The Professors Who Refuse to Do the “Free Work” Their Older Colleagues Did for Years

They have their reasons.

Academics sitting at a table in a library and taking notes
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Writing in his Higher Education Gamma blog at Inside Higher Ed, University of Texas at Austin history professor Steven Mintz sounds the alarm about a crisis in education that probably isn’t on the radars of most people, declaring, “The Humanities’ Scholarly Infrastructure Is in Utter Disarray.”

That sounds bad! But … what is the “humanities’ scholarly infrastructure”?

Most understand that in addition to teaching, college professors in humanities disciplines also do “research.” “The humanities’ scholarly infrastructure” is the mechanism that allows that research to be produced and disseminated. These journal articles, conferences, seminars, and edited volumes are where original ideas and concepts that will eventually become the boogeymen of right-wing moral panics first take shape, as the sum total of our collective knowledge is advanced. This published research becomes the criteria by which the vast majority of tenure-track faculty at selective institutions—particularly those at elite private and public research universities—are evaluated for tenure and promotion.

Someone has to do all the work of reading, vetting, editing, and publishing all that scholarship—as well as organizing and attending and presenting at those meetings. The people doing that work are, typically, the same folks who are tasked with producing the original research: tenure-track and tenured college faculty, and those who hope to land that kind of job. But this system is breaking down. As Mintz declares, “Editors … are desperate to find scholars to review articles, prospectuses and book manuscripts.” Department chairs needing external reviewers for candidates for tenure and promotion are struggling to find willing participants.

According to reporting done by Colleen Flaherty, also at Inside Higher Ed, journal editors are saying that, while the numbers of articles submitted for publication are as strong as ever, when it comes to peer review, if it previously took three to four requests to find a reviewer to read a submitted article and offer their reaction, editors are now trying eight or more reviewer candidates to land on one who will do the job. Ken Kolb, chairman of sociology at Furman University, told Flaherty he took some heat for tweeting that tenured scholars need to step up and do more peer reviews because the lives of junior faculty were “on hold.” Many faculty replied that they were doing what they could, but faculty burnout is real, with evidence emerging that significant numbers are choosing to leave the profession.

Mintz considers the possibility that these problems are rooted in faculty experiencing alienation and burnout, rooted in a dawning recognition that the academic life of the mind may not be worth the hustle and grind. But in the end, he sees the central problem as a “shift in humanists’ professional identity” away from viewing themselves as part of a particular discipline (history, English, etc.). Too many faculty, he writes, now embrace “hyperindividualism,” where those professional obligations are secondary to the drive to improve one’s own relative position.

In Mintz’s view, this crisis is not so much a problem of a failing infrastructure as it is one of individuals failing to maintain the infrastructure. Think of the humanities like a bridge (literal infrastructure). Mintz is arguing that individuals need to step up and engage in some old-fashioned maintenance that has been slipping, sanding down the rust and painting over the bad spots. I disagree. In reality, all of the bolts have been stripped from the supports. The bridge may still stand upright, but there’s nothing of substance holding it up.

When it was working, the academic humanities’ scholarly infrastructure operated as a kind of gift economy, where labor was provided with no explicitreturn of remuneration. Journal editing, peer review, and evaluation of tenure dossiers are all done without payment (or with token payments at best). Academic publishers like Cengage and SAGE Publishing are where the bulk of the revenue in this economy goes (with journal costs outstripping the rate of inflation in recent years)—revenue that primarily comes from institutions themselves, which purchase the costly subscriptions to the journals published by these entities. None of that purchase price goes to the authors.

Operating in a gift economy does not mean individuals are enacting a sacrifice or are driven by altruism. There is absolutely an expectation that all this work will pay off at some point. Faculty draw a salary, some of which supports the time required to produce scholarship. That scholarship is then certified by others, who receive compensation from their institutions when they can cite that work as part of their “service” responsibilities.

