When I reached Riley by phone, she was remarkably calm, helpful, and in surprisingly good voice, despite having fielded who knows how many calls over the previous 48 hours.
Asked about the main problems plaguing higher education today, she cited a crisis in what constitutes “research.”
She shared a story about one veteran professor who told her that when he’d started teaching 30 years ago, “people brought their research in, in loose leaf binder. Now it’s a whole Xerox box of it.”
Today’s professors are rewarded for conducting research, not for actually teaching, a tiresome task they leave to underpaid, overworked, and under-qualified underlings.
Furthermore, “the number of people reading the results of all this research” is lower than ever before, because no one can possibly keep up with the sheer volume of “findings” — some of which (as she explained in her controversial Chronicle blog post) are of dubious quality and utility.
Riley traced the origins of this predicament to the decision to “apply the standards of hard sciences to the humanities.” Obviously (at least to most people) those standards aren’t universal; the objective discovery of a new drug or animal species can’t be compared to a subjective dissertation on, say, navigational imagery in the poems of Anne Sexton.
Yet that is how today’s research is judged.
Except that, ironically, the humanities are so politicized that much of this “research” is conducted in the exact reverse order of the scientific method: ideological students and instructors form conclusions first (i.e., “America is racist, fascist and imperialist”) then “prove” their thesis, instead of the other way around.
Worse, every thesis must be completely original, a ridiculous demand that results in the proliferation of absurd, self-indulgent topics on offer in every college course catalog.