A Crisis of Vast Quantities in Academia?

Mark Bauerline’s essay, “Reading, Writing, and the Profession,” in The Chronicle Review: Brainstorm for this date deals with the increasingly apparent problem of expecting students to read a lot, and fast, while expecting faculty to publish a lot, and fast, a double crisis of overproduction and increased consumption that is part of the commercialization and industrialization of intellect. Instruction that emphasizes high speed reading of mass quantities (I am certainly guilty of this in my own courses), “hinders slow reading — close reading, textual exegesis, explication, conceptual analysis, deconstruction.” Of course, as part of the inflation process we also have publishing thrown into “high gear”:

The “publish or perish” formula holds as ever, and from what I’ve seen it has decayed pretty far into a simple rule of output, the bare volume of printed words.

The result is a rushed publication schedule that is copied from the natural sciences into the social sciences and humanities.

Bauerline suggests that humanities departments should limit the number of pages that candidates for tenure present for review, to their 100 best pages, and to judge one or two excellent essays as more substantive than four, passable, middling ones. Indeed, with the accompanying publishing problems of increased costs of print, fewer subsidies for academic publishers, the continuing failure of scholars to embrace open access publishing at any great speed, increased copyright restrictions, reduced funds for increasingly expensive library resources, and the limits reached in the number of available reviewers, it would seem perfectly wise to encourage limits or to increase qualitative expectations. Too often it seems that productivity is understood as a quantity, not as a process. The underlying Protestant “work ethic” that informs the positive valuation of scholars who churn out vast amounts of work is also responsible for this distinctively Western cultural bias in higher learning, one that is generating its own unsustainable contradictions.

To give one of many possible examples (I use this one since I happened to receive a notice about this author’s most recent work), in what is meant to be a very positive portrayal of James Petras, his publisher, Clarity Press, has the following biographic statement about him:

James Petras is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York. He is the author of 63 books published in 29 languages, and over 560 articles in professional journals, including the American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, Social Research, Journal of Contemporary Asia, and Journal of Peasant Studies. He has published over 2000 articles in nonprofessional journals such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, New Left Review, Partisan Review, Temps Moderne, Le Monde Diplomatique, and his commentary is widely carried on the internet…read more

I have a great deal of respect for Petras, some of whose books I own and have read, and I respect all of his hard work as well, and I do not intend to take away from that here. However, the numbers seem entirely superfluous and, ironically, are indicative of the values of this Protestant Capitalist system that we inhabit, the so-called education industry, which is reinforced by such presentations.

Aside from that, it really is incredible that one could publish so much, which works out to more than one book per year, and roughly a dozen journal articles published each year — the effort seems to be a superhuman one. As I needlessly suggested before, we could find more examples like this (I doubt many), and one has to wonder whether individuals are conscious of the ideals and values that they project through numbers, and how they continue the culture of more is better.

This system could degenerate into something conceivably vulgar: You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. We’ll see who has the bigger one.

9 thoughts on “A Crisis of Vast Quantities in Academia?

  1. As a recent anthro/soc graduate, I just wanted to offer some of my own observations on the “assigned reading” half of the equation, and see if you’ve noticed the same:

    My first two undergrad years were spent at a fairly large (30,000 students) U.S. university, and in retrospect it seems that the reading : discussion ratio was, indeed, heavily skewed toward the former. Also, it is my perception that grade-inflation was pervasive at that school.
    My last two years were at a much smaller (pop. 1,500) private college, and the prevailing pedagogy there explicitly favored “slow reading,” and extensive in-class discussion. Grading was less forgiving as well.

    So, perhaps conforming to the norm of the “industrialization of intellect” has become more of a necessity at those institutions that must constantly impress the public that funds them, which they accomplish by showing off big numbers, with inflated grades to mask a drop-off in the quality of what they “produce”?

  2. That is possible Brian, and an interesting set of observations. In the narrow confines of where I work there is actually considerable anxiety about appearing to be generous with grades, and I sometimes feel that the pressure put on us has been to deflate grades (which I think is just as bad). Moreover, a system seems to be in place that alerts administrators to possible grade inflation — so if a class in the first year of a program achieves a “B” average, that raises alarms. Administrators can reject the grades, or scale them downwards. But what if the teacher is really great, and the students were highly motivated? This is just scratching the surface of debates we have, and I must confess that now I would prefer a system without any grades whatsoever. It is possible, but probably not very practical (not that I am a fan of practicality).

  3. I should really come back to this, but reacting quickly (and late) after just skimming this short post and comments (yeah, I know…).
    I tend to notice that student engagement is inversely proportional to reading load within certain bounds (a kind of z-shaped curve). There will be some engagement with overwhelming readings and there might be almost no engagement with very limited readings. But students in “engaging environments” argue for fewer readings while students in “entitlement environments” ask for more readings. (Examples only given off-record.)
    The “publish or perish” system is simply unsustainable and hegemonic. It’s felt by almost everyone as a pressure from the outside but the train hasn’t stopped, yet.
    Scholars at research institutions end up writing less original work (ambiguity intended) than their colleagues at teaching institutions. The logic is simple: those who merely try to fill the annual reports don’t have the luxury of exploring new topics, which is one of the main sources of original scholarship. Of course, there’s also the issue of time-commitment, but I think this one is overblown and has some associations to a notion of privilege.

  4. Yes I have to agree with you all on those fronts Alex. In addition, starting with your first point above, I had a change of mind since I wrote — realizing that assigning fewer readings is not the magical formula since those who don’t want to read, won’t read any amount. If I had to guess, 40% of students in any class I have had do most or all of the assigned readings, maybe 35% do some, and the remainder do none at all.

  5. @Max Specifically on the number of assigned readings, it tends to be a balancing act, in a given context. There’s obviously a number of other factors: the type of readings, classroom dynamics, time in the semester… even the content of those texts may count! But there almost seems to be a kind of “formula” in terms of the number of pages per week which will be enough to keep things going without being overwhelming.
    Data on required readings and student engagement must be available somewhere. Unfortunately, much of the literature in the scholarship of teaching and learning tends to be too quantitative and decontextualized for my tastes.

  6. Excellent points again, thanks Alex. I think those really are the key issues concerning levels of reading engagement.

    In terms of overall student workload, I noticed a strong contrast between undegraduate studies today and when I was an undegrad in the 1980s. Back then almost all courses lasted the entire academic year, with typically two exams, two papers, and class participation forming the basis for a grade. A course that listed only a semester was almost sneeringly called a “half course.” Flunkies took “half courses.”

    More than 20 years later, virtually no course lasts the academic year, everything is a “half course.” But with one nasty change: much of the workload of the full year course has been condensed into the half course. Undegrads today are working a lot harder than when I was an undegrad — not only do they have about 60-80% more coursework, more of them are working to support themselves financially (which was rare when I was an undegrad…and I went to York, not some prestigious school for the rich). That so many of these students accomplish so much, produce such great papers, can lead stellar discussions, and often do advanced readings on their own…is quite a statement. So much for the ‘dumbing down’ of students.

    I recently asked about converting my courses into full year versions (i.e., Fall and Winter), and was basically told it was a bad idea because students then have too much riding on one course, and it doesn’t accommodate winter and summer entry students. There is something unsatisfactory about those responses.

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