Editor’s note: Our thanks to John Zmirak for this article. And a special thanks to one of our students, T. C., for sending us these beautiful pictures she took while in Florida.
In times of economic slowdown, prices usually fall. Is your home worth as much as it was two years ago? As much as the mortgage you have on it? (For your sake, I hope so.) In major cities rents are falling, and shoppers are skipping organic groceries in favor of mongo-sized discount produce from Price Club. There’s just one sector of the economy that’s bizarrely insulated from reality: Academia.
Tuition, room and board at Sarah Lawrence College just hit $53,166 per year. That’s like buying a C-Class Mercedes every year … except you never get the car. Other colleges are comparable, with even state school tuition rising to levels some parents find impossible. Why hasn’t reality had its revenge?
There are good reasons why we try to preserve college life from the logic of the market. There’s no clear bottom-line benefit to teaching Shakespeare plays, but we still want professors doing it. Universities in the West were invented by monks in the Middle Ages, and at their best they still serve as a cloistered refuge from the grim necessities of life — offering students not just a degree that’s valued in the marketplace, but a chance to broaden their interests and deepen their souls, to gain a solid grounding in the fundamentals that made our civilization, and explore all life’s possibilities before settling down to a life of working to earn their bread.
Yeah, that’s the theory. But what if universities began to neglect this basic charge, and instead turned into featherbedding, unionized factories that existed to protect their overpaid workers — who were impossible to fire? What if these factories botched the items customers paid for, and spent their energy generating oddball inventions no one wanted?
That is exactly what happened in academia over the past 30 years, according to Emory University professor Mark Bauerlain, who explores the open, ugly secret that most professors are paid based not on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly articles and books they can produce.
Bauerlain’s American Enterprise Institute paper, “Professors on the Production Line, Students On Their Own,” reveals the following: Laboring on the age-old axiom “publish-or-perish,” thousands of professors, lecturers and graduate students are busy producing dissertations, books, essays and reviews. Over the past five decades, their collective productivity has risen from 13,000 to 72,000 publications per year. But the audience for language and literature scholarship has diminished, with unit sales for books now hovering around 300.
At the same time, the degree of interaction between teachers and students has declined. While 43 percent of two-year public college students and 29 percent of four-year public college students require remedial course work, costing $2 billion annually, one national survey reports that 37 percent of first-year arts/humanities students “never” discuss course readings with teachers outside of class, and 41 percent only do so “sometimes.”
Indeed, prestigious professors frequently have little interaction with students at all, lecturing to hundreds at a time, consigning discussions and grading to graduate students. Meanwhile, the research these professors are turning out is increasingly obscure and often politicized. If they’re dealing with well-studied writers, they must pursue ever more oddball interpretations of the works in order to produce something original. Here’s Bauerlain again, explaining why: In the year 2007, literary scholars and critics published 85 studies of the life and writings of William Faulkner. Nearly all of them appeared in U.S. publications, and the total included 11 books and eight dissertations. The previous year saw 78 entries on Faulkner, and the one before that 80 of them.
In fact, from 1980 to 2006, Faulkner attracted fully 3,584 books, chapters, dissertations, articles, notes, reviews and editions. During the same years, Charles Dickens garnered 3,437 studies, while Emily Dickinson tallied 1,776. Towering at the top was William Shakespeare with 21,674 separate pieces of scholarship and criticism.
Professors daunted by the task of hunting for treasure in such burned-over fields will often simply switch gears and write about popular culture. At least the movie ‘‘Bruno” doesn’t have 47,000 scholarly articles written about it. Yet.
I’m not throwing stones at the hardworking scholars who wade through decades of previous research to try saying something new about canonical authors. I’ve been there and I’ve done it. It’s real work, but it doesn’t add much to teaching, especially at the most basic levels, such as composition courses.
Those classes, which few professors really want to teach, are among the most crucial many students will ever take, determining how fluently they can write in their own first language.
Meanwhile, survey classes — the next most important category of courses — which cover literary history and introduce students for the first time to the greatest works in our language, also have trouble finding teachers because they don’t “tie into one’s research” and are largely useless for gaining tenure.
Ivy League grads can emerge without having ever read Hamlet or the Declaration of Independence, or they’ve learned these texts through some trendy lens, such as Queer Theory.
That’s why it’s essential, when making the ever more costly choices required in education, to carefully scope out each college. Call the admissions office and inquire about the student/teacher ratio and the percentage of classes taught by graduate students.
Is there a core curriculum of solid classes in Western culture, American history and great works of literature? Ask a professor how highly teaching (versus research) is valued in tenure decisions. After all, the teaching is what you’re paying for. Leave the tab for all that research to those 300 people who actually buy the books.