Harvard introduced the practice of prioritizing research in the criteria for up-or-out promotion and tenure in the late 1930s, under the presidency of James Conant — although faculty members at the time cautioned against his narrow emphasis on research. Other elite schools adopted the practice in the higher education boom years after World War II, according to the research of Richard Teichgraeber, a historian at Tulane University. At most universities, the publish-or-perish rule did not take hold until the late 1960s. “This is how a lot of stuff happens in this country. Ideas and practices spread from the Ivies to the prestigious public universities, then to the midlevel schools offering master’s programs to the middling bachelor’s institutions,” Hans-Joerg Tiede, the director of research for the American Association of University Professors, told me.
Ever since then, the pressure to publish quickly has driven faculty members down ever narrower lanes of inquiry, searching for some hidden byway no one has taken before in order to claim an original (if, to nonspecialists, trivial) contribution. In graduate school, aspiring professors often hear: Don’t be overly broad in your dissertation; you’ll have to get it done and published, because hiring committees care far more about that than how prepared you are to teach a wide range of subjects. Academic freedom no longer includes freedom to be a generalist.
No wonder most of us are hyperspecialized and write for tiny audiences of fellow experts. No wonder most Americans don’t really understand how professors spend their time and think higher education is “heading in the wrong direction,” according to a 2018 Pew survey. “There have been these trends over time. If you think about how departments form and then specializations within departments, pretty soon you’re a specialist in an increasingly narrow area,” Gilda Barabino, the president of Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., told me. “We have to broaden that out. The disciplinary lines are blurring anyway.”
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Sunday, September 26, 2021
Molly Worthen at NYT: