10 February 2014

How Many More Books Will Students Read Because I'm Not Writing One?

Research in the humanities may be keeping higher ed from giving sufficient priority to teaching, but the problem is not the research itself, it's institutional priorities that reward the creation of a supply of research but offer no incentive for any use of it other than generating more supply.

Things I could do that count as research, if I want to pursue a tenure-stream position or be eligible for promotion having attained such a position:
  • Anything that will lead to a book-length manuscript on eighteenth-century women poets likely to be accepted by a university press.  It will have a print run of  300 - 500 copies (roughly as many copies as there are academic research libraries in the U.S., be read with care by 1 - 25 specialists in the fields of C18 studies and women's writing witing and skimmed by a hundred or so more, mostly readers culling quotes to support their own work in related fields, needing an additional source to meet the requirement for a paper, or divining gaps into which to slot new research projects.
  • Dredge up bits of book detritus or unpublished hunks of dissertation that could lead to a journal article.  Similar print run, but possibly more readership if the journal publishes online as well.
  • Start to look into digital humanities angles for a second book in C18 women's writing so that I can have a second project in the pipeline when the first goes to press.
  • Look for opportunities to produce other sorts of academic publication: book reviews, encyclopedia articles, conributions to edited collections (although these generally don't count as much as the first two items on the list, so I'm better off directing my time there.
Things I do (or will do) that don't count as research (no one will ever hire me to a tenure-stream position or promote me because I do them):
  • Read more eighteenth-century Chinese fiction in translation and the Anglophone (or translated) scholarship about Chinese literature of the period in order to bolster the "World Literature" angle of a course I teach on literature from 1600 to 1800.  (Also because after being trained extensively in the C18 Angrlophone novel, I am blown away by the psychological depth and complexity of this material and I want to know more about it.)
  • Consult with a ethnomusicology colleague about how to incorporate African bardic forms into the same course.
  • Read more widely in recent comparative literature theory as a corrective to my "throw it all at them--it will make sense somehow!" approach.  
  • Scan the journal literature to see what interesting work has been published on the authors I regularly teach and identify ways to use those new insights in my teaching.
  • Read recent biographies of several of the authors I teach regularly for the same reason.
  • Read recent historical work about the periods I cover for the same reason.
  • Look into recent developments in teaching through various digital media to learn more about techniques that could make my own teaching more effective.
  • Explore the latest pedagogical findings about how to determine whether or not students are learning what I'm trying to teach them.
  • Talk to the experts in FYC at my institution about effective strategies for beating the 5-paragraph essay out of students who tested out of our FYC requirement.
  • Learn more about current best high school practices for teaching literature for insight into how to mediate the gaps between my best-prepared and least-well-prepared students.
What would happen if the humanities disciplines expanded "research" to mean not only the publication of book- and article-length units of new knowledge, but the creative and thoughtful use of that new knowledge?

Institutional imperatives and incentives drive the assumption that "research" in the research/teaching/service triad means only specialized books and articles.  Increasingly "research" in the R1 is taken to mean "STEM research with practical applications that can pull in hefty external grants" and credential creep has steadily raised the bar on how much research is enough.  There's an argument to be made that sustaining the humanities involves putting more emphasis on teaching than research. I've started making that argument elsewhere on the blog and I'll be making it in future posts.  Note, however, that shearing off "research" from "teaching" is only necessary or desirable to the extent that "research" is taken to mean only the time-consuming isolation of questions sufficiently narrow and specialized to warrant publication as new knowledge.

There are important books in the humanities that need to be written.  There are also other kinds of work to be done with that research that can help it to matter.

1 comment :

  1. This is really thoughtful, though it's disheartening to see it laid so bare! I taught Feng Menglong yesterday, so I'm particularly intrigued by the top of your list of research that doesn't 'count;' I spent substantial-but-not-enough time trying to understand classical and vernacular contexts for a Feng story, partly because about 25% of my class knows more about Chinese history (and literature) than I do.
    I think there's an increasing tendency for people to write up their work in the second list and submit it for publication--sometimes this is really interesting and useful, and sometimes it is poorly done and doesn't help other people but rather adds to the endless supply you mention.
    The fantasy that what we teach and what we write about will have divine overlap doesn't pan out even when/if we teach in our specialties--I've been writing about early 20th century detective fiction recently and even though I've taught upper level and a grad course on the texts and my methodology, there's still precious little cross-pollination. Sure, my students make points in class or essays that help me think about the book, and yes, writing about these texts makes class prep a bit quicker, and certainly my arguments in the book and the class are similar. But either I'm doing something wrong or there isn't as organic an affinity between writing about a text and teaching it as the ideal would have it.