Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mark Bauerlein on Diminishing Returns to Research

By Richard Vedder

I don't know Mark Bauerlein, but I would like to meet him. He appears to be a rarity --an English professor who understands and appreciates economics, specifically the dominant fact of that dismal science (to borrow from Carlyle), the existence of scarcity.

My friend and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) colleague Rick Hess talked Prof. Bauerlein (formerly head of research at the National Endowment for the Arts) into writing a papers for AEI, entitled "Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own," that I think is marvelous. It precisely reflects my own thinking, but does so with a clarity and evidence that I do not possess.

The gist of the argument is that there has been an explosion in the number of scholarly publications in modern times --the number of publications is growing faster than the number of faculty, meaning faculty are spending their time more and more on publications and less on teaching. Moreover, the marginal benefit (my words) of publications is sinking to a new low as professors publish more and more obscure articles over ground already well plowed. Diminishing returns has set in big time in research in the humanities (and I would add the social sciences, and several other related disciplines).

From 1980 and 2006, 21,000 studies were done on Shakespeare. Supposed we had 100 articles offering different interpretations of each of Shakespeare's plays, another 1,000 articles on his sonnets and any other miscellaneous writings, and 1,000 articles on Shakespeare more generally (including whether he, the Duke of Oxford or some other dude in reality wrote his plays). We would have perhaps 6,000 articles offering a wide variety of interpretations of the greatest writer in the history of the English language. Yet the 1980-2006 period produced well over three times that number of articles --and that on top of a corpus of Shakespeare scholarship and interpretation stretching back for one-third of a millennium that already existed in 1980.

Moreover, who reads the stuff? University press sales are tanking, Bauerlein observes. A university press book in literary criticism that sells 1,000 copies is a best seller these days, and sales of fewer than 500 copies are commonplace. Take out libraries; I suspect many of these books have fewer than 100 sales to individuals. Heck, more persons than that will read this blog. Yet professors neglect their students to get their book out that assures them (or nearly assures them) tenure.

The incentive systems are all screwed up. Let the students be damned, universities are about doing obscure writing for a few colleagues that provides professional esteem and job security for the writer who is paid out of tuition, taxpayer-provided subsidies and private donations. As Baurelein says, it is time to changes things. Abolish the requirement to publish the scholarly book, and ask for some, more modest, research in order to get tenure. And increase the relative importance of teaching in faculty evaluations from its current role (maybe 10-20 percent at most at good research universities) to one of prominence (maybe 70-80 percent).

Why doesn't it happen? Because we do not have a customer-driven, competitive environment that rewards those who please the customers. Tenure adds to the sense that we can ignore the customers and do what we want and like, not what our society needs and customers want. Also, research is visible (albeit, not to the general public) and measurable on a national scale, while teaching results are less visible beyond the local community and more difficult to quantify.

I have written or edited about eight books, perhaps 200 journal articles and chapters for books, not to mention hundreds of op-eds and other shorter writings. They have given me a little bit of a national reputation. But I think the thing I have done that has made the greatest contribution to society over the past half century of involvement in higher education is the 12,000 or students I have taught, a few hundred of whom were measurably impacted by what I said to them (some of which had precious little to do directly with the subject matter of my courses). We must return to basics in higher education if it is to retain its integrity and economic viability over the long run.

1 comment:

capeman said...

So the Doc runs his "Center" with its valuable research and its wonderboys, while the rest of us unretired professors do our worthless research. Including Mark Bauerlein, to judge by the books he keeps publishing. Or has he hung that up now that he's discovered how much he hates academia?