasitical, second-rate and derivative nature of criticism -- the kind that explains texts and ignites intelligent excitement about them -- was surely decided a long time ago and rather differently. Matthew Arnold?s "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1865) argues that there are times, perhaps like the present one, when "creative literary genius" does not show itself, and, especially then, criticism, by isolating the units in which creativity expresses itself (for Arnold, "ideas," though there is plenty of room for elaboration on that point). The function of criticism is to make those elements occupy a prominent place in the intellectual life of the times, and "out of this stir and growth come the creative epochs of literature." Criticism, he argues, prepares a climate for the growth and acceptance of new works of literature. Similarly, in the US, the literary critics who clustered around the Partisan Review, names including Lionel and Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Delmore Schwartz, Dwight Macdonald, F.W. Dupee, Irving Howe, Steven Marcus and Norman Podhoretz, insisted on the interrelationship between history and culture and authors and the literature they produced. Although they used the term "intellectuals" perhaps more than "critics," they insisted, in words published just 100 years after Arnold's, that the work they did "constitutes an authority. The structure of our society is such that a class of this kind is bound by organic filaments to groups less culturally fluent, which are susceptible to its influence" (Preface to Beyond Culture, 1965). Another example is one from a revered teacher of my own, and I will just quote it, from the joint dedication, .to each other, of F.R. and Q.D. Leavis: We dedicate this book to each other as proof, along with Scrutiny (of which for twenty-one years we sustained the main burden and the responsibility), of forty years and more of daily collaboration in living, university teaching, discussion of literature and the social and cultural context from which literature is born, and above all, devotion to the fostering of that true respect for creative writing, creative minds, and, English literature being in question, the English tradition, without which literary criticism can have no validity and no life (Dickens the Novelist, 1970) Clifford Huffman Stony Brook University

48. zeleny - August 07, 2009 at 03:49 am

Mark Bauerlein argues that further additions to the existing body of work in literary studies are in nearly every case unnecessary. He assumes that it is likewise in film, art history, philosophy (in its historical side), and certain areas of history to a greater or lesser extent. In regard to his assumption, ongoing development of techniques for the logical analysis of arguments and the quantitative examination of textual styles has been responsible for significant advances in the historical side of philosophy, whereas most areas of history have additionally benefited from improvements in forensic technologies and discoveries in life sciences. In regard to his argument, the perceived failure to realize similar benefits and achieve similar advances in the studies of literature and art may be more plausibly attributed to a lack of imagination among their practitioners, rather than an exhaustion of open questions or a saturation of possible accomplishments in their fields.

49. mjm64 - August 07, 2009 at 08:05 am

Like many others here, I want to thank Mark for keeping this challenging debate going. I suppose my use of the phrase 'sum of human knowledge' was unfortunate -- as it makes it sound like a closed system of ever-expanding insights and facts. Rather, I'm suggesting that some of the current academic output deserves a sympathetic appreciation because human knowledge is not just one centralised database. It's a multitude of conversations. And different people in different contexts have to recreate and continue that conversation for themselves. And yes, bits fall out of view as other bits are reinstated over and over. So -- although I am fundamentally a cheerleader for what Mark is saying -- I'm qualifying it all slightly for the sake of avoiding some kind of totalising view of how knowledge advances. People can't take much notice anymore due to all kinds of demands on time. But in some cases notice is taken as a consequence of publishing, whereas the spontaneous rummaging through archives is a little less likely. The problem becomes one not just of quantity but of audience...when scholars can only talk to one another. Or, at times, to no one but themselves. (Note the date when the book was last checked out...) In connection with this, I'd like to clarify my point in response to harfield, as well. I do not suggest that the purpose of connecting with the populace is in order to spread the good word which the academy can serve up to them. Quite the contrary. The purpose of connecting with the populace (and the real reason why they are studiously avoided as an audience) is precisely because of the very useful purpose they can serve as vocal participants, at times letting a bit of light into the dusty ivory tower....and tethering those scholars who would otherwise gladly disappear into the night sky, like so many unguided hot air balloons. In good Popperian fashion, it would be nice if scholars were seen to be actively seeking out those audiences and contexts which pose a substantial threat to the coherence of their arguments. Then their sort of knowledge might become more interesting to more people.

50. fortunato92 - August 12, 2009 at 01:01 am

The basic premise that university profs teach undergrads as a tradeoff for being allowed to do their research is flawed. As MB shows, that research is pointless, useless, and defensible only with such abstract adjectives as "vibrant and dynamic." Name one piece of lit crit that's actually vibrant and dynamic to read. The reality is we only do this stuff for tenure and promotion and nothing else. Take that off the table and almost NOBODY would do this kind of research and writing. Far from making students stupid, the internet has taken the mystical tools of research out of the hands of the profs and made them available to the hoi polli. Any student can find more information in a 5 second Google search than a professor scurrying through a library of sources upon source putting together his soon to be unread monograph. Profs were always considered "intelligent" based on what they'd read and what they could quote but anyone with a laptop can quote learnedly in a matter of milliseconds. The entire scholarly enterprise with its arcane jargon and class hierarchy of information knowledge has been made obsolete by the post-literary world of the internet. May the scholarly article with its ridiculous scholarly colon go the way of newspapers and compact discs.

