Incalculably Diffusive? The Impact of the Humanities

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.”

“On the Duties of Professors”: Research vs. Scholarship

A friend and colleague who read and sympathized with my previous post passed along to me an essay by the late C. Q. Drummond, a long-time member of the Department of English at the University of Alberta. The essay is called “On the Duties of Professors,” and it addresses many of the same issues as my post, particularly the competition for attention, resources, and rewards between research and teaching. As competitions go, all academics know, this is a distinctly unequal one these days: officially, university policies may stress the equal importance of both duties, but inadequacy or irresponsibility in teaching will never hold back someone’s tenure or promotion if they have a “strong” publication record, and while the administrative infrastructure for research is large and powerful, topping out at the Vice Presidential level, if the two factors are really equally important, where, Drummond rightly asks, is the “Vice President (Teaching)”? (Here at Dalhousie, our office of Research Services has 22 staff, including a VP and an Associate VP. Our Center for Learning and Teaching has 10, with a Director and Associate Director at the top.) Not that Drummond wants to see an expansion of teaching-related bureaucracy–though I quite like his idea for how a VP (Teaching) would go about his or her business: this VP “would move through all the Faculties, visiting classes, hearing lectures, attending seminars, drinking coffee, joining oral examinations, talking into the night.” Through qualitative engagement with teachers and students, this VP would become “another source of evidence, besides tabulated student assessments, for who teaches well and who poorly.”

Drummond’s remarks are directed specifically at his own situation: at the time of writing (around 1984), he had recently been “penalize[d] for insufficient publication during a year in which [his Faculty] received extraordinary evidence of his merit as a teacher.” There’s a polemical thrust to them, as a result, but Drummond uses the occasion to place his own professional experience into its larger context: the increasing dominance of precisely the kind of quantitative measures of research “output” about which I was complaining yesterday. Actually, there is one difference that signals the 30-year gap between us: I didn’t notice any mention of research grants in his piece. I expect he would have objected still more strenuously to measuring scholarly success by level of external funding. He directs his criticism at “forced publication,” and at the reductive equation of publication with research or scholarship:

The Salaries and Promotions Committee certainly does not ask for wisdom; it does not ask for erudition or for scholarship; it does not ask for learning, or even for research; it asks for output, something to be measured or counted. . . . What good does such output do anyone? If research in an Arts Faculty means humane learning, then we all hope our teachers are as much involved in research as they possibly can be. We want them to know better and better what they are talking about, so that they will have, and will continue to have, something intelligent and important to profess to their students. But if research means output or publication, as it so often does today, how do the students profit? And how does the scholarly world profit from the forced production of ephemera? Most professors in Arts Faculties would be better off reading more and publishing less, and their students would be better off too, and so would the world of scholarship.

The very term “research” is, he argues, part of the problem.  He quotes George Whalley, who argued in an essay of his own that “research” suggests a goal-oriented activity, work carried out in pursuit of something in particular. “The functions of research,” Whalley writes, “are specialized and limited; … the word research is not a suitable term for referring to the central initiative and purpose of sustained inquiry in “the humanities” . . . “The humanities” is what “humanists” do; not only what they study, but how they study, and why . . . .”

Drawing on the Handbook published by the CAUT (invoked by his Dean in response to Drummond’s appeal of the Committee’s decision), Drummond himself brings in the vocabulary of knowledge “dissemination” which is once again very current in discussions of our aims:

Research should result in teaching, and might result in publication, teaching and publication being the most important means of dissemination of knowledge. We may teach those near at hand in our lectures, discussions, tutorials, apprenticeships, and supervised practical training, or we may teach those distant through our published papers, articles, essays, and books. But in either case we will have to have found out and shown something worth lecturing about, discussing, or writing down. And where will we have our greatest effect in disseminating what we have found out and know? . . . Dissemination has to do with sowing seed; what we hope when we disseminate is that the seed will take root and grow. . . . So much of the seed one sows in publication falls by the wayside and is devoured by birds, or falls on stony ground, or among thorns and yields no fruit. What the good teacher sows in his class or tutorial is far more likely to find the good ground, spring up, increase, and itself bring forth.

 He reiterates at intervals throughout the piece that he is not opposed to either research or publication, only to a mechanistic understanding of both, especially when it “drives out teaching”–which almost inevitably follows: institutional systems of measurement and incentives are set up not “to encourage the combination of knowing and teaching,” but to “encourage the production of printed pages,” and “because we live in a world in which time itself is scarce, the time taken for one must be taken from the other.” Again, it’s not that he wishes teaching, in its turn, to drive out research–teaching depends on research, broadly understood as inquiry.

