On Mark Bauerlein, and Saying Goodbye to Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors”

There’s something vaguely familiar in the air as I sit down to write this blog post. I write from Cornell University’s wonderful Olin Library, where the students are in the middle of their finals period, and I’ve been working for the last few days in the Kroch Library, where Cornell houses its rare books and special collections. There, I’ve been examining the files of Robert Nathan, a fascinating mid-20th century American economist and businessman who engaged in development and modernization projects all around the world – Korea, Afghanistan, Burma, El Salvador – during the 1950s and 1960s, usually on contracts from countries’ governments to help them figure out how to streamline their monetary and fiscal policy.

I’ve been looking specifically at the Afghanistan material, which runs from 1962-1971, and touches on themes that are sadly current for that country’s development: effective taxation rates close to zero throughout much of the country, insider loans, and a lack of genuine free-enterprise (as opposed to monopolistic or statist) attitudes toward business. It’s a bit of depressing, if also interesting material, but for the moment, I’m simply happy to be somewhere like Cornell, where (unlike certain universities in the United Kingdom) it’s taken for granted that libraries should stay open until 2 AM, that 24/7 convenience stores and restaurants are to be celebrated, and that one should have to sweat trudging up massive hills to get to such arrangements. Ah, well, scratch the last one. But I’m out of Ithaca (for New Jersey and, afterwards, California) tomorrow morning, anyway.

Cornell's Beautiful (?) Olin Library, my work space for the last few days

One of the other joys of American university libraries is that they’re often open stack, which has granted me a fair amount of liberty in catching up on my reading after Kroch closes at 5 PM here. And in recent weeks, I’ve been particularly interested in engaging with recent debates about American higher education, a topic that I’ve written about on this blog before. About a week and a half ago, most prominently, Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory, wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Research Bust,” in which he criticized the culture that surrounds the writing of academic articles in most humanities disciplines today. In effect, he argues that universities spend far too much time, and in effect subsidize far too lavishly, the writing of academic articles that no one reads, or at least cites. (His criticism parallels that made by the various legal scamblogs, which have noted that a similar problem exists in legal academia, too: legal academics write tons of scholarship which nobody seems to read or cite … and yet all too often that very same scholarship is crucial for advancement within a legal academic career.) Given that few people read the scholarship, it’s of limited use by definition; and there’s little to no evidence suggesting that a beefy research portfolio is what makes someone a better teacher. So why continue to promote this model?

The responses to Bauerlein’s piece were diverse if sometimes predictable. Some noted that Bauerlein didn’t provide concrete (and objective) standards for how to promote people based on quality rather than quantity of research. Others noted that even if most articles are useless, that misses the point: academic consensus and research on subjects tends, they implied, to change in leaps-and-bounds fashion, not in piecemeal. It’s impossible to predict which particular article in which journal by which person might move the field forward, so it’s justifiable to produce 99% garbage if the 1% is really quite compelling. Others worried about the cultural consequences that a shift from a research-driven academic culture to a teaching-driven culture might entail. Professors (or, more commonly, adjuncts) instructed to teach “the best that has been written” might be coöpted to promote a conservative values agenda, people on the left might protest. Dismantling the emphasis on so much writing and research might also, others have argued, discourage students from learning how to critically build and dismantle arguments in other spheres. If there’s some agreement that the best scholarship that could possibly have been written on Milton, has already been written, there’s less of an argument for coercing students into writing 25-page papers on Satan or Eve in Paradise Lost.

This all said, I think Bauerlein’s article, while well-intentioned, misses the more fundamental shift going on in American higher education today – the opening of a great divide between vocational schools and a trivially small number (25-30 nationally) of prestige-driven élite institutions. That’s a distinction that I was aware of, but couldn’t quite articulate until reading (thanks to the Olin Library’s open shelves … take note, Oxford!) the excellent book The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue, a professor of English at Ohio State University. An ambitious and well-written book, The Last Professors covers a lot of ground: the historical skepticism of American business élites towards a humanistic education in universities; the casualization of labor in American higher education since the 1970s (as in many professional spheres); pre-professionalization as an ultimate imperative among graduate students; and other topics. I highly recommend it!

Specifically, however, the part of Donoghue’s argument that I think directly engages with Bauerlein comes in his chapters “Professors of the Future” and “Prestige Envy.” As Donoghue shows – and Bauerlein omits in his piece – since the 1970s American public universities have generally shifted from relying on public funds to fund themselves, to private sources. This shift means that universities have a couple of choices for how to pay the bills. They can, as many universities, like Princeton, do, encourage a strong alumni culture, hope that their alumni enter remunerative-enough fields that they can make major donations to the school, or, failing highly remunerative careers, do famous and/or interesting things that will win the school renown and prestige. If a university is perceived as already being prestigious and/or successful, the smart sons and daughters of the (hopefully) wealthy and well-connected will apply there, and the university can move up the prestige (and wealth) chain. Schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT already play this game, and the presidency of John Sexton at NYU is probably the best example of how good, but slightly lower-ranked schools attempt to play this game: play up the school’s “global” ambitions, hire superstar professors, open foreign campuses, and hope that you move up in the rankings. The crazy thing is, for students at the most prestigious schools, it almost doesn’t matter how much the education costs, or what precisely they major in. Just get a high enough GPA, go to the right recruiting events, win the right fellowships, and things will be fine. In this regard, Donoghue questions whether the top stratum of American higher education has basically become a Veblen good.

The second option, however, if a school isn’t in the position to play the prestige game (having the best football team, the best economics department, etc.) is to “cross the Rubicon” into the consumer university model, a model more similar to the game that for-profit colleges play. On that decision path, public universities don’t go the road of a University of Virginia, University of Michigan, or Ohio State University; instead, they start to market explicitly pre-professional programs, short-term MBA programs, online education, etc., all which will promise to vault the student into the employment market as quickly as possible. Locking in hundreds of thousands of students into part-time professional programs, all guaranteed by federal student loans, is a great business model if you’re already not high up in the prestige ladder. Schools like George Mason University (which has some excellent departments and a great digital humanities project) and Northern Virginia Community College are examples of this latter trend. And it bears mentioning that both the current Presidential administration as well as large corporate and private donors have enthusiastically supported the expansion of similar models at American community colleges, as part of an effort to improve skills among American workers.

The expansion of more pre-professional and skills-based education is hardly a bad thing, especially as compared to some of the junk food that cultural studies departments at great American universities regularly serve up. But, if American higher education is tacitly endorsing a two-track system whereby Sneetches with a green star (the Ivies and élite schools) end up managing large institutions, and Sneetches without a green star (skills-based community colleges) end up hopefully employed, but still ultimately in the 99%, it should at least be honest about this fact – or explain how the Obama approach towards more skills-based education and pre-professionalism strikes a compromise between a 21st century workforce and a commitment to a quality education for first-generation Americans, first-generation college attendees, racial minorities, the poor, and other disadvantaged groups.

Nice star! Harvard or Yale?

To return to Bauerlein, the point, then, is that the publishing cult is actually the ripple effect of American universities pursuing the first (prestige-driven) model. As Donoghue highlights in The Last Professors, one of the saving graces for humanities professors who are unable to justify their existence as policy professionals or as professional authors, is that there will always be a certain number of universities in the United States and globally which will seek to compete on having “the most #1 rated departments,” or “the best English department,” whatever either of those two statistics mean. University presidents and deans, even if at only 25-30 schools nationally, will come to department chairs and demand they higher the best, or capture the best young Milton scholar, so that ___ State University can claim to have the best English Department.

But this demand drives the homogenization of scholarship (all PhD dissertations look pretty similar) and the quantity-not-quality paradigm, since it’s important that rankers, department chairs, and deans are able to compare candidates one-to-one with some claim to objectivity. If one scholar has such-and-such a fellowship, and has published five articles in top journals (even if no one read them!), and another candidate has not, it’s easy to decide whom to take. The persistence of interviews and job talks suggests that departments haven’t completely given up on making subjective calls on quality, personability, and the like. But to shift towards a more teaching-centric system would require that teaching itself become more homogenized and easily comparable from teacher to teacher. It’s hard to imagine how that would take place.

In other words, Bauerlein might be right that the idea that scholars should be producing more and more research that no one reads is crazy. But it’s not so crazy if we view it as the outgrowth of a crazy system: one where a certain subset of schools compete for talent to maintain their position in the rankings, not because anybody thinks that departments can actually be ranked, but because of the institutional imperatives all but the very, very elite universities face to distinguish themselves and drive donations and funding: think Johns Hopkins, Penn, Brandeis, Washington University in Saint Louis, and so on. Of course, there are far more faces and potential candidates to fill these slots, which is why academia remains such a cruel professional game. The people in the very top universities have access to a world of resources and contacts, but the far, far, far more common case, as Donoghue points out, is that of an adjunct professor at, say, Ohio University, or of a devoted but under-resourced professor at somewhere like the University of New Hampshire. That’s part of why American higher education these days can be so contradictory: stories of adjuncts on food stamps at the one place, and stories like that of the University of Chicago’s Assyrian Dictionary on the other.

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