Doubting value of faculty scholarship absurd

by By Peter

Jim Gardner’s opinions piece about how University professors — specifically those in the College of Liberal Arts and more narrowly those in the Department of English — are “not pulling their weight” needs a response (“How U professors aren’t pulling their weight,” May 20).
Gardner’s broadest premises might have some validity. Perhaps there is too much emphasis on quantity of scholarly publication. If so, it would be understandable because the present merit system works to encourage that. And perhaps the quality of work is not all that it should be in all units. We probably aren’t all quite as smart as Gardner would like us to be. But there may be some other reasons for the less-than-ideal scholarship — like the fact that a faculty too small by any measure is carrying a heavy load. Let’s look at the basis for Gardner’s assertions.
His point seems to be that in the humanities (notably in English), the prime measure of scholarly accomplishment should be the single-author book, or monograph. He dismisses articles as being valuable in the sciences for announcing new discoveries but valueless in the humanities. That is simply stupid, but I’ll leave it for now. He also dismisses edited collections of essays as “piggyback scholarship,” seeming to imply that such works are not only of little value, but are somehow intellectually dishonest. That is another silly assertion.
Ironically, Gardner may have done what he accuses others of doing: namely, been preoccupied with quantity. There is no doubt that a single-author book takes more time, is more work and produces more pages by the writer than an article or collection. In most circumstances, it is indeed considered a greater achievement than the other two genres and it is frequently a criterion for promotion. And, admittedly, there are those in the humanities — and, yes, in English — who received promotion and tenure without writing a book.
It is also true that the great effort of producing a single-author book is poorly rewarded. Under our system, someone working on a major book may publish nothing else during the years of effort going toward that project. Someone else who produces a number of articles may receive more frequent merit increases. A colleague of mine who has produced three important books received one of the lowest merit increases in my department last year. Most departments, though, usually make an effort to give single-author books proportionate recognition when they appear.
Having written in all of the forms Gardner mentions — a monograph, single articles and collections — I know firsthand that the monograph is the most work. But neither the values of the other forms nor the effort involved in their creation should be dismissed as lightly as they are by Gardner. There have been articles in the humanities that have proved seminal. Size does not determine value.
It is true that edited collections may be assembled more easily than books and there is no denying that there seems to be a proliferation of quick-and-dirty ones lately; their value will vary, but so does that of monographs. Sometimes edited collections can draw together the thinking on a particular problem from the best experts in a field. They can even, in the course of their creation, bring those experts into a discourse that leads to new knowledge. However tempting it may be to snappily dismiss this form as “piggybacking,” it is both snobbish and indiscriminate to do so.
The one truly outrageous part of Gardner’s piece was his assertion that “the CLA dean who was replaced in January, a professor from the clinical sciences” — clearly referring to Dean Julia Davis — “was smart and fair, but hadn’t a clue about how to evaluate published research in the humanities.” Having served as an associate dean with Davis for four years, I am still puzzling as to how I could have missed seeing Gardner while he was making these observations. No doubt some little bird, doubtless an aggrieved one, whispered these reports in his ear. My observation in working closely with Davis was that she was herself astute and discerning, but also did an extraordinary amount of consulting with others, here and at other universities, in areas where she knew her expertise might be questioned. Perhaps it is unpardonable that this dean was a scientist, but no dean will be omniscient. Departmental colleagues, chairpersons and internal and external reviewers in the discipline are supposed to provide deans with expert advice.
Last, I have seen colleagues who have published enough for promotion and tenure and then gone to sleep. I have even seen the reverse: sterile decades suddenly giving way to creativity. There are those who work steadily and with great dedication who will never be nationally distinguished scholars. And there are those we all wish we could emulate, those whose triumphs seem to come inevitably and effortlessly. We — University professors and CLA faculty — are a mixed bunch, generally working hard and doing our best; some brilliant, some bumbling and most feeling sorely beset by threatening times. Thoughtless denigration is not particularly helpful to us.
Peter J. Reed is a professor in the Department of English.