It’s not, in my turn, that I wish to drive out either research or publication, both of which are essential (as Drummond too acknowledges) to learning, teaching, and knowledge dissemination. What bothers me is the  incessant identification of “productive” scholarly activity with a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible. It’s a shame that the faux-scientific model Drummond objects to is now so firmly entrenched–so deeply entangled in the values, practices, and especially the finances of our universities–that it seems unimaginable that we could ever undo it. Some might argue that we have won more by it than we have lost–that without playing the game that way, we would have forfeited any place in the contemporary academy. Others might reply that, yes, we are playing the game, but on terms by which we can only, ultimately, lose: however vast our research output, will we ever win either the public or the institutional respect enjoyed by the sciences? Hasn’t our preoccupation with research actually isolated us and cost us public support? And in our effort to insist on the goal-oriented practicality of our fields, we may have flagged in our defense of their intrinsic value. Again, it’s not that I think we should not do research, or publish what it teaches us–but it’s a shame that the system is so rigged in favor of hurrying it along and rushing it into print–not to mention aiming it at a specific (and very narrow) audience. “I know for a fact,” Drummond observes, “that policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” That’s certainly true of my reading as well. The narrow concept of research and the pressure to publish also, when made the primary measures of professional success, marginalize undergraduate teaching. (The emphasis in grantsmanship on teaching and funding graduate students, or “HQP” [Highly Qualifed Personnel] is another whole area of trouble.) Finally, it seems to me paradoxically retrograde to be urging or following a model that measures productivity by grant size or output of peer-reviewed publications at a time when the entire landscape of scholarly communication is changing. We can circulate our ideas, enhance our and others’ understanding, pursue our inquiries and disseminate our knowledge in more, and often cheaper, ways than ever before. As long as we are all using our time in service of the university’s central mission–the advancement of knowledge, including through teaching–by the means best suited to the problems we think are most important and interesting to pursue, aren’t we doing our duty as professors?

But as the Associate Vice President who spoke to my Faculty on Thursday said repeatedly, there aren’t “metrics” for those other ways of doing (or discussing) research or measuring its impact: they do not yield data that can be counted, measured, and easily compared across departments, faculties, and campuses. Apparently, that means we have to set them aside–or, at any rate, that the VP (Research) will do so, when reporting to us on our “performance.”

The essay I discuss here is in the volume In Defence of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton, and Others by C. Q. Drummond, edited by John Baxter and Gordon Harvey (Edgeways Books, 2004).

In Brief: Two Takes on Reforming Graduate Education

I hope to write more about my response to each of these very different calls for reforming graduate education, but since I’m not sure when I’ll be able to, for now I’ll just quote a bit, link to them, and invite comments. I think that my response is something like this: both are right that real structural change would be good, but Nowviskie’s proposal makes me uncomfortable by going so far away from the kind of work I’m familiar with (and that drew me into graduate school and now characterizes my teaching and writing life), while Berman’s leaves me dissatisfied because it avoids issues of intellectual substance in its emphasis on time to degree, a goal to be pursued by “required courses with clear benchmarks and learning goals,” and its overall tone of business-school-like pragmatism. In both cases, I like the emphasis on new forms of knowledge dissemination and alternative forms of publishing, including Berman’s reiteration of the need to rethink the dissertation and the dominance of the monograph (like the weather, this is something people keep talking about, with no perceptible effect). Here are the two links, with excerpts:

Bethany Nowviskie, It Starts on Day One

Here’s a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humanities and creating a generation of knowledge workers prepared not only to teach, research, and communicate in 21st-century modes, but to govern 21st-century institutions.

First, kill all the grad-level methods courses.

Kill them, that is, to clear room for something more highly evolved — or simply more fruitful — to take their place. Think: asteroids clobbering dinosaurs. Choking weeds ripped from vegetable gardens. The fuzzy little nothings and spindly cultivars in this scenario, squinting cautious eyes or uncurling new leaves into the light, are:

  • those research methodologies and corpora (often but not exclusively gathered under the banner of the “digital humanities”) that address hitherto unanswerable questions about history, the arts, and the human condition;
  • and the new-model scholarly communications platforms we can already recognize as promising replacements to our slow and moribund systems for credentialing and publishing humanities scholarship and archiving the cultural record on which it is based.

Russell Berman, Reforming Doctoral Programs: the Sooner the Better

Departments should design regular course series that expeditiously prepare students for examinations. Such organized curricular design is vital to achieve an accelerated time to degree. It is a common practice in some social sciences for entering students to face an articulated set of required courses with clear benchmarks and learning goals.1 In contrast, in some literature fields, annual course offerings vary in accordance with individual faculty predilections. Instead we should design a curriculum for student learning needs. Graduate students ought to be able to complete course work in two years. This realistic goal depends on effective management of both faculty teaching responsibilities and student course enrollment.

We need to design a wider array of capstones to doctoral programs and to move beyond the traditional dissertation. In literary studies, the nearly exclusive form of completion is the dissertation, which has come to mean, effectively, a draft of a book manuscript. We maintain this expectation, despite the crisis in academic book publishing. Let us be honest: most academic books, especially those derived from dissertations, have little distribution. . . . Technological change and the digital humanities suggest other shorter genres of scholarly writing; moreover, such genres might be able to bridge the gap between scholarship and the public, which has hurt us so badly in the current wave of budget cuts.

 

More Ph.D. Puzzlement

The leaders of the American Historical Association (AHA) recently published a mini-manifesto, “No More Plan B,” that has received quite a lot of positive attention. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the authors want to stop seeing non-academic careers as “alternatives” (a term they see as usually implying “bad alternatives”) to tenure-track professorial appointments. They argue for a change in both the rhetoric and the emphasis of doctoral programs:

Grafton and Grossman cite data from the last year (and the last several years before that) in which more history Ph.D.s are entering the job market than there are tenure-track openings. Despite the talent of the new history Ph.D.s, “many of these students will not find tenure-track positions teaching history in colleges and universities,” they write.

