(x-posted in full from my blog, where it looks better :) )
Apparently a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Mark Bauerlein has humanities faculty all astir – I discovered it via Carol Stabile’s blog this morning. Bauerlein discovers that nobody cites most work in the humanities (which is sort of like discovering that the sky is up, but bear with him…). He argues, “The unfortunate conclusion is that the overall impact of literary research doesn’t come close to justifying the money and effort that goes into it.”
tl;dr, he’s pointing out what the Politburo of the Soviet Union discovered in the 1980s: if you subsidize production that has no demand, you end up with (a) lowest-quality-possible goods and (b) lots of them sitting around unsold.
I’m going to pass on the snark of an entire profession apparently not understanding freshman microeconomics – at least American humanities faculties didn’t have a country to run for 70 years.
Bauerlein describes a situation in academia where production of journal articles is both required and subsidized. He concludes that this system is wasteful, but in Soviet-logic suggests as a remedy lowering production quotas.
One logical flaw is that lowering output likely won’t materially affect the crap-to-quality ratio: Sturgeon’s Law holds that 95% of everything is crap. Bauerlein seems to be arguing that reducing the total volume of output will somehow involve reducing the 95% while maintaining the 5%, without otherwise changing the incentive structure of the system that produces so much crap. There’s no particular reason to think that reducing the publication requirements for tenure across the board would make insightful geniuses out of hacks – they’ll simply be producing three crap articles for tenure instead of six.
The system – precisely like the Soviet economy (look, I’m not going Gresham’s law here – I actually have a master’s degree in Soviet economic systems. Don’t ask.) doesn’t require quality in output past a bare minimum of peer review (which like Soviet production standards is gamed – since we all need to produce volume, we’re incentivized to accept crap output from others in return for their accepting our crap output) but rather quantity. Basic human nature points to a race to the bottom, or producing to the minimum acceptable standard.
Sturgeon’s Law is just a manifestation of a greater problem: we’re past the era of the bell curve and into that of the long tail. Bauerlein notes that most works receive effectively no citations while a tiny handful make a huge impact. While he’s looking at articles in academic journals in the humanities, the same observation holds for books, music, blog readership. Cutting production won’t change that, though it might lop off some of the tail. He raises an important issue in respect to the power curve, though – should we *subsidize* the tail?
Production of tail-goods is probably a net economic loss, but a better conception of the tail is “monetizing amateur production” rather than “return on investment of priced labor.” Academia is one of the few instances where long-tail production is subsidized by a full-time employment model: we don’t pay salaries to our artists, musicians and fanfic writers to produce (though there was a hilarious Soviet-era satirical novel with that premise – I think it was Vladimir Voinovich’s Moscow 2042, but I’m not sure).
However, there are several consumption-side problems as well. One is another perverse incentive of the current academic system: it rewards knowledge production but effectively penalizes knowledge consumption, the reverse of many professions.
Professions tend to have a “continuing education” requirement for practitioners to stay current in their field, while teaching continuing education is generally regarded as fulfilling a service commitment or providing an opportunity for professional networking/advertising as a specialist.
Academics have no requirement, or indeed incentive, to read the articles their system demands they produce. So why should anyone be surprised that articles don’t get read?
Put another way, there is no market for academic research in the humanities. Well, aside from grad students forced to do literature reviews, but that’s not enough to sustain an industry.
Really, this should be obvious.
Instituting a continuing education requirement for humanities faculty would go a long way to solving the problem.
Say I’m a professor of 19th Century American literature. My “trade association” negotiates a list of critical new developments in the field over the past, say, two years. To participate meaningfully, I’m going to have to be familiar with the corpus of production. We then agree that some few articles were sufficiently important that everyone working in the field should be familiar with them. We invite the authors to do a seminar, which everyone in the field is required to attend, either physically or by webcast subscription. We’re then given a certificate of attendance which we have to submit to our employers as proof of continuing qualification to practice.
The scholars whose work is highlighted get national attention and a good cut of the gate, thus rewarding scholarship for which there is peer demand. Faculty are required to stay current in their disciplines, and there’s another level of peer review to separate the 5% from the mass of Sturgeon’s Law production. Also, with the best work highlighted, it’s more likely to make its way into curricula, exposing students to the best current thought and examples of professional excellence, improving both the quality of the material taught and demonstrating status incentives to academic careers, solving another problem raised by Bauerlein.
This won’t happen, of course. The academic wars over the notion and nature of canon are still too fresh for a “continuing education” or “super peer reveiw” system to take hold. And since 95% of the producers would lose their production subsidies, barring an internal coup at the top, the system will push hard to continue Brezhnevian stagnation.
On the other hand, the stakes – both economic and cultural – are fairly low. The price of stagnation – the continued marginalization and trivialization of the humanities – isn’t very high, and is easily paid by the current order.