From: Tzvee Zahavy <firstname.lastname@example.org> (116)
Subject: The emperor's clothes: item for debate?
MN DAILY 5/20/96 EDITORIAL/OPINIONS
How U professors aren't pulling their weight
By Jim Gardner
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 To put it bluntly, professors who do not publish deserve to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
ocument 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
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 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 communications manuals.