Further, they say that people cannot simply wait for the economy to improve. “As many observers have noted, this is not a transient ‘crisis,’ ” write Grafton and Grossman. “It’s the situation we have lived with for two generations. And it’s not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets that lead[s] administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions rather than tenure-track jobs. AHA supports and joins in efforts to convert contingent to tenure-track jobs — but it’s unrealistic to expect these to pay off on a large scale. We owe it to our students and to our profession to think more broadly.”

In this environment, Grafton and Grossman write that the idea of working outside academe needs to be basic to all discussions with graduate students, from the time they look at programs to their dissertation defenses. But history departments also need to consider “bigger” changes than just talking about options, and those changes, the statement argues, should include adjustments in the doctoral curriculum. “If we tell new students that a history Ph,D. opens many doors, we need to broaden the curriculum to ensure that we’re telling the truth. If the policy arena offers opportunities, and we think it does, then interested students need some space (and encouragement) to take courses in statistics, economics, or public policy,” they write. “Accounting, acting, graphic design, advanced language training: students thinking at once creatively and pragmatically have all sorts of options at our research universities. And of course there’s the whole exploding realm of digital history and humanities, and the range of skills required to practice them.”

Throughout the time students are in graduate school, they need to feel that their faculty members will support their choices to work in or outside of academe, they write.

I endorse wholeheartedly the call for faculty members “to stop looking down on those who build careers elsewhere.” I find it hard to imagine any advisor having such an outdated, narrow-minded, short-sighted and belittling attitude–but the anecdotal evidence does seem to be strong that many Ph.D. students run into this kind of silliness.

Where I still find myself puzzled, though, is over how  (and, to some extent, why) Ph.D. programs should be “broadened” to take into account the wide but at the same time rather nebulous list of other careers for which specialized academic training in a particular discipline is said to prepare people. It’s not that I don’t think Ph.D.s learn valuable skills: it’s that Ph.D. programs are also about content and about discipline-specific expertise as much as (if not more than) transferable skills of the kind invoked when the AHA’s James Grossman  cites investment banking as “the perfect example” of an overlooked match between training and career prospects:

“You have people who as part of their occupation need to be able to assess how two companies will get along in a merger. What does that require? It requires exactly the same conceptual framework historians use when we think about structure, human agency and culture,” he said.

Aside from the depressing notion that we should promote studying “structure, human agency and culture” on the dubious grounds that it prepares someone to facilitate corporate mergers, surely there is some difference in the conceptual frameworks involved? And even if there isn’t, to what extent are the time-consuming, intellectually demanding, and discipline-specific aspects of Ph.D. programs that are designed to professionalize–in the richest sense of that word–someone as a historian actual requirements for those other careers? Why, to put the question another way, would someone actively interested in a non-academic career chose the long and possibly circuitous route of getting a history Ph.D. on the way? An M.A., sure, but a Ph.D.? As one of the Inside Higher Ed commenters remarks,

While I applaud the AHA for acknowledging that there are good jobs for Ph.D.s outside academic departments they are still not quite getting it. If you take a look at those non-academic jobs, for how many of them would you say that the History Ph.D. is the best path to getting the skills and credentials needed to be hired in them? How many require a History Ph.D. Not many, I suspect. Almost all History Ph.D.s earned their degree because they wanted to become academic historians, not because the skills they developed would help them be good at something else.

From the perspective of graduate students,” another comments, “‘No Plan B’ is self-centered. If the objective is no longer a tenure-track teaching job (preferably at a research university) why not enroll in a graduate program (not history) whose purpose is to prepare students for these other livelihoods?” It has certainly been my experience that 100% of students I talk to who are applying to Ph.D. programs have academic careers in mind, and so I agree that there’s something awry in the way these arguments for seeing non-academic careers as something besides “alternatives” are being set up.

That said, it might be true that if Ph.D. programs were sufficiently redesigned, people would head into them with a wider range of intentions and expectations. It’s not clear to me, though, how we could reconcile that broader agenda with the standard demands of Ph.D. programs as they are currently constituted–which is, with a persistent focus on preparing students for academic careers. Indeed, in the 20+ years I have now been involved in graduate education, the strongest trend I’ve seen is towards academic “professionalization,” with workshops on everything from conference proposals to fellowship applications to academic job interviews, and ever-rising pressure to publish, attend conferences, and participate in professional groups and activities. Students whose first priority is an academic career need (or they certainly expect, and even, in my experience, demand) this kind of “support” to an extent that was barely imaginable 20 or 30 years ago. What would the new, multi-purpose Ph.D. look like?

