Here’s the best proposal to be published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in a long time:
Most colleges should stop demanding any publications for tenure. Ask the candidate to write two or three essays, let the whole department and some outside specialists read them carefully, and then assess the qualities of mind they reveal. If the candidate has published a few things, fine, but they should have no advantage over the unpublished ones. Indeed, the candidate should be discouraged from publishing too much. Candidates should write essays that might inspire students and nonstudents alike to plunge into a great novel or poem—more valuable, surely, than demonstrating some arcane point that will interest 11 professors and their poor graduate students.
This was the conclusion of Michael Ferber, a professor of English and the humanities at the University of New Hampshire. He notes that the proliferation of publications, both academic and otherwise, has made it simply impossible for any reasonable person to keep up. He estimates that there are approximately 100,000 new titles published in adult fiction (in English alone).
Ferber says that this problem is not new, but the situation has in recent decades become untenable:
It would be interesting to know when the last man (or woman) of leisure managed to read everything important. It must have been at least two centuries ago; it might have been Montaigne. In 1927, Virginia and Leonard Woolf took part in a BBC broadcast on the topic "Are too many books written and published?" Eighty-seven years later, the question hardly needs to be raised.
Ferber offers a sort of humility that is rarely heard among academics these days. He says, “We should reject the tacit assumption that we resemble scientists, who must do research that builds on previous research to make discoveries that in turn will fold into future discoveries. We are not curing cancer or launching probes to Mars.” But he also clearly has a kind of pride in the traditional role of professor that is missing among many academics. “We are mainly involved in teaching the young to read literature and profit by it, and secondarily in training the next generation of teachers. That so many of us churn out monographs and articles is ludicrous. Oprah does more for literature than we do.”
If academics really wanted to do something that would have the kind of broad influence they once did and the kind of influence that many hard scientists arguably have today, he suggests: “Most of us should do something else, and get recognized for it: teach well, give talks to reading clubs, organize discussions between scientists and humanists, write for the local newspaper, take students to plays and concerts. Become really well-rounded.”
These sorts of activities are rarely, if ever, rewarded by tenure committees unfortunately. But if humanities faculty want to ensure that future generations of students will be around to recognize the importance of their subjects, they should consider Professor Ferber’s suggestions seriously.