Innovation and the Eye of the Beholder

Untitled-1On university campuses we hear a lot about innovation these days, from hype about the latest ed-tech fad to proclamations by institutions like my own about fostering a “culture of innovation.” This has got me reflecting on how we define or recognize innovation — something that is not as obvious, I think, as its champions, or as those who insist on it as a measure of academic success, typically seem to assume. In some fields, of course, it’s easy enough to tell when something is new, if it shifts or breaks a paradigm. But in others, context makes all the difference, as my own chequered career as a “thought leader” demonstrates.

Exhibit A: my undergraduate degree. When I first started at UBC in 1986, I intended to major in history. I was an avid reader, but it had never occurred to me to study reading. I changed my mind, obviously, thanks in large part to my first-year English professor, Don Stephens. (This is one reason I try never to underestimate the importance of our own first-year classes. They can literally change lives.) I didn’t want to give up history, though, and so I asked if it would be possible for me to do my Honors degree in both departments. It turned out that until then, nobody had done a combined English-History Honors degree, so the logistics all had to be specially worked out. (This was ultimately done by the simple method of adding up the key requirements, so that, for instance, instead of the 3-credit English Honors essay or the 6-credit History Honors essay, I did a 9-credit essay, with double the usual number of supervisors, readers, and examiners. I ultimately defended it to a panel of 7 professors.) Administratively, this was innovative, then — but intellectually, the work I did was very much in line with current trends in both disciplines.

UBClogoToday, of course, an interdisciplinary degree is wholly unremarkable; Dalhousie even has an entire Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program (for which I have done one supervision myself). Even by the time I got to Cornell to pursue my own Ph.D. in English, though, nobody raised an eyebrow at my interest in historiography. In retrospect, I think my role as an innovator actually reflected less on me than on the somewhat fusty assumptions governing UBC’s degree requirements at the time — particularly in History, where I met the most skepticism about my proposal, but also in English, where the Honors program still required one course each in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Exhibit B: my feminism. In my undergraduate history seminars, I was something of a feminist agitator. I particularly remember the efforts my friend Helen and I made to get some scholarship about gender onto the reading lists. We were unsuccessful in our mandatory historiography seminar — I remember one male student pushing his chair back from the table and exclaiming in disgust “But you’re trying to change something in your culture!!” Well, yes, we were: in our wider culture and in our immediate academic culture, in which the male students thought it was pretty funny to see if they could get us (“the feminists”!) riled up. But we were successful in our Renaissance history seminar: I still recall with admiration (and some self-satisfaction) the professor’s comments to the class at the end of the term that he was glad we had pushed for readings like Joan Kelly’s “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” because they had prompted him to reconsider some of his own working assumptions. That’s integrity! And our interventions were clearly innovative: we were very cutting edge!

06-vintage_cornell_souvenir_penantBut when I got to Cornell, I discovered that far from being a radical, I was actually a conservative! It turned out that there were some kinds of questions you couldn’t safely ask there, arguments you couldn’t seriously entertain, without undermining your feminist credentials. My first big mistake was giving a seminar paper called “The Madwoman in the Closet”: it queried some then-dominant trends in feminist criticism, particularly in 19th-century studies, and tried (perhaps crudely, but I was a beginner at all of this — and frankly, my somewhat old-fashioned training at UBC had not prepared me well for it) to figure out how politics and aesthetics were getting balanced (unbalanced, I thought, maybe, possibly) in the debates. My professor was keen to have these discussions, but said to me quite frankly that he felt that as a male professor, he couldn’t raise these questions. So I blundered in, and paid the price. I also wrote a more or less positive review of Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism — I strongly doubt I would write the same review today, but I distinctly remember how scrupulous I tried to be, looking up the statistics and studies she cited and trying to think my way through the arguments she made. As I recall, this review (the first one I ever published!) was far from a cheerleading piece — it was more in the spirit of “these seem like questions worth asking” — but it can’t have done my developing reputation as an ideological throwback any good.

Yet at Dalhousie, gender issues have always been central to my teaching (as they have been to my scholarship) — I’ve even had at least one student complain that I was “pushing feminism down our throats.” More positively, I have had many appreciative comments from students, including one this year who said mine was the first class she’d taken in which “social justice” issues including feminism were simply integrated into the curriculum, even though the course itself wasn’t labelled as a class in “women’s studies.” It’s impossible not to wonder how much I have actually changed, and how much it’s just the shifting contexts around me that make me look different.

TLS-soganExhibit C: my critical writing. There are many possible angles to consider here, but I’ll focus on my recent work outside of academic publishing, because its status has been much on my mind lately. In a way, the kind of criticism I’ve been doing recently — from book reviews to literary essays — is not innovative at all: it’s the same kind of work everyone else is doing who also writes for newspapers and magazines and literary journals. But from an academic perspective, to be writing for those venues instead of for academic journals is itself innovative: it’s the kind of thing that gets called “knowledge mobilization” or “knowledge dissemination” or “public humanities.” Except that some of these publishing ventures resemble (in style, not necessarily in content) an older kind of literary criticism — a kind some might call belles lettres — which is now considered passé in academic circles. So my recent work could be considered retrograde, not innovative. Except that to break from the conventions of academic writing and try to replicate the best qualities of belles lettres (fine, smart, accessible writing, with its own literary elegance) while still doing criticism informed by decades of academic scholarship … couldn’t that combination of new insights and old forms itself be innovative? Then, what about the content of the reviews and essays? Every new interpretation of a literary text is a critical innovation, isn’t it? So every review of a new book, representing a new intellectual encounter, is intrinsically ground-breaking, even if book reviewing as a form is the oldest kind of literary criticism. What if you make a new critical argument, based on original research, but in an essay outside the norms of academic publishing — if that argument falls in the forest, can anybody hear the innovation? Or what if the argument of an essay is new to one audience but not to another? What is going on then?? Am I doing original work or not???

Oops. That last part possibly got away from me a little! But I think you get my point: determining whether something — an interpretation, an argument, a curriculum, a research project, a work of criticism — is innovative, new, original is not always straightforward. It depends on definitions, expectations, and above all, on contexts. The “flipped classroom” is nothing new to English professors who for years have been assigning texts to be read outside of class and using class time for discussion. “Student-centered learning” is no great revelation in disciplines that have always been based on Socratic exchanges, held seminar classes, and taught students to develop their own essay ideas into original arguments based on their own research. But that these are old practices in some contexts does not mean they aren’t valuable ones, or that people shouldn’t try them in other contexts, if they seem promising there. What matters should not be innovation for its own sake: we should stop fetishizing it as an end in itself, as if either its definition or its importance is self-evident. I’m not against innovation — of course not! And we should certainly encourage and support people who risk doing something outside their immediate limiting norms because they think it will serve the university’s mission — because we shouldn’t want what is now to be mistaken for what should  always be, or always was, in any context. It’s just strange to me how absolutely the term “innovation” is used, how confidently it gets invoked — and how, ironically, it can actually be used to reinforce orthodoxies if we never double-check our assumptions about it.

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I recently took the widely recommended step of securing a “domain of my own” and I am gradually consolidating my online content there, including Novel Readings. I’m posting at both locations for now, but I have disabled comments at this location. You can leave comments on my new site; you may want to update your RSS feeds to follow me from there.

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