The AHA’s proposal seems to be to re-tool Ph.D. programs, not by redesigning them from the ground up, or by streaming requirements based on intended outcomes, but by preserving all the essential academic elements while adding yet more requirements for both students and departments:

Yes, time is a problem. It already takes a long time—a very long time—to obtain a doctorate in history. We don’t advocate narrowing the historical work that constitutes graduate education in history. Nor do we agree with the well-meaning observers who suggest that graduate training in humanities fields could be made less onerous, and attrition reduced, by easing the requirements: for example, by cutting the dissertation down from the grub out of which a book should emerge into three or more articles that can be researched and written in one to two years. We leave the feasibility of shorter dissertations in other humanities disciplines for our colleagues to assess. In history, the dissertation is the core of the experience. It’s in the course of research that historians firm up their mastery of languages and research methods, archives and arguments; and it’s while writing that they learn how to corral a vast amount of information, give it a coherent form, and write it up in a way accessible to non-specialists. Most students learn the challenges and satisfaction associated with extended narrative and/or complex analysis only at this final stage.

Instead of cutting down the dissertation, departments need to find ways of keeping dissertation writers attuned to the full range of opportunities that their work opens. Why not incorporate preparation for the future into the later years of doctoral training? This might be the time for an additional course or two, adventures into new realms of knowledge that build skills for diverse careers. That such diversification offers an antidote to melancholy and writer’s block is merely a bonus, even more so if these explorations can also add texture or new insights to a dissertation. Departments might also consider workshops that explore the world of work, bring in speakers from government and other areas where many historians find jobs, and mobilize their networks of contacts as advisers for their students. Internships could provide even deeper experience, although care would have to be taken to integrate them into dissertation writing calendars.

 If they aren’t going to “ease” requirements by decentering the dissertation (as the MLA has already argued we in literary studies should ‘decenter’ the monograph in tenure and promotion cases), how are students going to manage to do more courses or internships in “the later years of doctoral training,” also known as “the years in which you try to finish your thesis before your funding runs out”? “Care would have to be taken,” indeed.

It’s true that disciplines vary, and it’s easier in some ways (even for me) to be “attuned to the full range of opportunities” that history students’ work might open to them than it is for me to see obvious alternative (sorry) applications for the specialized expertise acquired in an English Ph.D. program. (This is not, to be clear, meant to say I don’t see value in that expertise, just that I don’t find the ‘transferable skills’ argument very compelling as a reason to do the things a literature Ph.D. has to do.) Maybe, too, Ph.D. theses in history do train students to write up their research “in a way accessible to non-specialists,” which would certainly make them a better bridge to non-academic jobs than the English thesis usually is. Maybe a lot of things about the “Ph.D. Conundrum” are different in history. Still, When I read the AHA statement, I felt, no doubt cynically, that there is an elided step in the logic, a step where they say “we want to keep Ph.D. enrolments up.”

The Ph.D. Conundrum

I recently followed a link to yet another post giving advice on “what to tell your graduate students.” This is something I worry about a lot, not just for the Ph.D. students I currently advise but for the B.A. and M.A. students who come asking for advice and reference letters, so I clicked over with interest. This latest one, at Inside Higher Education, responds to an earlier piece by Lennard Davis in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Davis explains how he tells students the secret to their future success:

First I inform them of the current job situation, whatever that is at the time. I don’t sugarcoat the dismal nature, say, of today’s academic market. But I also say that I have had very good success in placing my graduate students. Then I make it clear that the first thing they need to do is start thinking about the minimum requirements for going on the job market.

They often look a little stunned to be getting a lecture about professional development when they have just come in to ask me if I’ll be on their master’s-thesis defense. But I think it’s not just the early bird who gets the worm; it’s the very, very early bird.

The next thing I do is set the bar for the minimum requirements in my field. To even get into the race, I tell students, you need three published articles, two or three book reviews, attendance and paper presentation at professional conferences, and, ideally, a contract for the publication of the dissertation.

As others (including some in the comments) have discussed, these days even a student who meticulously and miraculously accomplished all of these things still might not win the job lottery; Davis’s piece problematically implies that students themselves bear the responsibility for their success or failure on the job market, that if they only do everything right, they will be OK. Plenty of “very, very early birds” will go hungry because there are so few worms at all; the idea that the best, or earliest, are the ones who are rewarded is one of the more demoralizing aspects of a failed job search. Davis also shows a discomfiting anti-intellectualism, in the guise of pragmatism, in his suggestion that students should be “strategic” in selecting their thesis topics. His advice here is also not as practical as he makes out: academic fads come and go, and by the time the student has completed 3-5 years (or more) of research and writing on that trendy topic, the jobs might all be in a different area. With outcomes impossible to predict or control, I’d think the only certainty is that students should do work they are passionate about and think is intrinsically interesting and important, so that whatever happens on the job market, they won’t regret the investment of their time and passion.

I do think we need to tell our students something like what Davis says: they need to understand that there are very few tenure-track positions available, and that if they hope to be competitive, they have to professionalize and publish. But we shouldn’t tell them, or even let them persist in thinking, that there’s any formula that guarantees they will win. The majority of them will not end up in tenure-track positions. So what else should we tell them?  In the Inside Higher Ed piece, Christine Kelly offers a corrective to Davis’s essay, focusing in particular on what she feels is his belittling of non-academic options:

First, tell them that even if they follow all your advice and build a strong C.V., the reality is there are not enough tenure-track jobs for all the Ph.D.s, so many candidates will not receive offers. Let them know that if they do not get a tenure-track job they are not failures. . . .

