The University: An institution for research and scholarship, or an academy for advanced teaching and learning? The best represent both worlds, but worrying trends indicate that undergraduate students are suffering because teachers must devote their attention to inconsequential research rather than the learning of students in the developmental phase of their education. A study, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), shows how teachers must focus on research in order to keep their careers, which creates a tradition of neglect toward undergraduates.
The study was conducted by Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, who begins his report by demonstrating the plummeting standards in undergraduate education. Students come to college expecting heavy work loads, major assignments, and long hours outside of the classroom. A study that Bauerlein cites shows that students actually “study two to six hours less per week on average than they thought they would starting college.”
Not only are students required to do less work than they expected, but the quality of their learning has been diminished. Teachers no longer spend significant amounts of time outside of the classroom engaging the students in discussions, and students have come to accept that visiting a professor for discussion outside of class is not the norm. “Full-time faculty members spend 62 percent of their labor on teaching, but their efforts aren’t sufficiently connecting with students,” Bauerlein reports.
The report makes an important point by focusing on language and literature teachers, because of the importance of the Humanities in college, and the engagement required of its students. He makes an arguable point by writing, in an aside, “Hamlet solicits more discussion and debate than does integral calculus or organic chemistry.” Whether or not that is true, Bauerlein makes up for it by pointing out that scholarship in the field of Humanities has grown repetitive, unimportant, and even harmful.
Between 1980 and 2006, 3,584 scholarly pieces were written on William Faulkner, 3,437 on Charles Dickens, 1,776 on Emily Dickinson and 3,969 on John Milton. William Shakespeare is in a class of his own “with 21,674 separate pieces of scholarship and criticism.” Is this really necessary? Will a study of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia carried out this year reveal new insights that will change literary criticism? It is highly unlikely, and yet professors will devote countless hours studying and writing on this very topic, and on others that have received the same treatment for generations.
Bauerlein writes about these circumstances, “The teachers don’t like it—I haven’t met a single professor happy with the set-up—and the undergraduates suffer for it.” This unfortunate situation is a result of the requirements placed on professors seeking tenure to produce scholarly books and articles in order to be considered. “This indicates an economy focused not on the commodity or the consumer, but on the producer alone,” reads the report. “Scholars no longer produce scholarly goods for a community of inquirers to assess and assimilate.”
The focus is on getting published, he argues, at whatever cost, not on producing something new or scholarly, in the true sense of the word. And this understanding is recognized and verbalized bluntly—“Publication is a fact of survival, the foot in the door and the seat at the table, and nobody imagines otherwise.”
Needless to say, this system is backward. When professors obsess over getting published, undergraduates suffer. Students “become duties to manage and minimize, research a duty to secure and prolong.” But as the author aptly points out, for professors who are seeking a career, and have no other choice but to seek publication, “The intellectual needs of students in English 300 pale before the eye of a distinguished scholar in the field who reviews manuscripts for the best presses.” Professors must choose the master that provides the best returns.
This problem is widely recognized, but taking action to correct it is beyond the realm of possibility for many. If Princeton were to lower its requirements for tenure, for example, Harvard and Yale would quickly outstrip it in reputation and prestige. But Harvard Press editor Lindsay Waters recognizes, “We have to put the cart before the horse. People should not be given tenure because they have written books; people should be given tenure so they have the leisure to develop big projects that make good books.”
Bauerlein’s report offers some possibilities for how to change things:
• A committee should be assembled to study the problem of productivity requirements.
• Money should be offered to undergraduate teaching activities rather than humanities research.
• Major institutions should come together and announce unanimously their plans to loosen requirements for tenure.
Most importantly, however, institutions need to begin to recognize that professors should be hired primarily on their ability to teach. Lindsay Waters argues that great books will come commensurately, and will follow original ideas that professors develop in their work.
Undergraduates need teachers with the time to care, not those with distinguished résumés. The best way to get professors back into the classroom—not only physically, but mentally—is to relax productivity requirements and put the emphasis back on the student.