Paying Profs to Write Books that Nobody Reads

by James A. Bacon

Mark Bauerlin, an English professor at Emory University, has identified one of the key productivity issues facing higher education in the United States today: the publish or perish phenomenon that drives university professors to devote insane amounts of time to writing books and journal articles that nobody reads. The problem is especially acute in the humanities.

In a “Literary Research: Costs and Impact,” a review of four university English departments (territory that he knows first hand), Bauerlin contends  that thousands of English professors are collectively paid millions of dollars to produce voluminous scholarly books and articles, most of which is little read.

“There is a glaring mismatch between the resources these universities and faculty members invest and the impact of most published scholarship,” he writes. “Despite the scant attention paid to this scholarship, a faculty member’s promotion and annual review depends heavily on the professor’s published work. A university’s resources and human capital is thereby squandered as highly-trained and intelligent professionals toil over projects that have little consequence.”

The amount of activity devoted to the publishing of literary research is extraordinary. The number of annual scholarly publications (books, essays, reviews, dissertations, etc.) in the fields of English and foreign languages and literatures climbed from 13,757 in 1959 to around 70,000 in recent years. By one count, there are 4,686 periodicals devoted to literary research and criticism. Writes Bauerlin: “The [Modern Language Association] counts 700+ departments across the country demanding that faculty members issue books and articles, indicating that the old publish-or-perish formula which used to apply to a small elite group of schools has become a national policy steering more than 50,000 graduate student, lecturer, adjunct, tenure-track and tenured language and literature practitioners and aspirants.”

The four English departments he examined — the University of Georgia, SUNY-Buffalo, University of Vermont and University of Illinois — employ a total of 156 faculty between them.  Assuming that they expect professors to devote one-third of their time to research, the four English departments paid  roughly $4 million yearly to produce an effluvia of essays: 76 authored or co-authored books, 50 edited or co-edited books, and 550 research essays between 2004 and 2009. Judging by the number of citations picked up in Google Scholar, very little of this work attracted significant attention.

Extrapolate Bauerlin’s findings across the hundreds of college-level English, literature and other humanities departments across the country, and it is readily apparent that vast sums — perhaps exceeding $1 billion — are squandered nationally. While faculty members should be encouraged to conduct research, they should not be compelled to do so. Professors should be rewarded for teaching well — and for teaching more. The incentives are utterly perverted, focused on internal organizational imperatives and ignoring the interests of students.

Virginia lawmakers should probe the productivity issue when dispensing state funds to higher education. It’s one thing to subsidize someone’s education — in theory, people gain valuable skills that benefit society as a result — but it’s quite another to subsidize the mass production of literary essays. If Virginia colleges and universities can’t enact culture change on their own, then the state should foster enterprises whose faculty focus on teaching, not publishing, in the expectation that they will charge a fraction of what incumbent colleges are charging.

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2 responses to “Paying Profs to Write Books that Nobody Reads”

  1. C’mon Jim … how hard can it be to write a book?

  2. […] if that were the measure of success there would be no success at all. It’s common knowledge in academia that no one reads academic publications. How can an institution place such a tremendous premium on […]

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