Second, tell your students there are viable career alternatives where they can use their skills. Don’t suggest that their options are between a tenure-track job or a low-level dead-end job . . . Tell your students that while they prepare for their academic career, they should also explore their alternatives. While they are doing all the activities that may help them land a tenure-track job, they are also developing skills that will be useful in other professions.

Kelly’s piece seems sensible and level-headed to me, overall, especially her point about having “honest and open” discussions about career prospects and non-academic options. I don’t think I’ve personally ever belittled or shut out anyone who talked to me about non-academic options, but there is a sort of cult-like assumption within the academy as a whole that anyone who’s got anything on the ball intellectually ought to want to join us, and it would be better all around if we stopped imagining that our goal as departments is self-replication. One of Kelly’s comments points out that she “still seems to regard careers outside academia as consolation prizes when she talks about students who seek ‘non-academic careers when they don’t land faculty positions.’ What about those of us who wanted the PhD but not faculty position?”I agree that her phrasing reflects the assumption that the first choice of all Ph.D. students is a professorial career.

That said, I myself have never once met with a prospective or current Ph.D. student who wasn’t primarily interested in the Ph.D. as preparation for an academic job. At least in my field, in my experience, people want a Ph.D. because they want to become professors. They are the ones who see non-academic options as second-best, because that is not what they were aiming for when they started down this path. And if someone came to me and said they had different career goals but thought they’d do a Ph.D. along the way, I would discourage them.

It’s not that I see no portable value in the deep learning and intensive skills training acquired through graduate work in English. But at least as currently constituted, Ph.D. programs in English (at least all those with which I am at all familiar) are designed as professional training, and the profession they train you for is Professor. I’ve already written at some length about my dissatisfaction with the “skills argument” when applied to graduate school; here’s an excerpt from that earlier post:

[D]oing a PhD in the humanities will certainly enhance a student’s critical analysis and writing skills. But . . . the particular specialized demands of a PhD make it an astonishingly indirect and inefficient way to master those skills[.] Most PhD students in the humanities complete at least a year of coursework, to increase the breadth and depth of their expertise in the materials and methodologies of their field.In English, that will almost certainly include not just sustained attention to literature from the medieval to the contemporary period, but also exhausting (if not, probably, exhaustive) engagement with esoteric theorists and critics of all persuasions. One goal is to become reasonably fluent in a style of argumentation and writing that is not universally practised, as anyone who has ever coached a student initially trained in, say, . . .  philosophy, to do work in literary criticism (as I have) would know. A related goal is mastery of, or at least familiarity with, a vocabulary that really has little or no place outside the academic study of literature. [2011 update: in fact, if you use it elsewhere, people typically stop listening to or reading you!] Then follows a year of really intensive reading in preparation for a set of qualifying exams. Precise requirements vary: at Dalhousie, our exam lists are field-specific and teaching oriented. The exam itself is a grueling combination of written essays and an oral examination–aha! writing to deadlines and oral presentation skills! And of course the final phase is the production of the thesis, a 300+ page document demonstrating your ability to first create and then resolve a critical ‘problem’ or ‘crux’ that hasn’t yet been addressed, or at least not from your unique angle. Anyone who has revised a PhD thesis into an academic book knows that even that step requires changing almost the entire tone, not to mention the supporting apparatus, of the original work, and probably expanding its scope.

Arguments for treating Ph.D.s as reasonable preparation for non-academic careers continue to abstract general skills from the work we specifically ask our students to do, as if the particulars don’t matter. For instance, a colleague directed me to Kel Morin-Parsons’ essay “Infinite Hope – and for Us; or, Come on in, the Real World is Fine.” Morin-Parsons did a Ph.D. in literature but decided to seek out non-professorial options and, at the time of the article’s publication, was “the manager of the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program, part of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.” Morin-Parsons is very happy with her decision and urges those of us “who teach PhD students [to] think beyond the pointless dichotomy of a PhD put to ‘proper’ use in the academy versus a PhD ‘wasted’ elsewhere.” Again, I think it’s the students themselves at least as much as their faculty advisors who consider an academic job the ‘proper’ use of their graduate training, but setting that quibble aside, here’s Morin-Parsons’ case for the benefits of the Ph.D.:

the graduate programs made demands on us that developed tremendously applicable capacities. As most of us not only took seminar courses but taught or assisted with undergraduate courses, we all had experience in organizing teaching material, developing it and presenting it as lectures, managing people, and managing time. Added to this experience were the skills developed by all graduate students as they learn to conduct research—the gathering and analyzing of information and the transformation of that raw data into coherent pieces of writing. On top of all of this is the fact that those of us trained in literature can, as a rule, write well—something not always a given—and tend to understand the basics of good communication. In a world inundated with information and people trying to extract from the pile some genuine knowledge, a graduate degree in English literature can situate a person beautifully. What I have not yet mentioned is what underpins all of this—the deep and wide understanding of connections, narratives, and the world in general that comes with humanities education. This is not some sop to the high-mindedness of higher education in some degraded context; this is the thing that seals the deal for those taking the things they’ve developed inside the academy and applying them outside. I have grown to cherish more and more warmly a notion which, I think, we have largely lost sight in the early twenty-first century—that which proposes that a liberal arts education, as we once termed it, is to fit people not just for a particular institution but for the world. The long view of history and the insight into human action nurtured by such an education combine with the often incredible demands for production, organization, and analysis now made upon graduate students as they turn into well-trained scholars. The world needs this, and wants it—not just in the classroom but virtually everywhere else.

