Woke up, ground coffee, and smashed demonic thin-walled glass teacup into a million bare foot piercing splinters.
I didn't appreciate all the resources of a university library when I had access to one, particularly the databases, which are even more useful today than they were when I was in school a decade ago. I've been in the mood lately to pursue a bit of amateur scholarship, so I've been hunting for ways to get electronic access to a major library. Word on the internets is that the New York Public Library and the Houston Public Library were willing to give non-residents access for a modest fee, but I can't find much information on their websites.
Thanks to Ed for hosting.
For anyone with at least a passing interest in literary studies, Mark Bauerlein's Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research is worth consideration. He identifies a real problem, but puts the emphasis on the wrong cause, and suggests the wrong solutions.
Personally, I believe the critic should place the literary work in question before himself and his critical perspective, which is not to claim that I've never engaged in critical sophistry or the application of a novel critical approach purely for the sake of its novelty. That such endeavors are, as Bauerlein puts it, "a professional game, a means of finding something more to say" should be obvious to anyone who has been a serious humanities student at any point during the last fifty years, but does not make them entirely without value. There is a vanishingly small chance that the ten-thousandth analysis of Hamlet may say something new and true about the play; some may deem even such a faint possibility sufficient justification for the pursuit, but it's not the main point. Just as young lions and bears learn adult skills through play, so do humanities students. Second, the wide application of experimental critical approaches on familiar works winnows and refines them, so that some (perhaps a very few) of those experimental approaches mature to the point where they can be usefully employed along side established critical tools. Think of it as the application of an experimental scientific technique in a controlled laboratory setting.
Bauerlein errs seriously in recommending a reduction humanities research as a solution to this problem. That students and newly christened professionals play with well known subjects is no problem at all. The problems is that, as they mature professionally, they have little incentive to turn their critical skills to new works.
Bauerlein says, "I don't know how much the situation obtains in other fields, but I assume that it is so in film, art history, philosophy." He's wrong. Professional film critics write about new films. Professional art critics write about new art. They avoid what Bauerlein describes as the overproduction of scholarly goods by setting their analytical skill to work outside constrained territory of canon. It's true that no one reads literary criticism, but they do read film criticism. The audience reads films criticism because they don't understand or don't know how to appraise new films. Film critics have a readership because of the works they choose to critique—new films. Films critics argue with each other because they apply their critical attention to topics in genuine dispute. Is it any wonder literary critics don't have an audience when they ignore subject matter that most commands the attention of readers? Tell us things we want to know or don't fully understand about books published this year!
English departments and scholarly publications need to incentivize risk taking by humanities professionals. If critics turn their attention to new works, their criticism will receive attention in return. Perhaps more humanities professors would be more "happy with the productivity mandate" if they stood to gain professionally by expanding human knowledge and understanding rather than rehashing familiar works with new buzz words.