51. harfield - August 13, 2009 at 06:24 pm

"Name one piece of lit crit that's actually vibrant and dynamic to read" Some stuff parades around in nonsense, using cheerleading superlatives to guide itself towards an unnecessary end. But no one would actually choose to study literature at a higher level unless something inspiring and profound was there, at least at the outset, to draw them in. "Illuminating" might be the appropriate descriptor, and I can say poring through lit crit is loads of fun during spare time. Reading Cleanth Brooks, say, is often more fun than reading the writers themselves. "Profs were always considered "intelligent" based on what they'd read and what they could quote but anyone with a laptop can quote learnedly in a matter of milliseconds." I don't know anyone who would agree with this

52. ryanweb - September 16, 2009 at 08:38 pm

Article Offers Myopic Perspective But Recommendations I Can Agree With

I think one potentially good consequence of the shift from "explanation" to "performance," in spite of the difficulties and occasional absurdities, is a new connection between theoretical, scholarly activities (such as "Literary Criticism") with practical applications and formational education (for example, an emphasis on ethics and virtue in what it means to read, write, speak, debate, think, dialogue, etc.). So the question becomes, "How do we perform WELL, virtuously, humbly, etc.?" In this regard, the article's recommendation that we shift our priorities to teaching is something I would heartily agree with.

On the other hand, though, this guy seems to have both some presuppositions and an agenda that I would question: that he is involved with the American Enterprise Institute makes sense, given his strange metaphors of literature and criticism as commodities: "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..." Basically, I don't think you can calculate art or literature, even in its most esoteric and arcane nooks and crannies, to have monetary or pragmatic value. Market outcomes or monetization aren't the point! Thus, while the humanities have faced more and more cuts, the funding for science, technology, and research continues to increase. The increase in articles on Recombinant DNA technology is hardly considered a "supersaturation"--why? Because it represents "progress," by which we often mean "profit."

All that being said, both the research and the education that are the subject of this article are privileges which the majority of people will not be able to access. And furthermore, even within the US and other privileged zones, the fissure is growing between "literary studies" and the sort of "reading" that most people do on a daily basis (which may consist of advertisements, if that). So overall, I agree with the article's conclusion--as long as the rich character of literature and its formal study is not overlooked in the polemic for correcting certain crises and imbalances.

53. harfield - September 19, 2009 at 01:36 am

"All that being said, both the research and the education that are the subject of this article are privileges which the majority of people will not be able to access."

By what standard do you call contemporary humanities education a privilege? only an elitist would hold that.

"Basically, I don't think you can calculate art or literature, even in its most esoteric and arcane nooks and crannies, to have monetary or pragmatic value."

elitist, wouldn't you say?

"the fissure is growing between "literary studies" and the sort of "reading" that most people do on a daily basis (which may consist of advertisements, if that)"

It looks as though you have some commitments. The whole project of "English Literature" is grounded in periodization that remains unchallenged and dogmatic. Though it may have began out of the spirit of nationalism and, as we have been told, the spiritual vacancy of industrial britain, it drank the marxist/progressivist kool-aid in the early 20th century and saddled itself with "cultural" apostacy in which it can only mutter claims to "liberation" and "resistant (performative?) reading" to justify itself. All these problems are avoided by resetting temporal coordinates that, in your words, "deprivilege" the historical significance of "English" feudalism.

p.s. the only thing necessary to "commoditize" literature is calling it "literature."

54. petrouchka - September 30, 2009 at 11:52 pm

see this on translations being counted as scholarly work:


55. petrouchka - September 30, 2009 at 11:52 pm

see this on translations being counted as scholarly work:


56. petrouchka - October 01, 2009 at 12:23 am

i am not sure what academic publishers used to charge for monographs? perhaps if they charged less than they do now, that could be a reason for the decline in sales? otherwise, as someone who is 25 years old, i might guess that the decline is sales could be due to a cultural shift, where young people are less interested in literature than they used to be? in general, i think people are reading less these days because of the internet.

another question one has to ask is whether it really matters that these monographs are selling less. from my very brief, independent studies, i am aware that the question of the usefulness of literature goes back to Plato. if I recall correctly, Matthew Arnold believed poetry would transform humanity while T.S. Eliot thought poetry had no social function. as I read elsewhere, what did all of the european intellecualls' learning do to prevent the barbarousness of WWII. and what did religion do to stop it as well. and look at how vitriolic some critics like Leavis could be attacking the positions held by other critics. i think if we are looking and hoping for a more enlightened society, the most powerful vehicle of getting us there will be spirituality, which does not have to necessarily be associated with art and all the intellectual gymnastics that it can involve. and by spirituality, i mean things like meditation, practices we learn from the east, that were part of the way of living of the founders of chrisitianity and western mystics but that have been lost to the west. i would guess that if people en masse start transforming themselves through the power of some kind of spirituality, then these same people will be naturally more interested in what can be learnt from the arts, but again, this may not necessarily be so.

57. petrouchka - October 04, 2009 at 06:48 pm

anyone interested in this discussion should read the section 'The Critic and the Institutions of Culture' in *The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. VII*.

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