Friday, December 29, 2006

Evaluating Research in the Humanities: MLA and Stanford

By Richard Vedder

I read some good stuff provided me by two fine but rival media outlets, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. I will write about the news from Inside Higher Ed today, and the Chronicle soon.

The Modern Language Association has been in the news a lot lately, because it has proposed a new way to evaluate probationary faculty for tenure. Although there is a lot to the MLA proposal, a key dimension is to define "research" more generally (and generously) than in the past. At present, in the humanities, the publication of a monograph is considered necessary for tenure in a majority of serious four year institutions. This means the world is being flooded with lots of monographs that hardly anyone reads. The MLA proposal, by itself, is probably a good one, but does it go far enough? Maybe more radical thinking and action is needed.

First, of course, is the issue of tenure itself. Does it really protect academic freedom? Is it a "perk" that attracts many able persons to the professoriate, and allows universities to pay lower base salaries in exchange for job security? Or is it truly costly in terms of its effect in stifling innovation and resource reallocations? The decline in its importance in the real world (an increasing portion of teaching is done by nontenure persons) makes an examination of the entire institution legitimate, although MLA would almost certainly not agree. My surmise is, in the absence of tenure, the relative decline in the humanities observed in American universities would have been even faster. Whether that is good or bad is a highly debatable proposition.

Second, what about the research? Universities have a legitimate, even important, role to play in strengthening Western civilization and improve the quality of our lives by research that finds new ways to do things, methods to prolong lives, etc. Yet is it necessary that every French professor do a lot of research on obscure writers or avant-garde poets that no one reads? Has our research fetish gone too far? Does the research done by humanities professors materially improve their teaching? Increase our understanding of the world as it is or should be? Are the costs (lower teaching loads and therefore higher tuition fees) greater than the benefits? Since the costs are felt by parents and taxpayers, and the benefits are felt by professors (who prefer research to teaching), there is a certain redistributive dimension to this question. Third party payments have worked to give the academics the upper hand in this debate, and tilted things more in favor of research, in my judgment (read my book Going Broke By Degree for evidence). Has that been wise? How many articles do we need on Moliere, and how much do we need to talk incessantly in incomprehensible academic-speak about race, class, gender, rectal fascinations (a paper at the last MLA meeting,) etc.? Perhaps diminishing returns have set in to humanities scholarship.

That said, Stanford's decision to give $5,000 in research money to all of its humanities scholars with tenure or on tenure track is a curious one. I attribute it to be a form of disciplinary affirmative action, to assuage humanities faculty resentfully salivating over all the juicy government grants going to the scientists and even to a lesser degree the so-called social scientists. Will this program increase humanities research? Should it? If it does not, is it not merely a form of economic rent, transferring funds from alumni, donors, and tuition payers to one group of faculty?

5 comments:

Bob Yates said...

The anti-intellectualism in this latest post by our gracious host is amazing.

Notice the implication in the following that research must have practical applications.

Universities have a legitimate, even important, role to play in strengthening Western civilization and improve the quality of our lives by research that finds new ways to do things, methods to prolong lives, etc.

It sure is nice to know that in the university imagined by our gracious host there is no place for basic research.

I wonder how universities strenghthen Western civilization.

I wonder why our gracious host does not share with us whether his research improves his teaching. Of course, his discipline is not in the humanities, so he really can't answer his own question:

Does the research done by humanities professors materially improve their teaching?

The next question seems to indicate that our gracious host sees no value in work done by historians let alone by scholars of literature.

Increase our understanding of the world as it is or should be?

Obviously, the study of economics is paramount, but I wonder what kind of research he would propose to answer this question.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Yates,

Your reply somehow managed to skip over every legitimate point that Dr.Vedder made.

Your statement: "Notice the implication in the following that research must have practical applications" makes absolutely no sense. Of course research must have practical applications. Why should my tax AND tuition dollars be funding something that means absolutely nothing and that does not benefit society in any way, shape, or form?

Your reply "It sure is nice to know that in the university imagined by our gracious host there is no place for basic research" to Dr. Vedders comment: "Universities have a legitimate, even important, role to play in strengthening Western civilization and improve the quality of our lives by research that finds new ways to do things, methods to prolong lives, etc."
Once again, makes no sense. He was explicitly stating that there is a place for basic research. He is questioning whether or not there is a place for radical research in the humanities. There is no need for society to be paying a bunch of "scholars" to do research on things that pertain to nothing, add no value to society, and quite frankly are a waste of time with extremely high opportunity costs (the professors should be teaching as opposed to researching things that no one cares about).
If you are wondering how universities are strengthening western civilization, let me give you a couple of hints:

First: They educate youth -- These youth then go onto lead the country, solve social problems, start companies, cure illnesses, and quite frankly are the future leaders of the world and need to be educated properly.

Second: The professors are supposed to be doing research on issues such as monetary policy, fiscal policy, management techniques, cures for cancer, other medical issues, and other things that could possibly influence our policy makers and make the world a lot better place. I think that these two things fall under the umbrella of helping to strengthen western civilization.