Though I don’t doubt she’s right that graduate students have and hone those core skills, what I’m missing is why Ph.D. work that also involves (and indeed explicitly prioritizes) expert knowledge of highly specialized kinds is the best way to “deep and wide understanding of connections, narratives, and the world in general.” I don’t actually think understanding of “the world in general” really describes Ph.D. work very well: this all sounds more like what we hope a good undergraduate liberal education will achieve. Maybe the subtext here is that undergraduate education can no longer be counted on to turn out good writers (not with classes of 1500, that’s for sure!) or a “deep and wide” engagement with ideas and narratives. But many specific elements of Ph.D. programs still seem to me not so much unsuited as unnecessary to the “long view and insight into human action” Morin-Parsons emphasizes. Is this really what preparing for comprehensive exams gives us? What about writing a thesis? I’m not saying that doing this work in any way makes Ph.D. students unfit for the world, but I have a hard time finding it reasonable that someone should deliberately undertake it if they have already ruled out academia as a career path. It’s too much work, not just for them, but for me, as I would have to treat them (unless we institute streaming of some kind) as pre-professional students. Their course papers would have to be just as academic as anyone else’s. They would deserve just as much time for coaching sessions before their comprehensive exams. Their thesis would still need to be defensible to a panel of academic experts, so I’d give their drafts just as much time, and guide them in the same academically-approved directions. I guess if they were self-declared non-academics I wouldn’t urge them into publication, but they couldn’t escape the pedagogical training or experience. Well, marking stacks of first-year essays is good for time-management, after all.

Now, maybe there are people who are happy to do all the specific components of an English Ph.D. with no intention of going into academic work, who find it (or imagine they will find it) intrinsically interesting and rewarding enough that they don’t mind deferring the start of their actual career for seven years or so. My disbelief probably stems from my own Ph.D. years, which were marked by unhappiness, self-doubt, and intellectual uncertainty. I actually had it pretty easy: I had an excellent funding package, a supportive supervisor, small classes, lots of flexibility in setting up my exams and thesis topic. And even so I can’t imagine anyone choosing to do a Ph.D. for the sheer intellectual satisfaction of it! But maybe there are such people, and if so, may they flourish as Morin-Parsons has. I do consider hers a good-news story (and it’s one that also takes a stand for values I share); I think it’s a story we should share with our current Ph.D. students, as part of our attempt at having those open and honest discussions Kelly mentions. They can do other things with their Ph.D.–in fact, most of them, by recent statistics, will have to–and they can be happy doing them. Happier even, perhaps, than their tenure-track or tenured friends, who are expected to do more and more for more and more students with less and less encouragement and support. We should do everything we can to encourage and help them (including, of course, steering them to the many websites and resources now available to guide and assist them, like Versatile Ph.D or Jo VanEvery’s Conscious Career Course).

Still, I wonder if a different kind of program wouldn’t make more sense for those who are really after the broadly applicable skills Morin-Parsons (and those I cite in the earlier post about the “skills argument”) focus on. Even in today’s difficult circumstances, we do need Ph.D. programs to continue training new professors (don’t we?), but we could conceivably work on streaming students into academic and non-academic tracks. However, not only are the logistics and the differentiated curriculum hard to imagine (how many academics would know how to proceed? our training has been of a different kind), but the Ph.D. means certain things, professionally, academically, so I’m not sure any single institution could just transform what they considered worthy of the degree. And what if students didn’t know, or changed their mind about, their desired goals? Maybe multidisciplinary MA programs could be devised to provide the enhanced “liberal education,” with a focus on ‘deep wide understanding’ of ‘the world in general,’ that Morin-Parsons talks about. They could include a lot of research and writing–not of the micro-specialized, often highly technical / jargon-filled kind we generate for academic publication (which has its own value, but is not of universal application or interest), but work aimed at smart nonspecialists, with lots of emphasis on editing and revision, and more focus on fitting people for ‘the world’ than (as per Davis’s advice) molding them for departmental positions.

And these remain, for me, hypothetical cases. Again, in my 16-year experience, I have only ever met with students whose interest in a Ph.D. is as a path to the professoriate. (In fact, almost all of the undergraduates are primarily interested in it as a path to a teaching career: undergraduates are often quite surprised to learn that the Ph.D. is primarily a research degree, and that the work they see us doing in the classroom, the work that inspires them to follow in our footsteps, is a fraction [and the least valued fraction, at that, professionally speaking] of the job we have.) Those who actually want to do something else are making different choices earlier on. It’s not easy to counsel someone to want something else, but that still makes more sense to me than encouraging students to pursue a Ph.D. because while they struggle through their specialized coursework, teaching, and research, acquiring deep literary expertise, they will also be, as Kelly says, “developing skills that will be useful in other professions.”

