Wasteful Productivity

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein teaches at Emory University and is a member of the NAS's board of directors. This article was originally posted here at See Thru Edu.

When humanities departments at research universities report the productivity of their faculty members, they point first not to the number of undergraduates enrolled in their classes, not to the amount of knowledge and level of skills those students attain, not to the external funding professors garner. No, they tally publications. Productivity is measured by books and articles in print, page counts pure and simple.

By that standard, English departments at leading universities such as UT-Austin perform pretty well. Yes, some professors earn tenure and slow their output, but most professors continue to publish at the same rate they did before that wondrous day they secured a job for life. They make it easy for deans and department heads to boast of the vibrant, up-to-date, and brilliant climate of their academic units.

But when we look carefully at this productivity yardstick, we have to question its validity. The problem is this: once those books and articles are published, the impact they have on the scholarly scene is usually slight at best. Professors spend more than 100 hours writing articles and more than 1,000 hours on a book, but when those works reach the library they sit on the shelves and collect dust. Is this productivity?

I documented the pattern in a report issued by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, examining four English departments in terms of:

  • cost (how much universities pay profeesors to conduct research)
  • production (how many books and articles the faculty published)
  • consumption (how many times those books and articles are cited in subsequent books and articles in the field)

Cost and production were high, consumption low. Essays typically averaged less than two citations annually in the years following their published.

One could examine the publications in any other English department and reach the same results. I just ran a Google Scholar search on some publications by English professors at UT-Austin and found an essay on Washington Irving published in 2003 in an established journal that scored only one citation since then in the hundred of journals picked up by the search engine. Another one on race and American literature published in 2008 in one of the most distinguished quarterlies in literary studies tallied only three citations. The essays were intelligent and well-researched – as I found repeatedly, neglect isn't based upon poor quality – but they didn't get the attention they deserved.

It happens all the time – and it makes no sense. University definitions of productivity force humanities professors to labor intensely upon scholarly goods that go unappreciated. Professors at research institutions do what they have to keep their jobs, earn strong annual evaluations, and gain prestige in their fields. They fulfill their side of the employment contract. Universities pay them well for it, and they offer the ensuing publications as signs of academic health. But the costs are high, both the annual compensation that universities pay English professors to conduct research and the time facullty spend NOT working with students, advancing humanistic values across the campus, building stronger teaching portfolios, etc. To complete their work, professors limit contact with undergraduates and "atomize" themselves at their respective computer screens. 

This isn't productivity. It's waste.

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