06 December 2011

Another Consequence of the College Bubble

In my hand I have a hefty article on a canonical English poet, published 10 years ago in a distinguished journal. It runs for 21 pages and has 31 footnotes, with extensive references to philosophy and art. The article is learned, wide-ranging, and conversant with scholarship on the poet and theoretical currents in literary studies. The argument is dense, the analysis acute, on its face a worthy illustration of academic study deserving broad notice and integration into subsequent research in the field.
That reception doesn't seem to have happened. When, on May 25, I typed the title into Google Scholar, only nine citations of the original article showed up. Of those nine, six of them make only perfunctory nods in a footnote, along the lines of "Recent examples include ... " and "For a recent essay on the subject, see. ... " The other three engage with the essay more substantively, but not by much, inserting in their text merely two or three sentences on the original essay. Additionally, in books on the English poet published from 2004 to 2011 that don't show up on Google Scholar (the search engine picks up most major humanities journals but is sketchy on books), the original article receives not a single citation.
That adds up to but a handful of sentences of commentary on the original article by other scholars in the 10 years after its publication. On the input side, we have 100-plus hours of hard work by a skilled academic, plus the money the university paid the professor to conduct the research. On the impact side, we can be sure of only a few scholars who incorporated it into their work. The quality is high, the professionalism obvious, but the reception of the article hasn't come close to matching the time and energy and talent it took to create it.
Unfortunately, this is not a singular instance. However much they certify their authors as professionals and win them jobs and tenure, essays and books of high scholarly merit in literary studies suffer the same inattention all the time. Why? Because after four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough data for anything other than speculation.  However, given the laws of supply and subsidy, a case can be made that the college bubble has led to this surplus of research, most of which is useless.

One requirement of tenure is that professors first write a certain number of papers.  Once one receives tenure (or even some sort of professorship), one is expected to write.  A lot.

The college bubble has had the effect of increasing the number of college students, by a radical amount.  The increasing number of students has led to an increasing demand for professors.  Colleges don’t dumb down their requirements for professorship or tenure.  Ergo, the direct subsidy of college students has led to an indirect subsidy of professorial research.

While this is a simplistic model, it certainly fits with the known facts.  As the linked article explains:
We can no longer pretend, too, that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today, after three decades have produced 2,007 items on the poet, as they were in 1965, when the previous three decades had produced only 233.

Basically, the explosion in research production correlates with a) the approximate start of the college bubble, b) the increased number of students in college, and c) the increased cost of college.  While correlation is not causation, it should also be noted that correlation doesn’t disprove causation either.

Admittedly, the case that the increase in scholarly research, and its redundancy, is due to the college bubble is circumstantial.  But that doesn’t make it false.  It does, however, make it something to consider.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. College English and literature courses routinely resort to computer word search and compare software to check students who are plagiarizing work previously done by someone else. But as you point out, when there have been 10,000 students before you writing about the same poem, sonnet or novel, how can you possibly expect number 10,001 to write something unique?

    At least in the STEM courses, everyone is expected to have exactly the same answer and to get it exactly the same way.

    What have all those thousands of studies on Emily Dickinson added to humanity? Other than helping some unimportant drone get her next unmarketable degree... nothing. When the economy collapses, those are the sort of people society discovers it can do without.

  3. When an article goes unread like this, there is still at least one person who benefits from it: the author himself, and I don't just cynically mean that in the "one more line on the CV" sense. The fact is, there's no better way to learn than to do original research. *IF* we take it as an axiom that society benefits by having people who are experts on canonical English poets, then this journal article was beneficial purely by virtue of enhancing the author's expertise. Of course, this just shifts the question to "does society really need experts on canonical English poets?"

  4. @Prof. Hale- Exacerbating the problem is that professors are now realizing that there isn't much of anything new to say about a lot of things, so the pressure to say something original that has now been passed on to students has resulted in an explosion of plagiarism detection software. Weirdly, it never seems to occur to these professors that perhaps there really isn't that much more to say.

    @GMF- Original research can certainly contribute to learning (I find that to be a benefit of education, FWIW). However, this shouldn't require a federal subsidy.