Literary Research

Costs and Impact


One of the standard labor practices of research universities is to hire, pay, and promote faculty members on the basis of the research they produce. In the humanities, professors write books and articles and universities reward them accordingly. The system amounts to a considerable expenditure for the institution and a significant portion of faculty time and energy. Is the outcome worth the investment? In the humanities, is research publication the best use of university resources and faculty talent?

By Mark Bauerlein | November 2011

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This paper examines the system of research productivity in literary studies—its policies and expectations, and its costs and outputs. To illustrate the system, we review English departments at SUNY-Buffalo, University of Georgia, University of Illinois and University of Vermont. We focus on departments in order to add empirical evi­dence to the rising debate over the standing and costs of the humanities in research universities, and departments are the places in which personnel decisions primarily happen. We select English departments because English remains the most prominent literary research unit. English departments are also large enough to provide more reliable averages of faculty research activity than foreign language departments. We aim to measure the system of research productivity by departmental “wholes,” not to single out any particular book, essay, or faculty member for evaluation.

We choose public universities because of the availability of financial data, and we select these four departments because three of them represent different points in the rankings of English departments—none of them in the top 20—while the fourth isn’t ranked at all because it doesn’t have a doctoral program, though it still requires that faculty members conduct research. The spread demonstrates how deeply the research mandate has permeated public universities across the country and is no longer a feature of only a few elite institutions.

Our review reveals that

  • Universities make substantial investments in faculty research through direct compensation—for example, in 2008–09 the University of Illinois paid its 57 regular English department faculty members $1.34 mil­lion dollars to conduct research.
  • Faculty members respond to this support by producing ample numbers of scholarly books and articles— for example, from 2004 to 2009, University of Georgia English professors published 22 authored or coau­thored books, 15 edited or co-edited books, and 200 research articles.
  • Once those books and essays are published, the vast majority of them attract scant attention from other scholars—for example, of 16 research articles published by University of Vermont professors in 2004, 11 of them received 0–2 citations, three received 3–6 citations, one received seven citations, and one 11. Books receive more citations on average, but not enough to justify the labor that went into their making.

There is a glaring mismatch between the resources these universities and faculty members invest and the impact of most published scholarship. Despite the scant attention paid to this scholarship, a faculty member’s promotion and annual review depends heavily on the professor’s published work. A university’s resources and human capital is thereby squandered as highly-trained and intelligent professionals toil over projects that have little consequence.

Many professors enjoy the work, finding it rewarding and helpful to their other professional duties, but if their books and essays do not find readers sufficient to justify the effort, the publication mandate falls short of its ration­ale, namely, to promote scholarly communication and the advancement of knowledge. To put it bluntly, universi­ties ask English professors to labor upon projects of little value to others, incurring significant opportunity costs. Every hour a professor aims toward research is an hour not aimed toward other duties, duties which might more effectively support other parts of the university’s mission, such as mentoring undergraduates outside of class.

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Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since 1989 save for a stint as Director, Office of Research and Analysis, at the National Endowment for the Arts (2003–05). His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (1997), The Pragmatic Mind (1997), Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906 (2001), and The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking (2011). His scholarly essays have appeared in PMLA, Wilson Quarterly, Yale Review, and Philosophy and Literature, and his commentaries and reviews have appeared in Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, TLS, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Reason Magazine.


Acknowledgements

I gratefully acknowledge the James Madison Program and the Ann and Herbert W. Vaughn Fellowship at Princeton University for support for this project. I also thank David Laurence of the Modern Language Association for providing national data on English Departments and literary research.