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Incalculably Diffusive? The Impact of the Humanities

By (March 8, 2013) No Comment
From the Novel Readings archives, a response to early reports on the UK’s “Research Excellence Framework.” Collini’s critique (and this post) came out in November 2009 (sadly his piece now appears to be behind a paywall). UK academics can no doubt update us on how far his concerns have proven justified.

BalliolAt the TLS, Stefan Collini has a trenchant critique of the British government’s “Research Excellence Framework” for research funding in the universities. A key factor will the assessment of “impact”:

approximately 25 per cent of the rating (the exact proportion is yet to be confirmed) will be allocated for “impact”. The premiss is that research must “achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society”. The guidelines make clear that “impact” does not include “intellectual influence” on the work of other scholars and does not include influence on the “content” of teaching. It has to be impact which is “outside” academia, on other “research users” (and assessment panels will now include, alongside senior academics, “a wider range of users”). Moreover, this impact must be the outcome of a university department’s own “efforts to exploit or apply the research findings”: it cannot claim credit for the ways other people may happen to have made use of those “findings”.

Collini’s main interest is in the “potentially disastrous impact of the ‘impact’ requirement on the humanities”:

the guidelines explicitly exclude the kinds of impact generally considered of most immediate relevance to work in the humanities – namely, influence on the work of other scholars and influence on the content of teaching

Collini points out a number of profound “conceptual flaws” in the proposed process, among them the assumption that all disciplines across the university can and should be assessed in the same way, and the pressure on researchers to devote their time not to the “impact”-free zones of writing and teaching in their areas of specialization (because influence on work in your field, for instance, does not count as “impact”) but on marketing. His concluding peroration:

Instead of letting this drivel become the only vocabulary for public discussion of these matters, it is worth insisting that what we call “the humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is – insofar as the expression makes any sense in this context – an end in itself. Unless these guidelines are modified, scholars in British universities will devote less time and energy to this attempt, and more to becoming door-to-door salesmen for vulgarized versions of their increasingly market-oriented “products”. It may not be too late to try to prevent this outcome.

Though I agree it is essential to make the argument about the intrinsic value of “the humanities,” it seems at least as important to challenge (as he does) the mechanisms for measuring impact, because the “end in itself” argument risks perpetuating popular misconceptions about the insularity of humanities research, when in fact it is quite possible to argue that our impact on the wider world (particularly, but not by any means exclusively, the cultural world) is already substantial, but probably too diffuse to be measured even by the “thirty-seven bullet points” comprising the “menu” of “impact indicators.” Two academic articles I read recently provide some supporting evidence for this claim.

fingersmithHere’s Cora Kaplan, for instance, in a recent essay in The Journal of Victorian Culture:

Sarah Waters has a PhD in literature . . . ; she has said that her research on lesbian historical fiction suggested to her the potential of an underdeveloped genre. In its citation and imitation of their work, Fingersmith paid generous tribute to Victorian novelists; it also has a considerable indebtedness to feminist, gay, lesbian and queer critics and social and cultural historians of Victorian Britain. It would not be too frivolous to see Fingersmith - together with other examples of fictional Victoriana – in their synthesis of the detail and insights of several decades of new research on the Victorian world and its culture as one measure of the ways in which Victorian Studies has developed over the last half century. (JVC 13:1, 42)

And here are Patricia Badir and Sandra Tomc responding, in English Studies in Canada, to calls to take the humanities “beyond academia.” Offering a polemical summary of “what the humanities in general, fueled by highly esoteric post-structural theory, have accomplished in the way of widespread social and cultural contributions over the last twenty years,” they begin with the premise that poststructuralism began as a “theory propounded by a tiny priesthood of high intellectuals”:

But this priesthood had acolytes–graduate students at first, then, by the mid-1980s as “theory” inevitably made its way into the classrooms of ivy league professors, undergraduates. The undergraduates . . . did not uniformly move into Ph.D. programs, thereby assuring theory’s continued enclosure in a specialized community. They moved into a variety of illustrious professions and industries, including, most significantly, America’s powerful and ubiquitous culture industries. . . . [T]he Hollywood of today is ruled by ivy league degrees, most of them earned in the 1980s or 1990s, and most of them . . . heavily larded with humanities courses–courses in English, film studies, American studies, gender studies, history. These people were taught by their professors to value certain kinds of aesthetic objects. As they assumed positions of authority in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they began to patronize films and filmmakers that meshed with what they had been taught was cutting-edge culture. The signature films of the early 1990s . . . featured the “politically correct” identity issues and self-referential formal experimentation lauded in the postmodern classroom: Thelma and LouisePhiladelphiaThe Crying GamePriscilla, Queen of the DesertThe PianoPulp FictionThe English Patient. In television, . . . the transformation to postmodern forms has been even more radical: Buffy, the Vampire SlayerThe X-FilesAlias. . .

“One could make the same argument,” they go on, “for the field of journalism,” and they go on to do so, and to the “massive industry” in “‘literary’ objects” including not just books but adaptations. To calls that the humanities address the interests of “civil society,” they reply that “the humanities have, in a large measure, already shaped contemporary civil society”: “the fashions we are being asked to follow are our own.” (ESC 29:1-2, 13-15). I’m sure it’s easy to argue about which are the “signature films” of the 1990s, but the general case that specialist research in the humanities makes its way into the wider world by way of our classrooms seems presumptively strong–but that is just the kind of “impact” apparently discounted by the Research Excellence Framework.

I’m sure more (and perhaps more concrete) examples could be provided by most academics looking at intersections between their own fields of specialization and the world “outside” the academy. A concerted campaign to demonstrate the “impact” of humanities research might do as much good as insisting also that, whatever its “impact,” the work is valuable in itself. And it should probably be carried on not (just), as with my two examples, in the pages of academic journals, but as publicly as possible–in the TLS, but also through blogs, letters to the editor, talking to our neighbours–you name it. Many thousands of our students are out there somewhere, too, who could surely testify to the “impact” of our work, not just on their cinematic tastes, but on their thinking, reading, and voting lives. After all, the REF may be specific to the UK, but the narrow version of utilitarianism it represents is not.*

*Narrower than J. S. Mill’s, certainly: “Next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory is want of mental cultivation. A cultivated mind – I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties- finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future. It is possible, indeed, to become indifferent to all this, and that too without having exhausted a thousandth part of it; but only when one has had from the beginning no moral or human interest in these things, and has sought in them only the gratification of curiosity.”