University professors often get a bad rap–sometimes deservedly so–for emphasizing the writing of obscure journal articles over teaching. According to one article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, however, even writing isn’t done that well.
Michael C. Munger, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Duke University, offers 10 tips for writing less badly. The tips are good in and of themselves, even if you’re not a professional academic.
But I noticed something quite interesting in the tips. Munger recommends that professors “Squeeze the other things in; the writing comes first.” Publish or perish, you know.
So are we getting high-quality publications? Sometimes. But Munger also admits that “the standards of writing in most disciplines are so low that you don’t need to write well.”
Munger advises his readers to ask themselves, “What are you writing that will be read 10 years from now? What about 100 years from now?” The practice, he suggests, is quantity over quality. But quantity is easier to measure than quality.
A key insight of economics is that people respond to incentives. You tend to get that which you provide incentives for. I don’t have an answer to how to “fix” the university, and to its credit, America’s system of higher education is arguably the best in the world. Given the amount of money that we spend on higher education–through tuition, taxpayer support, donations, and the like–it’s important to think through (a) the goals we have for higher education, and (b) whether the current approaches to its funding create incentives that make it more rather than less likely for those goals to be achieved.