Being a post which is mostly aimed at academics

I wrote this a couple of months ago, but didn’t post it because I thought it might not be of sufficient general interest. But, given that the comments are down at the moment, it might not be a bad time to post something a bit more niche – it seems better to wait till they are back before posting on more topical and contentious stuff.

I was interested to read this article by Walter Russell Mead which mesquito linked to in the comments a while back. It seems, in some ways, designed to wind academics up. I don’t agree that not being much cited means you are ‘mediocre’.  If you write about an obscure writer, for example, you are perhaps less likely to be cited than if you write about a fashionable text or topic.

But the rather softer point made by Mark Bauerlein, and quoted by Mead, is worth engaging with.

We want teachers to be engaged in inquiry, but we don’t need them to publish a book and six articles before we give them tenure. We shouldn’t set a publication schedule that turns them into nervous, isolated beings who end up regarding an inquisitive student in office hours as an infringement.

The current UK system of auditing publications (in order to distribute future research funding) may have a distorting effect on how academics carry out their research.  Although the number of publications required may not seem onerous, there are so many pitfalls in academic publication (length of time between acceptance and publication, failure of colleagues to complete submissions to a co-authored work, for example) that there is pressure to have a great many irons in the fire – to work on six or seven projects to ensure those vital four ‘outputs’.  This may indeed distract from teaching, as Bauerlein suggests – and it also isn’t great for research.

The audit system may discourage risk-taking.  Researchers are going to be unwilling to invest time in projects which take them outside their comfort zone and may never result in a publication. You’re unlikely to get a sabbatical if you just say you want to read some books you have never read before and think about them – but that change of direction could help you come up with something much more interesting than a safe article you’ve been commissioned to write on that author you’ve been working on for the last 20 years. Also, such a course of reading might simply, but importantly, have a beneficial impact on your teaching.

I’m a great believer in having wide interests within one’s discipline and in communicating these beyond academia – through blogging or through Amazon reviews for example.  But I think Walter Russell Mead takes things too far here, and unfairly conflates scholarly research with pedantry and implies a negative correlation between a strong publication record and effective teaching.

A professor who inspires her students with a lifelong love of Shakespeare is infinitely preferable to the industrious drone who publishes two unread and unreadable journal articles a year, an equally pointless book every four years, and bores students to tears.  The first is an asset of the first order; the second is a danger to literature and makes America stupider and less cultured every year he grubs on.

An ability to communicate a lifelong love of Shakespeare sounds excellent, but also perhaps a bit woolly.  Students, in my experience, enjoy looking at Shakespeare in ways which Mead might find dry and pedantic – examining textual variants between Quarto and Folio versions of Hamlet for example.

We need college faculty who inspire as they teach: who infect their students with the love of knowledge and give them the skills to pursue that love on their own once they leave school.  Our Shakespeare teachers shouldn’t worry about making sure their students know the latest hot craze in Shakespeare studies — but they should make sure that as many of their students as possible become lifelong fans of the Swan of Avon.  A deep grounding in the twists and turns of contemporary literary theory may support that vocation — but it often does not, and the resources of a college ought to go towards the promotion of the core mission (leading students to fall in love with the life of the mind while giving them a set of skills that enable them not only to pursue that love but to function effectively in the adult world) not to subsidize academic hackery.

I don’t like the way Mead creates an opposition between a love of the subject and an interest in new trends.  Nor do I agree with the implication that one cannot combine passionate enthusiasm with specialist and scholarly rigour, or excitement about new and challenging ideas. He gives little sense of what these classes which turn out ‘lifelong fans of the Swan of Avon’ might look like. It all sounds terribly vague and gushy. I agree that a knowledge of the ‘twists and turns of contemporary literary theory’ shouldn’t be as high a priority as reading plenty of primary texts and developing sharp close reading skills.  But that doesn’t mean that these ‘twists and turns’ should be sneered at or dismissed, even though they are not all to my personal taste.

Arguments such as Mead’s often come from – and find favour with – those who seem to despise academics.  But arguing that there is a bit too much emphasis on publication is perfectly compatible with an enthusiastic championing of academia.  I’d like to see the emphasis shift back towards scholarship – an engagement with one’s discipline which might not lead directly or immediately to publications, but which should enhance both teaching and research.  If we had a bit more time for scholarship, and a bit less pressure to publish, we might even get round to reading some more of those little cited articles which Mead snarks at.

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