What Do English Lit Professors and Dutch Wives Have in Common?

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In novels published well into the 20th century, the cleanliness of the Dutch is a running stereotype, along with the genial, not-quite-bright Irish people and the stingy Scots.  A fascinating post by Doctor Science offers the explanation for this fanatic cleanliness.  Though you should read the whole thing, here's the shorter:


1.  The Dutch got into home dairy production in a big way at a time when most of European cities were still squalidly filthy.

2.  Dairy products keep longer if you are scrupulously clean in handling them

3.  As Dutch women put long hours into keeping clean, it became a focus of status competition between women. (Though she wasn't writing about the Dutch, this puts in mind Rose Wilder Lane's description in Old Home Town of the competition between housewives to be the first to get the wash on the line Monday mornings.)

Coincidentally, immediately after I read this post, I came across this Mark Bauerlein piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

  • Professors in those departments respond diligently, producing ample numbers of books and articles in recent years. At Georgia, from 2004 to 2009, current faculty members produced 22 authored books, 15 edited books, and 200 research essays. The award of tenure didn't produce any drop-off in publication, either. Senior professors continue their inquiries, making their departments consistently relevant and industrious research centers.
  • Finally, I calculated the impact of those publications by using Google Scholar and my own review of books published in specific areas to count citations. Here the impressive investment and productivity appear in sobering context. Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.
. . . The research identity is a powerful allure, flattering people that they have cutting-edge brilliance. Few of them readily trade the graduate seminar for the composition classroom. But we have reached the point at which the commitment to research at the current level actually damages the humanities, turning the human capital of the discipline toward ineffectual toil. More books and articles don't expand the audience for literary studies. A spurt of publications in a department does not attract more sophomores to the major, nor does it make the dean add another tenure-track line, nor does it urge a curriculum committee to add another English course to the general requirements. All it does is "author-ize" the producers.

Deep down, everybody knows this, but nobody wants to take the first step in reducing the demand. It's like a prisoner's dilemma. People at the University of X worry that if they say, "We no longer require a book for tenure," their peers at the Universities of Y and Z will use it against them: "Look at X, they're lowering their standards." The time has come, however, for departments firmly to declare the counterpoint: "No! We ask for less because we judge on quality, not quantity. We are raising standards, not lowering them."

In much the same way that the media financed the process of gathering and disseminating news and analysis through the only tangentially related activity of disseminating information about consumer opportunities, universities have financed the process of doing research and writing scholarly essays by the barely related activity of instructing and providing work credentials to 20-year-olds.  Bauerlein is suggesting that at least in English literature, the activity of doing research has become disconnected from the underlying social value; it is a status competition.  The professors may enjoy the underlying activity, but that is beside the point; whether or not they enjoy it, they must engage in it, or risk becoming unemployed (and not really all that employable) at the age of 35.


(This has been a trend for years--sometime around 1993, I recall a professor telling me that there was a sort of boomlet in dissertations on Spencer's Faerie Queen.  When I asked him why, he raised an eyebrow and said, "Well, you know, no one's actually read the whole thing, so there's a lot of unexplored territory there.")

Almost all of the writing on status competition focuses on the unsatisfying excesses of consumerism.  These arguments suffer from two weak points:

1.  It's awfully hard to tell what is "excessive"--without a germ theory of disease, one could make a good argument that those dutch women were wasting a lot of effort that might have been better spent praying, ministering to the poor, or spending time with their families.

2.  Status competitions don't go away--or become less harmful--merely because they are not financial.  Universities professoriates are pretty darn financially egalitarian.  They are still, I would agree, wasting a great deal of money and effort producing marginal research that no one reads because "writes lots of books and articles" has become a necessary attribute of "good professor"--and, it should be noted, one of the primary uses of that metric is to bar the majority of PhDs from the tenured professorships enjoyed by the people who control the system.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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