January 13, 2005

Production and Overproduction

John Holbo writes, as part of his ongoing commentary on Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe, that part of the challenge facing academics today is how to “overproduce with dignity”.

New information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the growth rate of the income gap between those with an undergraduate degree and those with only a high school degree has come to a stop. It had been slowing for a while after dramatic growth in the 1980s and 1990s.

I sometimes think the nightmare scenario for American higher education would be if both parents and employers simultaneously came to the conclusion that the expense of a college education does not justify the return. If that gap not only stopped widening but started to close, the colleges and universities that passively have come to rely on the inevitability of young people seeking a bachelor’s degree would find themselves hard-pressed.

Having just been at the American Historical Association’s meetings, I couldn’t help but recall once again my worst interview experience, over ten years ago. I went to an interview with a tertiary public institution from a Midwestern state. Most of their students, by their own description, were local people and most of them were looking for a narrowly vocational degree of some kind. The historians interviewing me had joined in a sort of pact with several other departments in the humanities at their university to force a core curriculum requirement of several humanities courses on all the students. In the case of the historians, it was a Western Civ course. Had I been hired there, I would have taught a 4/4 load of Western Civ with class sizes around 200. No T.A.s. I must have looked pale as the chair leaned over and said, “Oh, don’t worry, all our tests are Scan-Tron”. You want a profscam? That’s a profscam. 200 person lecture courses on Western Civ with multiple choice questions foisted on people looking for some very particular professional or career training. Otherwise known as, “How to make people hate the liberal arts and see them as an obstacle”. You could do a better job wheeling in a television tuned to the History Channel.

Imagine if potential students not only recognized how pointless that kind of education is in terms of aiding with their life objectives but found that the society at large also recognized the same, and found other ways to train people and differentially search for good employees. It already happens here and there, in the software industry, for example.

Even at highly selective institutions, I don’t know that many faculty and administrators think very well or very systematically about whether the implicit guarantees about skills embedded in the degrees they confer are very well realized in the students that they graduate.

A big part of the problem is the way that academic institutions think about and measure productivity. It’s become increasingly common for state legislatures to hammer public institutions for more and more quantitative evidence of productivity, but even at institutions which do not have to answer to legislators, various metrics of productivity have become more and more common. (British universities are also under siege from some of the same demands.)

What ends up being measured, however? First, the productivity of scholarship: numbers of things published and disseminated, grant monies secured, quantities of fellowships and memberships. In suggesting that the status quo of such productivity lacks (and needs) dignity, John Holbo is pointing to the core of some of academia’s worst ills. The drive to scholarly overproduction which now reaches even the least selective institutions and touches every corner and niche of academia is a key underlying source of the degradation of the entire scholarly enterprise. It produces repetition. It encourages obscurantism. It generates knowledge that has no declared purpose or passion behind it, not even the purpose of anti-purpose, of knowledge undertaken for knowledge’s sake. It fills the academic day with a tremendous excess of peer review and distractions. It makes it increasingly hard to know anything, because to increase one’s knowledge requires every more demanding heuristics for ignoring the tremendous outflow of material from the academy. It forces overspecialization as a strategy for controlling the domains to which one is responsible as a scholar and teacher.

You can’t blame anyone in particular for this. Everyone is doing the simple thing, the required thing, when they publish the same chapter from an upcoming manuscript in six different journals, when they go out on the conference circuit, when they churn out iterations of the same project in five different manuscripts over ten years. None of that takes conscious effort: it’s just being swept along by an irresistible tide. It’s the result of a rigged market: it’s as if some gigantic institutional machinery has placed an order for scholarship by the truckload regardless of whether it’s wanted or needed. It’s like the world’s worst Five-Year Plan ever: a mountain of gaskets without any machines to place them in.

You could try to contest this if you wanted to measure academic productivity by looking to the importance or significance of particular scholarly work. But even that inevitably will lead to some ghastly results, whether you use a citation index or Google Scholar.

So my simple suggestion is this: stop. Administrations and faculties need to stop caring how much someone writes or publishes or says, or even how important what they’ve published is according to some measurable or quantifiable metric. Not only because trying to measure productivity in terms of scholarship destroys scholarship, but because it detracts from the truly important kind of productivity in an academic institution.

What really matters is this: how different are your students when they graduate from what they would have been had they not attended your institution, and how clearly can you attribute that difference to the things that you actively do in your classrooms and your institution as a whole? What, in short, did you teach them that they would not have otherwise known? How did you change them as people in a way that has some positive connection to their later lives?

That can be about income. It can be about happiness or satisfaction. It can be about civic or political contribution to their communities. It can be about competence. It can be about imagination. Not all these things can be quantified, but all of them can or ought to be made as concrete as possible.

Many colleges and universities, public and private, have gotten lazy about this essential task. They’ve relied on evidence of the income gap, and on hazy assumptions about the interior impact of a college education on character, personality, and ability. We fall back on profiles of our accomplished alumni and so implicitly claim credit for their being what they now are—but our collective ability to account clearly for such particular results in terms of particular things we do is often far weaker than we let on. Truthfully, alumni for most colleges and universities do that job for their alma mater better than the alma mater can do for itself.

I can tell you what difference I think going toWesleyan made for me, but if I were going to be skeptical about my own recollections, I might wonder if I would be attributing to a coherent institutional design the accident of my encounter with particular individual professors and a certain amount of auto-didactic effort which was made easier by the ambiance of the general environment and associated resources. Hanging around with a bunch of smart peers and smart teachers in a materially bountiful environment might help most people to form and sharpen their intellects and skills, but I’m not entirely sure that most colleges and universities are entitled to strongly claim that the good results of that process systematically derive from the careful design of their four-year programs. Reading Walter Kirn’s “Lost in the Meritocracy” in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, describing how in his years at Princeton he and his friends shammed their way through classes and began to have the terrible suspicion that the professors and administrators were shamming right along with them, my doubts redoubled.

It’s the only productivity that matters, however we try to measure or account for it. What do we do by design that we can reasonably say produces a positive, identifiable difference in the lives of our students and our wider community? Scholarship enters that question somewhere, but hardly at all in the ghastly spew of excess publication that contemporary academia demands.