The Flow of Research

The phone rings again, and for the second time this month, it’s my old mentor Lars Abraham, Professor of English Semi-Emeritus, calling from his office at Seattle State.

“Lars!” I said. “Twice in a row! How are things at Seattle State?”

“Not so good,” said Lars. Five seconds pass.

“Do you want to elaborate?”

“I am going to teach more next fall, Tim – more classes, same pay. But it is my choice.”

“That’s awful, Lars. I can’t imagine teaching any more than you absolutely have to.”

“Now you sound like a Dean,” said Lars. “But are you at all interested in my thought process?”

“Let ‘er rip,” I said.

“It happened like this. For years I have been teaching three courses in the Fall and two in the Spring. You know that I have a certain standing in my field.”

Do I ever. Lars Abraham is author of A Pop’rin Pear: Fruit and Sexuality in Shakespeare (1969), Hot i’th’ Mouth: Symbolic Spiciness in Shakespeare (1978), and Vile Jelly: Shakespeare’s Tragic Desserts (1984).

“Now Seattle State is moving to a differential-teaching-load policy,” said Lars. “They tell us that a 3/2 teaching load has actually been a ‘reduction’ all these years. We have to start proving that we deserve a reduction down to the 60-hour weeks we work now.”

“Yes, we have that at UTA, too!” I said. “It’s the best way to ensure that research-active faculty can concentrate on production, while others pursue their first love, teaching.”

“So I understand,” said Lars. “Clearly no one can do both. That is sarcasm, in case your detectors are off, Tim. In any case, to stay on my 3/2 teaching load, I must produce peer-reviewed research at the rate of one major project, two minor projects, or four mini-projects in each four-year span.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Tier One Universities need a constant flow of research productivity from their core faculty.”

“A constant flow of something, at any rate,” said Lars. “But I told them no: let me teach 4/3 and the research, forget about it.”

“But I don’t understand, Lars,” I said. “You are still producing a steady flow. Work is streaming out of you like soft-serve fro-yo. Why, just next month, you’re fixing to present your new conference paper “‘The Wild Thyme Blows’: Inferior-Quality Herbs in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies.”

“Wait a minute, all this talk of flow makes me want to visit the little boys’ room.” Five minutes later, Lars picked up the phone again.

“Tim, are you there?”

“Hanging on the telephone, Lars.”

“As I was saying, I am not going to take the ‘research reduction,’ though why they call it that since it is the same teaching load I have had for 16 years, I do not know. And hear me out, Tim. Why do people work in the humanities, do you suppose?”

“It’s to generate citations! When we produce peer-reviewed results that get cited in our peers’ peer-reviewed results, we’re giving the university bang for its research buck!”

“Your head, I should bang against a drawer, Tim. That is the phoniest nonsense I have heard lately, and I have been reading memos from the Provost’s office all week. Tim, the reason that people do research in the humanities – and not just ‘research,’ as if that were the only thing that matters, but bibliography, criticism, creative writing, book reviewing, even just plain reading and learning – is to establish their ethos as intellectuals. We cultivate our brains, Tim – those of us that have brains, which I am not sure of in your case – so that we can become better teachers and so that the traditions of learning that make life worth living can survive.”

Oh, great, I thought. There’s nothing like an old liberal turned reactionary humanist. “So why not just do more research and get the lower teaching load?” I asked.

“Because they will make me show my work. Every year I have to report on my plans and goals, and I have to maintain a rate of flow that … excuse me again … [flushing] … that justifies my research-active course reduction.”

“And quite right, too, Lars! The state of Washington wants to know that it’s getting steady flow from its taps of research.”

“If you mention flow one more time I will fly to Texas and pee on your shoes.”

“Lars, is this one of these ‘Do you know who I am?’ snits that you senior tenured dilettantes like to engage in?”

“Call it vanity if you will, Tim. I have nothing to prove to anybody. What I do not have to do is to submit my homework to the Assistant Dean for Research Quantification. I am a rather elderly man, as Melville would say.”


“Shut up and listen, Tim. I am a very foolish fond old man, and I have worked hard all my life to prove that I know something about literature and language. I do not have to publish an article every four years to prove that I have brains. I have been publishing articles since before there was a Designated Hitter. I have edited a journal, I have read hundreds of manuscripts for journals and unversity presses, I have been on ten dozen thesis committees. Tim, I am peer review. So perhaps I want to learn Estonian next year. Perhaps I want to write my memoirs. Perhaps I want to re-read Henry James. Being pressured to publish some article in some journal is not going to make me a smarter person. And what if I bow to that pressure and my articles are rejected? Then I have experienced all kinds of tsuris and will still be put on a higher teaching load. It is not good for my ulcer.”

“I don’t know, Lars. If Seattle State wants to reach Tier One, then they need to undam their research fl… I mean, they need to ramp up faculty productivity. And if you’re not producing peer-reviewed results, how do I know you’re current in your field?”

“What, have I exhibited second childishness and mere oblivion in this conversation? Tim, I am older than soil, but I am still in my perfect mind. And English Literature is not computer science, nor is it this popular music you children listen to, with some new MTV thing every week. Hamlet is still Hamlet, Tim. And from Hamlet, I know.”

“Well, have it your way, Lars.”

“My way is about the only thing I have left.”

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