Higher Ed

The Conflicted Status of Humanities Research in the Contemporary University

David R. Shumway

According to Talcott Parsons and Gerald Platt, research that produces knowledge “for its own sake” is identified with the “core sector” of the American university, where, along with graduate training, it embodies “cognitive primacy” over the other sectors of the institution (92). The centrality of such research is illustrated by the departmental organizational structure defined by disciplines that emerged with the university in the late nineteenth century. Although there have always been alternative visions, what Parsons and Platt articulate is very much the way academics have traditionally perceived the university. Outsiders in general have not understood the university in these terms. Moreover, the idea that research is what all disciplines share was much less problematic at the turn of the twentieth century than it has since become. Research, since World War II, has become increasingly identified with science and technology as something supported by external funding, while research in the humanities has tended to be invisible to both administrators and the public (see Geiger). And as outside support has become the norm, pure research has ceased to be so. Since humanities research seldom has direct practical applications, this change has further compromised its position both in and out of academe. For these and other reasons, research in the humanities no longer seems unproblematically at the contemporary university’s core.

When we talk about research as a requirement for tenure and promotion, we mean the product, not the process. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that until recently, most academic humanists were not expected to continue to keep on producing in order to keep their jobs. A contemporary survey of English departments showed that “before 1968 neither the monograph nor other kinds of publication were regarded as a principal requirement for tenure” (Wilcox), while in an MLA survey of 2005, “75.8% of respondents rank publication ‘very important’ for earning tenure in their departments” (“Report” 29). Of course, the adjunctification of the academy has created a large group of faculty members who have little time for research, but those who are on the tenure track, even at what were previously known as teaching institutions, are now more likely to be required to publish, if in smaller quantities than at research institutions. Because more faculty members are now expected to publish, they are more likely to think of publishing, rather than teaching, as their primary activity.

And yet, most people think that the primary job of college professors is teaching. In his recent attack in the New York Times on contemporary American higher education, the pundit Kevin Carey does not even mention research. But even those in the academy may not see research as fundamental. Louis Menand has argued that the dissertation should be abandoned as a requirement for the PhD: “The case against the dissertation requirement is partly an old one, which is that there is no correlation between the ability to write a dissertation and the ability to teach.” The assumption here is that what academics really do is teach. This is a problem, since, as Vanessa Ryan observes in her contribution to this forum, “our professional identity is often understood as a function of our research identity, starting with the completion of a dissertation.”

This professional identity is not merely the way others in our field recognize us but the way we understand who we are. As I have argued elsewhere, “disciplines produce an identification between the inquirer and the object of inquiry”; “To be a Shakespearean doesn’t just mean to know the works of Shakespeare; it also means to adore them. And as the name ‘Shakespearean’ implies, one derives part of one’s identity from the object of study” (104; 102). Graduate students do not just learn history or English or physics; they learn to be historians, literary scholars, or physicists. The discipline we learn in graduate school defines who we are, and that discipline is a research practice.

Moreover, disciplines also define our audience. We learn how to write for that audience and that we should write for it. It is true that tenure requirements usually specify that publication be in peer-reviewed venues, but it is not clear that this fact inhibits academics from writing for a larger public. Rather, their sense of their research is the inhibition. The insular character of most academic publication contributes to the sense that such writing is insignificant, as Menand illustrates. He publishes constantly, but not usually in academic venues. Thus his writing is exempted from the “indifference and hostility” he believes most people hold toward “academic writing.” He asserts, “I can’t think of a single person I know who entered college around the time I did, in 1969, and who did not go on to become a professor, who has the slightest interest in . . . what goes on within university humanities departments.” Menand blames “credentialism”—in effect, training in research―for creating “a wall . . . between academic intellectuals and everyone else.” In this reading, the activity of research actually inhibits interest in the research product.

Research as process is one of the chief requirements for academic discipline. It was originally rooted in the assumptions of the scientific revolution and in a simple positivism that held all knowledge as valuable. The research university, with its disciplinary divisions and its principle of covering the universe of knowledge, was founded on it. Both the MA and the PhD were originally conceived as culminating in the production of a contribution of original research, differing mainly in the scale of said contribution. Thus, even though as late as 1969 nearly half of all English department faculty members above the rank of instructor did not hold the doctorate (Wilcox), it still does not mean that these faculty members were untrained in research.

University faculty members have always been trained mainly as researchers, and not directly as teachers. Back when publication was not demanded of most professors, there may have been a significant disjunction between training and career. Yet teachers trained as researchers were assumed to be experts in ways that those without such training were not. The extent to which university faculty members have been understood as professionals has depended on this expertise, which schoolteachers, who have been largely deprived of professional status, are not assumed to hold. Professors were assumed to be engaged in the process of research even if they were not publishing.