My question to you is: Why in the world do you think my tax dollars AND tuition dollars need to be used to finance research that has no bearing on society? Why do college professors (I am also attacking business schools and economics departments here) teach only a couple of quarters a year and do "research" the rest of the time and then take the summers off (or only teach one or two courses over this same time)? Why are professors promoted primarily on their research and not on their teaching ability? Is not the primary purpose of an educational institute to educate?

The bottom line is that the financial costs of educating our society are becoming extremely high and are showing no signs of slowing down. Therefore, like any good institution, universities must "cut out the fat," make things more efficient and figure out ways to do more with less. This should start with making teachers actually teach and not do research on things that mean absolutely nothing to nobody.

Bob Yates said...

Rob, let's take seriously your "of course" question and apply it to some real examples of research.

Of course research must have practical applications. Why should my tax AND tuition dollars be funding something that means absolutely nothing and that does not benefit society in any way, shape, or form?

OK, in the 1950s a research team in the UK, figured out the structure of a molecule referred to as DNA. Answer your question. In the 1950s, why should the anyone have funded such research because it had NO practical application then.

Likewise, consider this passage about how Einstein's General Theory of Relativity was confirmed.

In May 1919, during British solar eclipse expeditions (carried out in Sobral, CearĂ¡, Brazil and Principe, an island of the west coast of Africa) Arthur Eddington took measurements of the bending of star light as it passed close to the Sun, resulting in star positions appearing further away from the Sun. This effect is called gravitational lensing and the positions of the stars observed were twice that which would be predicted by Newtonian physics.[20] These observations match the Field Equation of general relativity. Eddington announced that the results confirmed Einstein's prediction and The Times reported that confirmation on November 7 of that year, with the headline: "Revolution in science – New theory of the Universe – Newtonian ideas overthrown".

What was the "practical application" in the 1920s of such a confirmation?

Of course, we could continue. What are the "practical applications" of studying Plato, Aristotle, Moliere, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, etc.?

Given your topics -- monetary policy, fiscal policy, management techniques, cures for cancer, other medical issues, and other things that could possibly influence our policy makers and make the world a lot better place -- from DNA to Shakespeare should be studied in our universities, right?

I noted that our gracious host seems to find no value in the study of history and your list doesn't allow history either. Is it correct to say that you would try to prevent any monies going to support historical research? If the answer to my question is correct, I assume you are equally appalled that your tax money goes to support archives that have no "practical value" in making our world a better place, right?

Rob Smith said...

Bob,

I agree that I may have been a little harsh critiquing your original comment and maybe was not open minded enough to reflect back on specific examples such as you cited. However, I think (and I am sure any rational person would agree with) that research at times has gotten out of control.

I do not have time to reflect back on too many examples, however, I think that the Michigan State economist who wrote "Up or Down? A Male Economist’s Manifesto on the Toilet Seat Etiquette" coupled with the examples given by Dr. Vedder, sum up that at some point enough is enough.

When 99% of all research has no practical application, or influences policy, I think that it is time to reevaluate where we are allocating our dollars.

For example: Hypothetically, if we are paying a professor an annual salary of $100,000 which is coming from tax and tuition dollars and the professors research never (not even in the future) benefits society while a 17 year old kid was not able to afford to go to college because tax dollars were allocated to the professor and tuition dollars were too high due to the professors salary. Meanwhile, the kid was a genious at chemistry but it was never discovered because he/she was never given an opportunity. If given the opportunity, the kid would have gone on to save thousands of lives as an MD, or would have found a cure for cancer. However, he/she was never given the opportunity because we "society" were placing our emphasis on the wrong things.

As is typical when working with the government, they just drop off millions of dollars at the highest levels and HOPE that someone with some sense gets them. As opposed to thinking it through and thinking about who needs them most. Therefore, I think that it is a hell of a lot more important that tax and tuition dollars be allocated for the sake of educating as many youth as possible and let the think-tanks, consultancies, and pharmaceutical companies focus their efforts on research. It is simply a better allocation of our extremely limited resources.

We need to make sure that the limited resources that we work with on this planet are allocated appropriately using some common sense and practicality.

Once again, I agree one hundred percent with your idea that research for research sake is a good idea and who knows what some really smart people will discover unless you give them a fighting chance, it just needs to be monitored a lot closer and the point of educational institutions needs to be reemphasized (the education part).

By the way, if it were up to me, I would allocate a large portion of our research dollars to historians. I think that they have the ability to change the world possibly more than anyone else (they know all of the stupid mistakes we have already made). I also think that it is important to maintain archives, and yes, I do think that it would have a practical purpose in our future.

Anonymous said...

Back in town.

I find it very difficult to believe that anyone would suggest that Eddington, Einstein, Newton, and any other physicist researched "the humanities" to develop calculus, theories, universal laws of physics, etc.

Rob Smith is correct in his assertion that "our gracious host - Yates" skipped over every legitimate point made by Doc Vedder.

And Smith made an unprincipled retreat from a good vetting of the Yates (our gracious host) analysis.

The problem with the Yates (our gracious host) analysis is that the conclusions seem to be where s/he got tired of thinking.