Less Writing, More Teaching?

Years ago, assigned to cover a national meeting of sociologists for a major newspaper, I asked the convention press office to get me a copy of every paper to be delivered. The press officer looked thunderstruck but complied, handing over several hundred papers in a stack more than three feet high. I read them all at warp speed, but not one seemed interesting enough to write about. The main reason is that papers prepared for an academic convention are usually dashed off quickly in a simple effort to justify travel expenses. They rarely attract attention and even more rarely are intended to.
On the other hand, papers written for academic journals, which count toward hiring, promotion and tenure, are generally treated with more respect. But not always. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, one researcher churned out 50 to 60 academic papers, using the time-saving method of copying a paper from one obscure journal and sending it to another as his own work. The success of this unique form of recycling depends on a small, inattentive readership and the realization that a lot of academic writing has more to do with personal career-building than with communicating new insights to fellow professionals.
Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, who writes frequently for this site, thinks academics in his field (literature) short-change their students by devoting far more effort to the mandate of “publish or perish” than to interaction with students. His argument is succinctly summarized in the title of his new article, “Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own” (from the American Enterprise Institute’s American Education Project). Not everyone will agree with his broad premise that students are disengaged because their teachers spend too much time researching and typing. A long series of books and papers on the widespread lack of student achievement and attentiveness—the most dazzling of which is Peter Sacks’s 1996 book, “Generation X Goes to College”—generally argue that today’s students are fully capable of achieving disengagement on their own..
Bauerlein agues that the enormous production of academic writing—it rose three times faster that the rapidly rising number of students and professors from 1959 to 1979—is in large part unnecessary. Once the work of Whitman and Melville’s was underanalyzed, but now those authors have been done to death and we live in a period of pointless production. He writes: “Nobody off-campus declared, ‘We don’t have enough books on Walt Whitman—we need more!'” Demand for academic books is low, he writes, and getting lower all the time. Many, perhaps most, sell only 200 or 300 copies. But most academic work is never meant to excite demand among the general public. And writing about an established author is not just piling on or working a common theme to death. Insights change as more material is found and as reputations rise and fall—the refurbishing of John Donne and the relative eclipse of Rudyard Kipling are examples. New material on Yeats and Frost has enhanced their reputations, though work on them had already been considerable.
Bauerlein wants colleges and universities to lower the demand for research productivity and encourage more time spent with students. He wants foundations to shift some grants toward teaching, and colleges to stop demanding an academic book as a price for gaining tenure. He writes, “We need honest and open public acknowledgement that the scholarly enterprise has lost its rationale, that central parts of the humanities are in real trouble, and that the surest way to restoration lies in a renewed commitment to the undergraduate student.” Most of us would agree with that, so long as scholarly writing is not seen as a primary cause of student disengagement.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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