In theory, the link between teaching and research goes back to nineteenth-century German educational reformers, who, according to Jürgen Habermas, “were able to think of the scientific process as a narcissistically self-enclosed circular process of research and teaching because the philosophy of German idealism by its very nature required a unity of teaching and research. . . . Schelling, in his Lectures on the Methodology of Academic Study, demonstrated that the form in which a philosophical idea is transmitted pedagogically arises out of its construction” (110). It is unclear, however, just how influential this theory was in the United States, although its influence is often taken for granted, as it is in Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins. As Laurence Veysey shows, “German higher education, however incompletely understood, became the focus of extravagant excitement and admiration. . . . An insufficiently differentiated Germany, partly real and partly imaginary, became the symbol for all scientific claims upon American education” (128). This invocation of Germany largely ignored the idealism of German theorists and instead emphasized the “painstaking investigation of particulars, both in laboratories and in such areas as historical documents” (127). Germany conceived in this way served as the model for the research vision of university reform in the United States.

Americans were much more likely to think of teaching and research as practically linked through new types of instruction that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the laboratory, the lecture, and the seminar. These new forms of instruction displaced the recitation, which had been dominant in old colleges with curricula rooted in classical languages and the theory of mental discipline. While the lecture was at best a report of research previously conducted (and, as Veysey observes, it could be used by any professor regardless of personal involvement in research), the laboratory and the seminar were understood as spaces in which research took place. They “became the most characteristic methods of instruction for the future scientist or scholar” (153). Keith Hoskin argues that modern academic disciplines owe their existence to the laboratory, the seminar, and the classroom, all of which date to no earlier than the late eighteenth century (280–95).

The vision of the university as defined by pure research was only one of three such regimes of reform current in late-nineteenth-century America. According to Veysey, only the newly created Johns Hopkins University and Clark University were primarily envisioned in terms of pure research, and even Hopkins’s first president, Daniel Coit Gilman, resorted to broader goals in explaining his institution’s mission. In addition to pure research, educational reformers envisioned the new university in terms of utility on the one hand, and liberal culture on the other. Those who championed utility advocated for universities that would serve the public good, whose orientation was toward “real life,” and were themselves “democratic” (Veysey 60, 62). Cornell and Stanford were both founded on versions of this vision, and it was the primary rhetoric used by Harvard’s transformative president Charles W. Eliot. It lay behind the elective curriculum, which Eliot pioneered, and behind the famous Wisconsin Idea, popularized by Lincoln Steffens in 1909, “to teach anybody—anything—anywhere” (qtd. in Veysey 107). Those who advocated for liberal culture as the model for educational reform opposed both the practicality of the utility model and the minute investigation that the vision of research entailed. They rejected the scientific model as too narrow and the utilitarian one as debased. Strongly influenced by Matthew Arnold’s ideas of culture, proponents of liberal culture urged a curriculum built around great works and the study of past civilizations. In the early twentieth century, liberal arts colleges emerged based on this model, but Yale and Princeton also adopted it (Veysey 209, 233–47).1

It is easy—indeed, a bit too easy—to see how these three visions cashed out in different types of institutions. The Morrill Act, which created the land-grant institutions, required instruction in agriculture and mechanical arts, defining these institutions as practical. Liberal culture was the dominant model behind the liberal arts colleges, which were often what the smaller old colleges became, while research would seem to be the model that informed the research university. But Veysey’s point is that the American university as it developed in the twentieth century was influenced by all three visions. His focus is on elite private and public institutions, almost all of which today would easily be classified as research universities, but those include nonetheless elements of utility and liberal culture in their missions and curricula. In the humanities in particular, it is clear that the vision of liberal culture remained influential even though research was dominant.

Utility, research, and liberal culture also seem to line up with other divisions that characterize contemporary American higher education. James Sosnoski has observed that within departments, utility manifests itself in basic skills (or service) courses such as freshman composition or elementary foreign languages, liberal culture in the content of the humanities majors for undergraduates, and research in graduate education, where what is taught is “a mode of inquiry.”

Utility, research, and liberal culture also seem to line up with service, research, and teaching, service being another word advocates of utility used to name their goal, and teaching being at the heart of liberal culture vision. But utility does not fit very well with service as a requirement for tenure and promotion, since such a requirement is almost always for internal service—though as Cassuto observes, earlier invocations of “teaching, research, and service” did treat the latter as something aimed outward. Moreover, the vision of pure research does not correspond exactly to publication requirements, and teaching even less to the vision of liberal culture. The visions of service, research, and liberal culture in the end made themselves felt across the spectrum of different types of institutions and in many different practices within them.

The idea that the university should be a site of knowledge production, fundamental to the research vision, eventually became dominant, even if the value of that knowledge was understood primarily in practical terms. Veysey notes that liberal culturists, who often styled themselves men of letters, tended to be found primarily in English departments, but they were not usually in control of them (183). Philology, which understood itself as a science, was the dominant method of literary study at the turn of the century, and most English professors at elite institutions thought of themselves as researchers. The requirement of the PhD for most university faculty members assured that they would be trained in research regardless of whether they continued to be active researchers.

Under the assumptions of positivism that governed philology and literary history, all contributions had value. In principle, then, there was no limit on how much research might be needed. However, one of the conditions for the emergence of the New Criticism and the shift from literary history to interpretation was a widespread sense that new contributions to literary history were often not valuable. Still, the absolute quantity of publications in the 1930s was relatively small. After the war, as faculties expanded, the number of literary publications did as well. But many of these new contributions were no longer literary historical but hermeneutical. While they may have continued to use a positivist rhetoric, the number of competing interpretations of major works illustrated that there was no agreed-upon method for determining a single correct meaning—which implicitly raised the question of what kind of knowledge was being created.

