Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Same Old, Same Old?

Mark Bauerlin's asks some interesting questions in his recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education ("Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research"). Questions like: with 4,230 new academic publications on Hamlet appearing in just the last fifty years, is there really anything else to say about it? He raises legitimate concerns about the "publish or perish" ethic in academia now, which has resulted in exponentially more publications read by exponentially less people, and he wonders whether or not there is anything worthwhile to come of squeezing some of those turnips any longer. Although I would probably want to stop short of his exasperation (he writes: "Whoa! Slow down! Hamlet can't give you any more!"), I think he's onto something in his call for us to reconsider the merits of valuing quantity over quality in tenure and promotion decisions. I like his two suggested remedies: (1) for departments to "limit the amount of material they examine at promotion time," and (2) for subsidizers of humanities research to "shift their support away from saturated areas and toward unsaturated areas." I suspect his will be an uphill battle on both counts, as are all battles with the Publish or Perish Regime, which at this point has sedimented into some bloated, baroque, immovable object that serves as the center of gravity in the academic world. For all the complaining that people do about it-- and a lot of people do a lot of complaining-- all junior faculty know that you can't go over it, you can't go under it, and you can't go around it. Gotta go through it.

Still, I do have a couple of issues with Bauerlin's piece, which reads a little bit like the Book of Ecclesiastes at times. Remember this?
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.
Those words from the Teacher in Ecclesiastes seem to be consonant with Bauerlin's tone when he's talking about what he calls the "saturated" areas of humanities research. I'm less inclined to agree with Bauerlin that there's nothing else to be said about Hamlet, or that filtering old texts through new theories (feminism, queer theory, deconstruction) doesn't actually produce new ideas, but that may be a prejudice that inheres in my particular discipline... where we've been knocking around the same questions and many of the same texts for over two millenia. Of course, that doesn't mean that everything new that comes out about these texts is genuinely "new" (or even interesting), but I'm not sure that his approach is the best one. There's a difference between saying that we should cut off some of the fat in academic publications and saying that many of the age-old areas of humanities research are now saturated, or "all" fat.

Especially given Bauerlin's concern with fostering good pedagogy as much as good research-- which constitutes some of the best parts of his article-- I wonder how productive it is to dismiss the importance of considering and reconsidering the humanities "canon." If he really does want students and young professors to spend more time talking about books and ideas, then the "there's-nothing-new-under-the-sun-to-say-about-Hamlet" approach probably isn't the best way to make a space for those conversations. I get the sense that he would probably be sympathetic with this criticism, that he really wants to say "there's nothing new to publish about Hamlet" (or "there's not that much new to publish about Hamlet"), so that young academics could feel more free to spend their time saying all the things there are to say about it to their students instead of to an ever-diminishing audience of professional readers.

On the other hand, to Bauerlin's credit, I haven't heard anything new about Hamlet in a long while, either.


anotherpanacea said...

Good points. Also, Drabinski's point on Facebook, that Bauerlin's aim here is a politicized one (he did this research for the American Enterprise Institute) is also good.

Perhaps this is a departmental prejudice, but it seems like there's a difference between enduring questions and enduring texts: I doubt he'd make the same points about Descartes and Plato.

Scholars are still writing about Hamlet mostly because they're sharpening their skills for teaching it. This may, in part, be due to the way in which English departments allocate resources. There'd be fewer papers and monographs on Shakespeare if there were more jobs in post-colonial literature or American genre fiction: "Sanity Norms in Stephen King," or "Epistemic Proceduralism in Brown's Robert Langdon and Chesterton's Father Brown."

DOCTOR J said...

I bet if he were a philosopher, he WOULD say the same of Descartes and Plato.

And I should thank both you and John for pointing out to me that I read a bit too quickly over his remarks about "new" Theory. Clearly, some of his exasperation is aimed at what he doesn't think is "real" scholarship... which, now that I think about it, makes it even stranger that he uses Hamlet as a target!

steventhomas said...

Being a member of an English department, I have read some good, new work on Hamlet. (I haven't read any new good work on Plato, but I'm not in a philosophy department.)

In my view Bauerlein is a complete asshole -- and rather typical of the Chronicle which seems to prefer reactionary crap.

More on that in my latest blog post, which mentions yours and agrees entirely with everything you say (except for your last sentence on Hamlet.)