The Humanities Research Question

What’s with those professors and their stupid research, wonders George Leef over at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Leef says that most humanities research doesn’t justify the cost of producing it. This seems a little simplistic.

As he writes:

College professors (and many who aspire to become professors but never make it) spend great amounts of time researching topics of microscopically narrow scope, then writing papers, articles and books that almost no one ever reads.

Department heads and deans who grew up with the idea that publishing research is what faculty members are supposed to do probably regard the cost of this research as reasonable—a good bargain. But college presidents and trustees should question whether research should be such a high priority, given the many things that compete for limited funds.

Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein looks into this, investigating how what public universities spend on humanities academics compared to how often the scholarship written by these academics actually gets cited.

Not often, it turns out. As Bauerlein writes “There is a glaring mismatch between the resources these universities and faculty members invest and the impact of most published scholarship.” Of 16 research articles produced by University of Vermont English professors in 2004, for instance, 11of them received less than 3 citations by other professors.

Leef again:

The real question is how valuable they are to other people. Scholarly articles and books are rarely even cited by other academics, much less read by students. During his talk at a conference on November 18, Bauerlein also said that discussions he’s had with university librarians confirm that students almost never check out scholarly books and articles. Thus, the “publish or perish” regime has substantial explicit costs, but minimal benefits.

“Humanities research: to what end?” Leef wonders.

The proliferation of knowledge, that’s what. It’s a little unclear here what useful research would even be. Using his standard, what would count? Would writing a novel count? How many times would one have to be cited by other scholars to be considered a worthy investment?

Of course spending money on humanities research is a little inefficient and sort of wasteful. That’s the point. If you want lucrative research, go work at something like Genentech.

The problem with this line of thinking is that, while one can easily bemoan the narrow subjects humanities professors investigate, the fact that few people read their research, and the reality that all of this research detracts from time professors could be spent teaching students, it’s not really clear what “valuable” research would be. Even research performed by academics working in science and technology fields is read by few other scholars and doesn’t usually result in major scientific breakthroughs.

Indeed, that’s what the research university exists to do: allow academics to examine subjects of limited interest to most people. If all of this existed only in the ordinary marketplace no one would ever research anything, except perhaps medical drugs or the location of natural gas deposits.

Read Bauerlein’s paper here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer