How U professors aren’t pulling their weight

By Jim

Reporting on the Faculty Senate meeting last month, a writer for the Star Tribune noted that the regents want to change the tenure code at the University and cut salaries when “professors aren’t pulling their weight” (Metro, April 19). Like many legislators, the regents are concerned that tenure is being abused to protect unproductive faculty at the University. How can the University clear away its dead wood without jeopardizing tenure? Quite simply, it can restore the high standards of its once-famous College of Liberal Arts.
The phrase “dead wood” automatically calls an image of aged professors who drone on in the classroom for six hours a week and then retreat to lakefront cabins with four months of paid vacation. But, in fact, many professors turn into dead wood as soon as they get tenure, even though some of them continue to be popular in a classroom of undergraduates. Academics die professionally when they lose their motivation for creative scholarship.
Minnesotans generally understand that a university must give its professors a light course load so they can devote 50 hours a week to the teaching that matters most: disseminating their knowledge and spreading the fame of their research institution. By imparting their scholarship to colleagues internationally, professors make the whole world their classroom. To this end, tenure is indispensable. Its defenders sometimes forget, however, that tenure does not relieve professors of responsibility for communicating their research. To put it bluntly, professors who do not publish deserve to perish. They aren’t pulling their weight as scholars.
In CLA, most faculty accept the responsibility that University status brings, but they are wary of letting administrators tell them what research they can do. Tenure protects a scholar from the arbitrary decisions by a regent like Jean Keffeler or a provost like William Brody, both of whom apparently want to turn the University into a technical school and run it as a business. In their view, the University’s mission is to train students for the workplace; therefore, any course at the University that does not lead directly to a vocation is worthless, and one is supposed to study history or nursing or music for the same reason — to get a job.
This warped measure of CLA as a vocational institute will not be rectified so long as the administrators themselves are at a loss to explain what makes a productive scholar in history or in the humanities. Even some of the deans have trouble distinguishing cultural and historical scholarship in the humanities from quantifiable, scientific research — for example, the CLA dean who was replaced in January. This dean, a professor from the clinical sciences, was smart and fair, but hadn’t a clue about to how to evaluate published research in the humanities.
In physics or statistics, research gets published in the form of articles, or in papers read at national conferences. Scientists and social scientists make their contributions to “knowledge” with these papers. Biologists or economists seldom write books unless they mean to popularize the subject. The situation is exactly reversed in the humanities and history. In these fields, the sole badge of professional research is a book or a scholarly edition (of a play by Shakespeare, for example). An article barely scratches the surface of the humanities, whose timeless contents are best illuminated by the sweep and power of an original monograph.
New discoveries in the humanities are few and far between. Sometimes an unknown document or artifact turns up, and it can be reported in an article, just like any scientific finding. But normally, doing research in the humanities means piecing together facts that have long been known and giving them an original interpretation. To convince colleagues that a familiar document makes better sense when read in a new context, a humanities professor needs full command of the established facts and their traditional interpretation. This requires lengthy argument with other scholars, a dialogue that is possible only in a book. A scholar in the humanities is rightly suspicious of articles. Their brief scope will not accommodate “cutting-edge” research.
Legislators point out that CLA has lost rank in the national standings. The problem is not the quantity of the CLA’s scholarship, but its quality. What seems to have happened is a growing number of CLA’s professors — perhaps 20 percent of its 500 faculty — have taken to mimicking their colleagues in the sciences by writing articles instead of books. Quality is hurt also when a CLA professor gathers together articles that are the work of somebody else and cobbles them into a loose “publication” to swell the professor’s own resume.
Collective scholarship in the humanities cannot hope to imitate the team projects of the sciences and social sciences. It fails because the goal of science — to “discover” knowledge — clashes with the aim of the humanities, which is to “interpret” it. Interpreting history and the humanities has always been a job for the individual. That is not likely to change. When a team of humanities professors try to combine their individual interpretations, they wind up generating truisms. In the humanities, a publication that has no author lacks authority.
In the typical case, a humanities professor collects articles written by others and “piggybacks” them in an anthology with a preface. Such piggybacking, if it is up-to-date, can provide a kind of forum to highlight an unresolved problem. But it cannot provide a solution — the “authoritative” interpretation that gives integrity to the best research in the humanities.
The deans neglect to distinguish between original research and piggyback scholarship when they apply a quantitative yardstick to publication in CLA. They appoint bean-counting Promotion and Tenure Committees who log piggyback work as “scholarly activity” and use it to justify promotions. As a consequence, piggyback scholarship has become a professional embarrassment to the University, and CLA’s reputation in the academic world has plummeted.
Piggyback scholarship thrives alongside true research in the largest departments of CLA. For example, the Department of English has on its roster (excluding the professors of creative writing) 32 tenured professors. The handbook of the department’s Graduate Studies Office notes that over the past 14 years, those professors have among them published 42 book-length works. Three books a year sounds very respectable, until you examine the titles. Only half of them are authored books. Of the other publications, fully a dozen are piggyback scholarship: spineless anthologies, picayune bibliographies, interviews and diaries tricked out as patchwork research.
The department’s authored books, on the one hand, cover a wide range of subjects: from “Beowulf” to “Brave New World,” from Shakespeare to Ira Gershwin, from Chaucer and 18th century philosophy to Freud and detective fiction. These monographs bring credit to one of the stronger research departments in the college. But the piggyback titles, ranging from a bibliography on writing with word processors to collections of incest narratives and status reports on feminists in academe, serve merely to advertise the dilettantism of CLA professors.
Piggyback scholarship looks specialized and sounds new, but it should not pass for research in CLA. Minnesota deserves professors who are pulling their weight, and if the administration balks at restoring national standards to the University, the Legislature should act. While preserving tenure, they ought to insist that the publication of all tenured professors be reviewed and their salaries adjusted to reflect significant scholarship: not parochial activity, but the genuine research that alone brings a university national recognition.
Jim Gardner is a former Ph.D. candidate in the College of Liberal Arts and has authored several communicationsmanuals.