By 1958 Harry Levin could already remark that the investigation of Moby-Dick might almost be said to have taken the place of whaling among the industries of New England (vi). By the late 1960s it was clear that industries had grown up around major works and authors, and that the value of new interpretations of them was ambiguous at best. While whaling had produced commodities that had significant exchange value, most of the products of literary research were not commodities in this sense. They were produced without direct compensation and did not in general generate profit for their publishers―which were usually nonprofits. And, under the new hermeneutic model, it was harder to justify the value of all new interpretations. In practice, an interpretation’s value lay in its teachability, which in this context is a kind of utility, showing again how in the American university, categories are hard to keep apart. The value of some of these interpretations has been demonstrated in the same way that the value of literary works typically is, by their being read and reread over an extended period. Texts such as Norton’s critical editions are evidence of the continued value of many different interpretations of the same work.

When fewer scholars published, those who did achieved a greater distinction as a result. Publication is still the chief means by which departments can improve their reputations, but with so many more scholars competing, success has become so much harder. The problem with the research product today is that there is far more of it than there is a readership. While the increasing demand for publication means that published research continues to be cited, a great percentage of it is never cited.2 Moreover, there is a difference between citing something and actually reading it. While writing in academic journals has never had an audience beyond the academy, books of criticism by academics were at one time reviewed in magazines and newspapers and did have a more general readership. Menand’s complaint about the isolation of academic intellectuals is a recognition of this narrowed audience, but his explanation does not hold water. Earlier PhDs were not inhibited by their research from communicating more broadly. The problem rather has been cultural anti-intellectualism and the continued dumbing down of journalism. More recently, however, other challenges have occurred. The exchange value of all writing has declined as authors have become content providers. There is now less of a professional future for academics writing for the public than for those writing for one another.

There is no easy solution to the problems that beset research in the humanities today, but there are measures that might help. For one, the value of our research needs to be explained and defended to those outside our disciplines, a task we have historically neglected, perhaps because it has been perceived as service. For another, an effort might be made to tie research more directly to undergraduate teaching, making the connection between the two a matter of practice rather than theory. Finally, given the dubious worth (judged purely in terms of reach or influence) of much that is published, perhaps it is time to question the significance of publication statistics. Maybe we should be encouraging faculty members to write less, but more consequentially.


  1. For somewhat different versions of this history, see Reuben, who emphasizes efforts in the late nineteenth century to keep morality in the university curriculum, and Bledstein, who focuses on the emergence of professional schools and the professions as social formations.
  2. Just because an article is not cited does not mean it has not found an audience. Academic articles can frequently be assigned to students even if they do not seem to have registered in citation indexes.

Works Cited

Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. Norton, 1976.

Carey, Kevin. “The Fundamental Way the Universities Are an Illusion.” New York Times, 23 July 2015, nyti.ms/1HLtgA3.

Geiger, Roger L. Knowledge and Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace. Stanford UP, 2004.

Habermas, Jürgen. “The Idea of the University.” The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate, MIT P, 1989, pp. 100–27.

Hoskin, Keith W. “Education and the Genesis of Disciplinarity: The Unexpected Reversal.” Knowledges: Historical and Critical Studies in Disciplinarity, edited by Ellen Messer-Davidow, David R. Shumway, and David J. Sylvan, UP of Virginia, 1993, pp. 271–304.

Levin, Harry. The Power of Blackness. Knopf, 1958.

Menand, Louis. “How to Make a Ph.D. Matter.” New York Times, 22 Sept. 1996, p. A78.

Parsons, Talcott, and Gerald M. Platt. The American University. Harvard UP, 1975.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Harvard UP, 1996.

“Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion.” Profession, 2007, pp. 9–71. Modern Language Association, www.mla.org/Resources/Research/Surveys-Reports-and-Other-Documents/Publishing-and-Scholarship/Report-on-Evaluating-Scholarship-for-Tenure-and-Promotion.

Reuben, Julie A. The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. U of Chicago P, 1996.

Shumway, David R. “Disciplinary Identities; or, Why Is Walter Neff Telling This Story?” Symploke, vol. 7, no. 1–2, 1999, pp. 97–107.

Sosnoski, James J. “The Magister Implicatus as an Institutionalized Authority Figure: Rereading the History of New Criticism.” The GRIP Report, vol. 1, second draft, working papers from a meeting of the Group for Research into the Institutionalization and Professionalization of Literary Studies, 6–8 May 1983. Photocopy, July 1983.

Veysey, Laurence R. The Emergence of the American University. U of Chicago P, 1965.

Wilcox, Thomas W. A Comprehensive Survey of Undergraduate Programs in English in the United States. ED 044 422, 14 May 1970.

David R. Shumway is professor of English and literary and cultural studies and the founding director of the Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon University. A version of this essay was presented at the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver.


Published 1 November 2016

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