Academics sitting at a table in a library and taking notes

Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in Inside Higher Ed that the humanities' scholarly infrastructure is in "utter disarray."

That sounds terrible. There is a scholarly infrastructure.

College professors in humanities disciplines do more than just teach. The humanities' scholarly infrastructure allows for the production and dissemination of research. Original ideas and concepts that will eventually become the boogeymen of right-wing moral panics can be found in these journal articles, conferences, seminars, and edited volumes. Most of the tenure-track faculty at elite private and public research universities are evaluated for promotion based on this published research.

A person has to do all the work of reading, vetting, editing, and publishing, as well as organizing and presenting at those meetings. The people doing that work are the same people who are tasked with producing the original research, as well as the people who hope to get that kind of job. The system is malfunctioning. Mintz states that editors are desperate to find scholars to review articles. External reviewers are hard to find for department chairs.

According to a report done by Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed, journal editors are saying that the number of articles submitted for publication are as strong as ever, but if it used to take three to four requests to find a reviewer to read a submitted article, it would be a different story The lives of junior faculty were put on hold because the lives of tenured scholars need to step up and do more peer reviews. Many faculty said that they were doing what they could, but faculty burnout is real and many are choosing to leave the profession.

Mintz thinks that there is a chance that these problems are the result of faculty feeling that the academic life of the mind isn't worth the effort. He sees the problem as a shift in humanists' professional identity away from seeing themselves as part of a specific discipline. He writes that too many faculty are embracing "hyperindividualism," where professional obligations are secondary to the drive to improve their own position.

Mintz believes that the crisis is not so much about a failing infrastructure as it is about individuals failing to maintain it. The humanities are similar to a bridge. Mintz believes that people need to step up and do some old fashioned maintenance that has been slipping, sanding down the rust and painting over the bad spots. I don't agree. All of the bolts have been removed. There isn't anything holding the bridge up.

The scholarly infrastructure used to be a kind of gift economy, where labor was not paid in full. Journal editing, peer review, and evaluation are all free of charge. The majority of the revenue in this economy comes from institutions themselves, which purchase the expensive subscription to the journals published by these entities. The purchase price doesn't go to the writers.

Operators of a gift economy don't mean that people are sacrificing or driven by altruism. All this work will pay off eventually. Some of the time needed to produce scholarship is supported by the salary of the faculty. When that scholarship is certified by others, they get compensation from their institutions when they can cite that work as part of their responsibilities.

Faculty get additional status and compensation from their employer when they earn tenure and then promotion. 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 salarybump and job security of tenure is worth all that labor It is natural to do unremunerated work after crossing that threshold.

Higher education institutions are the key to all of this activity. The laborers are paid and the end product is used by both of them. For the effort of managing the creation and distribution of all this product, the big academic publishers take something.

The gift economy has fallen apart.

Tenure-track faculty make up a small percentage of the profession. Peer review, editing, and vetting are not done by many people. People like me, who once did some of this work in the hopes of finding themselves on the tenure track, are more likely to have realized that the dog isn't going to hunt and that it's time to concentrate on work that will actually pay off.

Faculty who do remain find themselves increasingly overburdened with work that has zero reward and a small amount of reward. There aren't many raises for performance. 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, such as publishing articles and books.

The funding for humanities scholarship is going away. 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 swine flu.

Even institutions that are not resource-constrained have embraced a mindset that humanities scholarship should be profitable in the traditional sense. In the past few years, famously cash- strapped Stanford University has signaled an intention to move away from subsidizing the university's press, then backed down in the face of a nationwide backlash to the move. As public funding continues to decline, press directors fear that there will be more challenges of this kind.

There are few people who spend more time thinking about how to help higher education institutions realize the promises of their mission than Mintz.

He is from a time when the gift economy helped humanities scholarship. Mintz sees people failing the institution.

I can see it in another direction.

There are many possible responses to the crisis. Resetting expectations for tenured faculty is one of the things that would be done. If we think peer review and journal editing are important faculty activities, why don't we give them the same credit as for publishing an article?

To decrease the total amount of humanities scholarship would be a good idea. If institutions can't afford journal subscriptions, then let the market speak, I suppose.

Maybe the efforts of non–tenure-track faculty trying 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

Mintz believes that a rightsizing of the humanities research marketplace could be a solution to the larger problem. Kevin Carey wrote a piece on the "sham" of financial aid in Slate. The mission of educating students and producing new knowledge through faculty research is at odds with the need for institutions to chase tuition revenue. It is not possible to ask institutions to produce a public good while structuring them in a competitive marketplace.

The institution is more focused on consuming those who intersect with it, students, faculty, and staff, rather than supporting the stakeholders. A decline in support for higher education is an external reaction to the failures of the institutions. There is a crisis of humanities scholarship.

It is only going to get worse unless public money is brought to bear in a way that allows institutions to focus on their missions instead of their operations.

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