But Can You Hit?

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
By R.E. Johnson

This story was told to me by a colleague more than thirty years ago. The dean of a midsized American university was explaining the path to tenure to a roomful of newly appointed assistant professors. “We know you boys can all field,” he declared. “Now we want to see if you can hit.”

A lot has changed over the intervening decades. If the boys’ club, locker-room side of academia has not vanished, it has at least diminished; most deans today would choose their words with greater care. But, sexism aside, how much has the underlying mind-set of academic life really changed? Was the baseball metaphor ever relevant to the shared enterprise of teaching and scholarship, and is it relevant today? I will argue that it is, but in ways that the long-ago dean might not have appreciated. Like the academic world, baseball itself has changed significantly in recent decades, and reflecting upon its trajectory may offer some cautionary lessons to us all.

Designated Hitters

That dean was looking for hitters, and so are his successors. So is every front-office executive in baseball. Perhaps the most significant change in the sport has been the introduction, in 1973, of the position of designated hitter, or DH. This innovation was designed to solve a long-standing dilemma: under the old rules, every player on the field, including the pitcher, was also a batter. Babe Ruth, remembered today as the greatest slugger of his era, first came to prominence as a pitcher. But in more recent times, big-league pitchers, for whatever reason, have tended to be poor batters. If a pitcher came to the plate with men on base, the fans would groan, because a scoring opportunity would probably be lost. And so the owners of the American League teams decided to pep up the game by introducing two kinds of specialization. Henceforth, pitchers would only pitch and never bat. Their place in the batting order was taken by another player, whose only responsibility was to swing the bat; when the team took the field in defensive mode, the DH would sit on the bench.

The result—compounded by another innovation, free agency—has been to create a new category of highly paid superstars whose job description is brief: swing for the fences. The equivalent, in academia, is for scholars to concentrate on research and publication—often by focusing on progressively narrower subjects of study—and to pay little attention to teaching. Instead of studying a broad range of topics, today’s professoriate is encouraged to learn one subfield very well. Such an approach may be beneficial or necessary in some fields of scientific inquiry, but I question its appropriateness to the humanities.

Graduate programs in many universities have reduced the number of minor fields that doctoral students must prepare or the range of subjects to be covered in a major field. In history, my own discipline, departments appointing new members will often define their needs in very specific terms: a single country rather than a region; a particular approach or thematic specialization rather than a breadth of knowledge; a century or even a few decades rather than a longer span of years. This practice has spread from large, research-oriented universities to smaller institutions and even to some four-year liberal arts colleges. A perusal of recent job announcements shows, for example, one such school advertising for a Russian and Soviet historian: “Preference will be given to candidates with specialization(s) in Jewish history and/or Central Asia.” I doubt that history is the only field in which such specialization abounds.

Consider the result: the aspiring scholar becomes, perforce, a DH. Such focus is supposed to encourage innovative scholarship and high productivity. But does it?

Productivity is what the dean in my story was encouraging his junior colleagues to demonstrate. What he surely had in mind was what his successors in many universities are still seeking: a particular kind of productivity, measured in peer-refereed articles and monographs. Specialization sometimes produces the desired result, just as a DH sometimes delivers a home run at a crucial moment. But DHs also strike out, or hit long fly balls that don’t quite do the job. So do scholars. The results can be seen in any academic library—miles of shelves filled with books and articles that sit untouched from year to year. These publications have, in most cases, been peer reviewed, but this is no guarantee that even the peers— fellow specialists in a subfield of expertise— will go on reading them.

The late historian J. H. Hexter underscored this problem some forty years ago: “‘The poverty of history’—the low yield of intellectual nourishment provided by much of the enormous output of historical writing—is a function of an explosion of demand so powerful as to set at naught the feeble attempts to maintain quality control over supply.” Hexter, who peppered his writings with references to the game of baseball, would likely have agreed that too many historians swinging for the fences are producing foul balls, pop flies, or long line drives that don’t quite reach the wall. This phenomenon is by no means unique to the discipline of history.

