Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Weighing Scholarship

Randall Stephens

On this blog we've looked at the issue of assessment, standards, and weighing scholarship here, here, and here. But I'm willing to bet that nothing we've posted will come close to stirring the kind of controversy and debate that Mark Bauerlein's essay in the Chronicle will likely provoke ("The Research Bust," December 4). The amount of time that literary studies scholars spend on articles and books, he says, just isn't paying off. One major problem: overproduction.

"However much they certify their authors as professionals and win them jobs and tenure, essays and books of high scholarly merit in literary studies suffer the same inattention all the time" observes Bauerlein. He goes on:

Why? Because after four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?*

He knows that it's a controversial point. He uses Google Scholar to track citations. (See the lively comments section.) Doubters will point out, writes Bauerlein, that this is a flat-footed approach, which does not take in the larger contribution of scholarship. Some will say that research makes scholars into better teachers. And others will point out that we need lots of work on subjects that will not draw major attention. That does not mean that the work is useless or can be tossed aside. Still, Bauerlein counters, these objections hardly justify a college or university paying 1/3 of a salary for work that doesn't have a significant impact.

Could this same sort of assessment be on the table for historians? (Get ready to figure out how to amp up your Google Scholar stats.) How should administrators and reformers measure impact or influence? Should they be doing so at all?

No comments: