Do We Really Want Professors to Be Productive?

charlie-chaplin.jpgAccountability is all the rage in today’s education reform industry and at the university level, “productivity” typically means upping scholarly publishing.  The allure is simple–who can resist prodding lolling-about professors to generate more knowledge?  Unfortunately, putting the thumbscrews on idle faculty will only push universities farther to the left.  Better to pay professors for silence.

When I began my academic career at Cornell University in 1969 publications were important but production was not yet industrialized.  Quality–not volume–was overriding and it was tolerable that some senior faculty had published almost nothing for decades.  By the time I retired in 2002 from the University of Illinois-Urbana, however, scholarly publication there and elsewhere often mimicked Soviet-style manufacturing.  Every year we received detailed annual report forms with multiple categories to list every last publication, all categorized according to supposed prestige rankings, as the basis for salary increases and promotion.  Volume (“productivity”) was now deep in the academic DNA, even at schools hardly famous for original research.

But, as any experienced academic will tell you, at least privately, pushing many professors to publish decent stuff, and do it regularly, is akin to the proverbial attempt to extract blood from a turnip.  Some are just perplexed by tough problems, others lack the necessary intellectual talent or skill, others are chronic procrastinators and on and on.  Unfortunately, while all of this is well-known, it has scarcely stopped administrators from putting guns to heads.  I strongly suspect that insisting on publish or perish, even if decent, serious research is not feasible, makes perfect sense for climbing the administrative ladder.

What happens when faculty otherwise unable to generate decent published research are pressured into “productivity”?  Even more important, how can this shaky “productivity” pass muster as decent scholarship?  The answer, I submit, is via ideology mongering.  Few non-academic outsiders realize just how easily this can be accomplished.

First, those under the gun are advised to choose an ideologically infused field where one can easily be productive and nothing here outshines identity politics—African-American Studies, Asian-American Studies, Hispanic Studies, Gender and Homosexuality are perfect for this purpose.  For white males, there’s the old stand-by of Marxism and its variants like Democratic Socialism.  Journals and book series in these left-infused fields abound, perhaps reflecting the leftish biases of librarians who authorize subscriptions.

Getting published here is a snap compared to succeeding with more mainstream scholarly outlets.  Publication often requires little more than toeing the ideological party line.  It is also less stressful.  When I wrote for the traditional outlets, e.g., The American Political Science Review, the odds of acceptance were one in twenty and the process could consume an entire year of frustrating revisions and re-submissions (only to be repeated elsewhere if rejected).  I do not know the acceptance rate of, say, The International Feminist Journal of Politics, but I suspect that is far greater than 5%.  Proliferating electronic journals have also added even more publication outlets for left-leaning scholars.  Meanwhile, the old quality control mechanism of “refereed journal” is easily overcome via self-certification.  Yes, according to its website, The International Feminist Journal of Politics is peer reviewed, but what does that mean in terms of standards?  Hard to know.

Now for the bottom line: generating all of these books, articles and other academic indicators of “production” allows the left to thrive in settings where just bean counting (“productivity”) is the gold standard.  Equally important, this production then serves as classroom reading assignments.  It is a great sure-fire strategy.  What Dean or Provost wants to go to court and argue that some junior feminist scholar with a ten-page vita of essays in leading feminist journals should be denied tenure while a white male with a single book that took six years to write is awarded tenure?  In fact, opportunistic administrators love this “count everything the same” strategy since it is a godsend for getting women and minorities tenured, no small accomplishment for personal advancement.  It is no wonder that the left has so quickly conquered the academy—it is as if GM could both manufacture cars and print the money to buy them.

Imagine an alternative universe where all of today’s faculty radicals had to publish exclusively in old-line traditional outlets that still embraced high academic standards?  Places that insisted on documentation and rigor that would survive the close inspection of fellow experts who put truth above ideological orthodoxy?  Vitas would shrink.  Going one step further, many of today’s ideologues would never have been hired in the first place since the job interview would make it clear that they had little to add other than proselytizing the faith.  Imposing higher standards is not censorship let alone repressing scholarly innovation or once suppressed “voices.”  The only demand is that the “production” satisfy traditional standards of scholarship, not publication per se.

In sum, universities need to practice intellectual birth control, not permit a thousand weeds to bloom.  One more time: just counting (“productivity”) will flood the market with thinly disguised polemics.  Tolerating lack of “productivity” need not be free pass to easy street.  Surely there will be opportunities for the now mute faculty to help students polish their writing skills, or they can just teach additional small enrollment seminars.  If ideologues still insist on “being productive” via publication, let them do it on internet blogs but do not count this “productivity” as academic currency.  To paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

One thought on “Do We Really Want Professors to Be Productive?”

  1. Point taken about research published in “studies” publications. However, most of the complaints about productivity center on teaching time, not publications. And if standards are raised in that area, the pressure to produce published books and articles will inevitably have to diminish.

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