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas

The Marketplace of Ideas is not as interesting as I thought it would be. One reason may be that it is part of a series intended, as series editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains, to “invite the reader to reexamine hand-me-down assumptions and to grapple with powerful trends”–that is, the books are not rigorous analyses aimed at specialists but accessible and deliberately provocative commentaries meant to bring a wider public quickly up to speed on debates about (Gates again) “ideas that matter in the new millenium.” At just over 150 small-scale, large-type pages, The Marketplace of Ideas is not anything like a comprehensive examination of the many issues it addresses, whether the rise of the modern university, the vexed history of the “liberal arts” curriculum, the changing aspect of humanities research, or the causes and consequences of the current appalling academic job market. Rather, it offers a briskly coherent account of some historical contexts of particular relevance to certain elite universities (he shows this narrowness of focus throughout, which, as other reviewers have pointed out, eventually undermines a number of his more general claims and complaints). Then he transitions quite abruptly to consider political homogeneity as a feature of the academy, and then, with another awkward transition, to offer some interesting but often idiosyncratic or, worse, facile suggestions about what ails graduate education in the humanities today and how to fix it.

Of the contextual section of Menand’s book, Anthony Grafton at The New Republic writes, fairly, I think,

Menand’s account is consistently even-tempered, and he resists all temptations to succumb to nostalgia or to launch jeremiads, even when both might be appropriate. He does not portray the university in the age of New Criticism as a paradise of Serious Reading, or denounce the new forms of scholarship that have grown up more recently as one great betrayal of truth and high standards. Instead he sings a song of sclerosis. Through all these changes, he writes, the basic system of disciplines and departments remained intact–a hard and confining carapace that proved impossible to break, however humanists squirmed and pushed.

I appreciated his discussion of the mixed blessing that is professionalism, something addressed from a more discipline-specific angle in Brian McRae’s Addison and Steele are Dead (a book I discussed here at some length). I also found his comments on the unsatisfactory realities of “interdisciplinarity” very interesting: “interdisciplinarity” is a buzzword often invoked as if it represents a panacea to whatever ails our individual, disciplinary, or institutional limitations, but Menand suggests, persuasively, that our obsession with it is a symptom of anxiety about “the formalism and methodological fetishism of the disciplines and about the danger of sliding into an aimless subjectivism or eclecticism.”

Overall, though, this “structural explanation,” as Grafton calls it, wasn’t really what I went to the book for; rather, I was hoping for an elaboration on the provocative excerpt published last fall in the Harvard Magazine, focusing on “the PhD problem.” There, he talked about the dramatic rise in the number of doctoral students even as the number of available tenure track positions (relative to the number of candidates) fell off drastically, the long time to degree for doctoral students in the humanities, and some ideas for unclogging the system by, for instance, making an article the standard for the Ph.D. rather than the book-length thesis. It turns out he gave most of the milk away for free here, and my thoughts on reading that material over in the book version were the same as what I said at the time (if he can make his writing do double-duty, I figure I can do the same with mine):

. . . I was struck by Menand’s passing suggestion that “If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship,” but this seems to me another of those ideas about changing “the system” (not unlike the MLA’s call to “decenter the monograph” as the gold standard for evaluating tenure and promotion files) that can never be addressed on a local level and so may never be addressed at all. Which department wants to be the first to say that they will award a Ph.D. without requiring a thesis? For that matter, which department could make such a change in policy without losing their accreditation or funding? Which department could independently assert its ability to evaluate the work of its members without the sacred stamp of “peer reviewed publications,” or at least giving equal weight to less conventional modes of knowledge dissemination? . . .

I was also struck by Menand’s remark that “Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark.” This certainly echoes my strong feeling for the last several years that English, for one, has become a field so inchoate that it is unable to declare and defend itself in any compelling way that all of its members can agree on–at least, not without resorting to unbelievably bland formulations (all the world’s a text!). How can we sustain a sense of ourselves as a functioning discipline under these circumstances? Though I don’t want to fall into conservative lamentation about the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable and why (when were those days, exactly, and how long did they last?), anyone who has worked on curriculum reform (and probably everyone working in an English department anywhere has done so at least once) knows that the lack of an identifiable core is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. It’s a problem for us, as we try to define priorities in hiring as well as teaching, and it’s a problem for students, whose programs include so much variety it is possible to meet a 4th-year honours student and be more struck, somehow, by what they don’t know or haven’t read than by what they do and have, and certainly impossible to predict what experience or knowledge they bring to your class . . . . But what, if anything, to do about that? Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menand points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

That last point about skills is something I have returned to recently, as I feel as if the pressure is mounting for humanities graduate programs to retool themselves as all-purpose training grounds for a (rarely specified) set of non-academic jobs. Here’s what Menand actually says on that issue:

The effort to reinvent the PhD as a degree qualifying people for non-academic as well as academic employment, to make the degree more practical, was an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when it was headed by Robert Weisbuch. These efforts are a worthy form of humanitarianism; but there is no obvious efficiency in requiring people to devote ten or more years to the mastery of a specialized area of scholarship on the theory that they are developing skills in research, or critical thinking, or communication. . . . The ability to analyze Finnegan’s Wake does not translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock offerings.