Here the baseball metaphor begins to fray. There are many solid and praiseworthy academic studies that are accessible only to a narrow and specialized readership, and I don’t mean to dismiss all of them as “pop flies” or “foul balls.” But I think that Hexter’s assessment of quality control remains correct and relevant to history and many other fields today. I also worry that, within the sheltered world of academia, works that are accessible to a broader audience and that stimulate discussion among a wider public—works that might aptly deserve the appellation of “home runs”—are too easily dismissed and even shunned as “popularization.”(A senior colleague related the following story to me. “I was shocked several years ago when a very bright young scholar was interested in doing a book for the series I edit for a major academic press. . . . He then withdrew because his chair told him that it would not add anything to his annual report. . . . The idea that a brilliant synthesis of a subfield was a contribution not only to education but to knowledge was somehow not shared [by the chair].”)

It is worth remembering that baseball games are won not by home runs but by teams. In a team effort, one player’s contributions are reinforced by the others on the team. This is a lesson that academic departments sometimes overlook. Academic teamwork can include mentoring, day-to-day interaction and consultation, and the exchange of suggestions on and criticism of work in progress. In teaching, it can mean that all members of a department are closely involved in planning and delivering a coherent curriculum. The DH system, with its lavish rewards, may produce an opposite result—a soloist or grandstander who is more concerned with his or her own accomplishments than the team’s.

Utility Infielders

One of an academic department’s main jobs is to make a discipline interesting to students, providing them with a broad foundation that includes a range of introductory courses and intellectual challenges. In teaching, even more than in the realm of research and publication, teamwork becomes crucial. Yet as departments become more and more specialized and subdivided, more and more of this work is being delegated to a second subclass of academia that also has a baseball analogue: the utility infielder, a player who is shifted from one position to another on the field according to need. Too often, the specialist has no time for survey classes and no interest in teaching outside his or her delimited areas of expertise. And so, just as in baseball, another category of individuals comes into the game, often underpaid and overworked, without access to the rewards that the headliners receive. Parttimers, sessionals, stipend instructors: each college or university has its own rules and categories, but low pay and high job insecurity are the common denominators.

I don’t mean to overstate the virtues of part-timers, whose ranks include some who are effective neither as teachers nor as scholars. But I do believe that the positive qualities and capacities of the generalist, often represented by part-time faculty, are undervalued. Not everyone who reads and thinks broadly also manages to write deep-ly. Yet the ability to generalize—to draw connections from one country or century to another; to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of diverse approaches to humanistic study; to traverse national, chronological, and methodological divisions in response to the challenges raised by our students and our sources—is crucially important to the health of academic discourse. My apprehension is that current modes of graduate training promote an opposite approach—writing deeply without thinking broadly— that risks fragmenting and even trivializing what we are about. The skills of communicating, of making monographic insights intelligible to a diverse and unspecialized audience, should in my view be encouraged and cultivated at every level of teaching and scholarship. Some of our colleagues who are most skilled in these respects are also low or slow in monographic productivity, but they still bring something important to the discipline and the curriculum.

Building a Team

What remedies can I suggest? One is that departmental recruitment and promotion policies be broadened to take into account the diverse contributions that generalists can make. Certainly teaching and research should reinforce one another, but this reinforcement can take many forms, and a wide-ranging scholarly curiosity should be encouraged and rewarded. Too often today, young scholars find themselves facing an either-or choice between putting their energies into teaching or research. In the years leading up to tenure, the dossier of publications almost always trumps the teaching file, and the safe line of publication is usually the one of narrow specialization. Perhaps the incentives can be changed.

Second, some number of academic appointments could be defined (or redefined) as teaching stream or teaching intensive, giving more weight to classroom accomplishments and less to original research and publication. Excellent teaching could be acknowledged and rewarded more generously than has often been the case. Teaching-stream appointees should not have to bear the stigma of being treated as second best.

Third, the graduate curriculum can be shifted back a few degrees toward breadth and away from specialization. Graduate instruction could also give more attention to communication skills, as applied both in the classroom and in the various media in which the results of academic research and thinking are communicated.

In baseball of the past few decades, recruitment has been the job of front-office figures, who have often been more interested in hiring headliners than in building a team. A good manager, though, will drill his players in what are still called “the essentials”—bunting, base running, turning a double play. Academia, too, has—or used to have—its essentials, including clarity of communication to a broad and diverse audience. Perhaps it is time for academic departments to emulate the wisest baseball managers.

R. E. Johnson is chair of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto, Mississauga Campus. His e-mail address is [email protected].