Faculty ultimately benefit indirectly by earning tenure and then promotion, providing them additional status and compensation from their institutional employer. Sure, you weren’t paid for that journal article, and the book royalties for your monograph might amount to a nice meal for two at the Olive Garden, but the salary bump and job security of tenure is worth all that labor. Having crossed that threshold, it then becomes natural to do the unremunerated work that keeps the wheels turning for those coming behind you.

It’s important to recognize how the higher education institutions themselves are the key to all of this scholarly activity. They both pay the laborers and are the chief customers of the end product. The big academic publishers, seeking profits (unlike university presses, which are mission-driven), take a little something-something—OK, more like a lot—for the effort of managing the creation and distribution of all this product.

Unfortunately, this gift economy has broken down along multiple inflection points.

• Tenure-track faculty are now a minority of the profession. There are, literally, fewer and fewer people around to do the work of peer review, editing, and vetting. The folks, like me, who once did some of this work in the hopes of someday finding themselves on the tenure track are more likely to have recognized that that dog ain’t gonna hunt and it’s time to concentrate on work that will actually pay off.

• Those faculty who do remain find themselves increasingly burdened with work that has zero extrinsic reward and a vanishingly small amount of intrinsic reward. Raises for performance are virtually nonexistent. To improve their standing, faculty must seek out job offers from other institutions, which means spending more time on the kind of work that counts in a competitive marketplace—publishing articles and books—rather than doing peer review and journal editing.

• The institutional funding that supported humanities scholarship is disappearing. Mintz laments that “many leading scholarly presses are only interested in books with at least a modicum of trade potential”—but how could it be otherwise, when library budgets under strain from previous economic downturns are now dealing with the effects of the pandemic?

• Even institutions that are not resource-constrained have embraced a mindset that humanities scholarship should be profitable in the traditional sense and the mission to “expand knowledge” should not require institutional subsidy. For example, famously cash-strapped Stanford University has, in the past few years, signaled an intention to move away from subsidizing Stanford University Press, then backed down in the face of literal nationwide pushback to the move. Many presses continue to do amazing work with limited resources, but as public funding continues to decline, press directors fear additional challenges of this kind.

Like Mintz, I also write a blog for Inside Higher Ed, and I can testify there are few people who spend more time than he does thinking about how to help higher education institutions realize the promises of their missions.

But he is also from an era when this gift economy propping up humanities scholarship actually worked. Mintz looks at the institution and sees individuals failing it.

I see it the other way around.

There’s a number of possible responses to this crisis. One would be to reset scholarly expectations for tenured faculty. If we think that peer review or journal editing are important faculty activities, why not reward them with the same credit as for publishing an article, when faculty face review for tenure and promotion?

Another would be to simply decrease the total amount of humanities scholarship so the available funding and labor reflect present capacity. If there aren’t enough people to act as editors and peer reviewers, if institutions cannot afford the journal subscriptions to keep them going, then let the market speak, I suppose.

Perhaps the efforts of non–tenure-track faculty attempting to keep the spirit of scholarship alive outside the academy can fill the gap, as seen in the case of Contingent Magazine, an online publication started by and explicitly for scholars working as adjuncts, museum workers, or independent scholars who do not benefit from institutional support.

But in the end, we’re looking at a bigger problem than that which can be fixed with a rallying of the troops, as Mintz believes, or even a rightsizing of the humanities research marketplace. It’s actually another part of the same issue made evident in Kevin Carey’s recent Slate piece on the “sham” of financial aid. The operational necessity of institutions chasing tuition revenue is fundamentally at odds with the purported mission of educating those students and producing new knowledge through faculty research. We can’t ask institutions to produce a public good while structuring them like competitors in an increasingly intense marketplace.

Rather than supporting the stakeholders in the institution, the institution is instead oriented around consuming those who intersect with it—students, faculty, and staff—as resources to be exploited. The general public’s recent decline in support for higher education is an external reaction to the failures of the institutions. The crisis of humanities scholarship is an internal reaction to the same phenomenon.

Unless and until public money is brought to bear in a way that allows institutions to focus on their missions instead of their operations, it’s only going to get worse.