As I’ve recently argued in response to just that kind of administrative “humanitarianism” (some might call it “pragmatism,” as well), I think there is indeed something fundamentally misguided about this trend to play up the skills set acquired during Ph.D. training, as if the content of the degree (and its specific constituent requirements, such as specialized comprehensive exams and a thesis) are somehow tangential. This “solution” to “the Ph.D. problem” sounds exactly like something an outside (non-specialist) administrator who doesn’t in fact care much about the content of individual disciplinary programs would propose, and our rapidity to embrace it, well-meaning though we certainly are (we really like our graduate students, in my experience, and want to help them), is in itself a kind of capitulation on the larger issue of the value of the work we specifically do (about which collapse of principle, see more here).

And here’s where Menand really turns out to disappoint, because with his throw-away line about the prospective stock analyst who should not “waste his time with Joyce” he (perhaps strategically) distances himself from one of his key audiences–not the skeptics or outsiders who already think that reading Finnegan’s Wake is at best a harmless (if bizarrely difficult) form of self-indulgence and at worst, yes, just a waste of time (and certainly not something that should be supported by public funding), but his fellow scholars and academics, the ones making decisions about curriculum and program requirement and advising undergraduate students to go on (or not) to Ph.D. programs, or Ph.D. students to complete (or not) their dissertations. How can they look for leadership to someone who doesn’t sound as if he thinks their work is important, whose suggestions for reform effectively trivialize it? He may well be right about Joyce as a means to that particular end, but why does he so blithly pass up the opportunity to explain why that work on Joyce might be vitally important to some other end not currently lauded or rewarded in the public culture he claims, in his closing peroration, must in fact be questioned and resisted by “the culture of the university”? He does spend a little time acknowledging what we have all gained: “the humanities,” he says

helped to make the rest of the academic world alive to issues surrounding objectivity and interpretation, and to the significance of racial and gender difference. Scholars in the humanities were complicating social science models of human motivation and behavior for years before social scientists began doing the same thing via research in cognitive science. That political and economic behavior is often non-rational is not news to literature professors. And humanists can hope that someday more social scientists and psychologists will consider the mediating role of culture in their accounts of belief and behavior. . . [Scholarship in the humanities] is pursuing an ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry. And it is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions. Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge.

That’s something, though that’s about all I could find, and it strikes me as pretty tepid and unconvincing, all very abstract and general and vague about how exactly those literary scholars achieved the insight (?) that “political and economic behavior is often non-rational,” and promising nothing more than that humanities scholars will keep on keepin’ on, being skeptical and questioning about, well, everything. What’s Joyce to them, then, exactly, anyway? But I wouldn’t be so annoyed at these moments if it weren’t for this one:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. . . . students who spend eight or nine years in graduate schools are being seriously overtrained for the jobs that are available.

I won’t get into the problem of his math (see the discussion at Historiann for some trenchant critiques). And I’ll concede that he means (I think) to be descriptive: it’s just true that the majority of jobs that are available for Ph.D.s in English right now are not at research-intensive universities or elite liberal arts colleges, or teaching specialized classes to majors and honours students in their fields. In a painfully literal way, then, he’s just telling the truth (though every time he talked about supply and demand I wondered why he wasn’t acknowledging the work of Marc Bousquet). But he makes it sound as if “teach[ing] poetry to college students for a living” is a pretty trivial occupation, one that really doesn’t depend on a base of specialized knowledge. What he doesn’t say, in this astonishingly dismissive remark, is that the eight or nine years people spend in graduate school are preparing, not just to teach Introduction to Poetry, but to rethink, and perhaps transform, how we teach poetry to undergraduates–not to mention what poetry we teach. I have only to compare the undergraduate training I received with what is standard in the curriculum today to realize what a seismic shift has gone on, in expectations, in contexts, in critical approaches. I had occasion to remark just this week, for instance, that when I studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in my own first-year English class, the term “Modernism” never came up. Never. We read Joyce but no Woolf, just as in my Victorian novel class we read Trollope but not Gaskell or Braddon, and the term “imperialism” never came up. Now, I suppose you could argue that a small cadre of specially privileged researchers could be off doing the kind of work the effects of which would trickle down to the peons in the classroom, but as Menand himself argues, the fewer people engaged in an activity, the less likely it is that its norms and paradigms will be challenged. And as Grafton argues eloquently in his own response to Menand, “all this takes time,” and “the vocation of scholarship is difficult.” I think there are some difficulties with Grafton’s emphasis on the academic life as a “quest,” but I really wish that, having grabbed people’s attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us. I’m not sure that someone who wants to be a stockbroker should finish a PhD either, but I’d rather have a stockbroker who reads Joyce (or Trollope or George Eliot) than one who doesn’t see the point of that stuff.

(cross-posted)

The Impact of the Humanities

At 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.

Here’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 Louise; Philadelphia; The Crying Game; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; The Piano; Pulp Fiction; The English Patient. In television, . . . the transformation to postmodern forms has been even more radical: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; The X-Files; Alias. . .

“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.”