Monday, March 19, 2012


Chris Beneke

NPR recently aired a story on the tower of 7,000 Abraham Lincoln-centered books (they’re actually replicas and amount to roughly half of the 15,000 total Lincoln volumes in existence) that now extends 34 feet above the floor of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. It’s an arresting sight, a soaring tribute to our most important president and the historians who have written about him.

What this immense stack portends to a graduate student considering a career in Lincoln studies, I can only dimly fathom. It’s worth noting that there was no foundation of journal articles here; just books. Most of us won’t have reason to find the Lincoln book tower so daunting. We spend our professional lives erecting theses upon much less imposing and much more manageable stacks of historiography.

Still, the Lincoln Tower heralds an increasingly universal condition among historians that we might term superabundance. The problem derives from the formidable supply of primary sources—thanks to Google Books and other online repositories of historical texts—as well as our output of monographs, journal articles, and dissertations. As a result, what often makes historical research challenging today has less to do with the scarcity of primary sources or their geographic dispersal than the mini-towers of primary and secondary sources that we need to sort through on our way to an original argument. Superabundance is a first-world-type problem in that it mainly afflicts the comfortable and its direct consequences, which may include regular bouts of ennui, are far from catastrophic. Still, it’s an “issue,” as Americans like to describe their non-fatal maladies.

Historians aren’t alone in confronting the scholarly challenges posed by superabundance. Nearly every other academic field is afflicted by its own prodigious production. In a 2009 issue of Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein reported that “[f]rom 1986 to 2008, Wordsworth collected 2,257 books, chapters, dissertations, etc. Faulkner came in at 2,781, Milton at 3,294, Whitman at 1,509, Woolf at 3,217, and Shakespeare at 18,799.”

No doubt many thousands of illuminating volumes on Lincoln and Shakespeare are yet to be written. But how many more—and at what rate? This is the weightier question posed by our own scholarly superabundance. The good embodied in that indomitable stack of Lincoln volumes is not the profit that some ideal reader might reap from digesting every single one of them, because no sane person would—and certainly not a person who hoped to ever write anything themselves. Moreover, and this warrants more than passing mention, only a handful of libraries can now afford to own more than a fraction of the total.

Recognizing that humanities research contributes a great deal to the public good and that every teaching historian should have extensive and regular experience with it, would higher education be any worse if only 2000 works on Lincoln were produced over the next decade, as opposed to 2500? Would our public culture suffer? Over the last three years or so, Mark Bauerlein has been unsettling Chronicle readers with questions of just this sort. In particular, he asks: Might there be diminishing marginal returns in humanities scholarship? And might the sheer volume of this production bury high quality work under a heap of scholarly mediocrity?

Last May, Stephen J. Mexal countered Bauerlein with a stout defense of research quantity, arguing from the twin premises that 1) “we cannot know in advance which projects will matter, or in what way. The easiest way to account for this uncertainty is to produce as much work as possible and let the future worry about quality or utility” and 2) the peer review process is indefinitely scalable and “a larger community of active scholars means a stronger, more democratic community of ‘peers’ to perform the valuable work of peer review.” (For another astute consideration along these lines—comparing scholarly projects to the risks inherent in new business enterprises—see Johann Neem’s post, “The Value of Useless Research.”)

Mexal and Neem make a convincing case for generous funding of a wide-range of humanities research, which I’m pretty sure Bauerlein also favors. But Bauerlein’s argument is really about priorities. It assumes a resource-neutral environment in which the superabundance represented by the tower of Lincoln books is not a reason to halt, or even significantly curtail research, but simply to reevaluate our priorities as scholars and teachers. Perhaps wary of too close an association with market economics, Bauerlein calls it “redistribution.” What he’s really pointing to is the need for a realignment of incentives. It boils down to this: If we’re going to improve the quality of higher education and expand its impact, we may need to reward interaction with students more generously and reward individual research quantity less so.


Dan Allosso said...

Like you, Chris, I wouldn't want to be mistaken for someone who thinks the market solves all problems. But in this case, maybe it does offer some help. PhDs fail to find jobs in the academy and go into other lines of work. Those of us who write discover that unlike the academic publishing model, if we want to attract "lay" readers we're going to have to say something that's somehow relevant and meaningful to them. It ought to be possible to shelve everything the average American needs to know about Lincoln on a single library shelf. Maybe part of our job as historians is helping them pull that single shelf of books out of the 34-foot pile.

And then there are community colleges, where the focus is teaching rather than adding to the Lincoln or the Shakespeare stack.

Gabriel said...

Not having read most of Bauerlein's essays, I risk repeating him here. But it seems to me that there is nothing wrong with producing lots of scholarship. Why not enjoy scholarly riches? The two problems are 1) producing scholarship just for the sake of building one's tenure file, and not because there is something you really want to say and 2) not engaging a public audience with your scholarship. So, I would add to your final point that rewarding teaching more and rewarding public engagement more would be very positive moves. Great post!

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks Dan and Gabe. You both make excellent points. Obviously, lots of popular and public work gets written only because its informed by work that wouldn't make it on Dan's theoretical shelf. So we do need lots of ostensibly "useless research" (as Johann Neem calls it). But, perhaps not quite as much as we're conducting right now. As Gabe indicates, the root of the problem may reside in the tenure process.