Justifying the Humanities

Saturday, 15 June 2013

I received a wonderful email last night from a postgrad student who asked me if I would consider writing a separate post about a response I gave in the comment section for this post. So before I forget my response, I’ll write it down now. Thanks for the email.

Here’s my original response:

I feel your pain, because every job/grant application I’ve filled out in the past few months and years has asked me that question, and I often wonder the same thing as you. Humanities departments have to justify themselves now according to a model of ‘evidence’ that was created for science disciplines. How do you ‘prove’ what books can do, what a poem can do, what historical research can do? How do you ‘prove’ the impact that has on a society, a culture, a country, or an individual student? You can’t: this is not black and white data, there aren’t mathematical equations to the study of the humanities. The study of art, literature, and culture is its own end - it doesn’t need justification or ‘proof’. And the fact that we are required to justify it is the underlying problem to all the funding problems we have now. Because when it comes to showing ‘proof’ and data, we can’t compete with the sciences. It is so thoroughly depressing, I often want to give up. Knowledge is knowledge: it shouldn’t be ‘justified’.

This is not a debate about art versus science. I hate those debates, and I think they’re false. This is more of a debate on how we rationalise funding for different kinds of disciplines, and different types of research and enquiries into knowledge. There is knowledge and research that culminates in concrete data and concrete results. It’s easy (or perhaps just easier) to see what its end-product is, what it can do, what it can teach us, who it affects and why. Then there is knowledge that is intangible: you can’t touch it, you can’t present it as objective data, you can’t name its affects, you can’t predict how it will function in a society, or a culture, or a country. But its intangibility does not make it any less significant and any less worthy of funding and institutional support.

I can’t recall one single application for an academic position that I’ve compiled in the last few years that has not required some sort of rationalisation, justification, or measuring of the ‘impact’ of my planned research work. I can show you a simplistic evaluation of the impact of my teaching, for example: I have evaluation reports by my students and my peers in my folder. But I can’t tell you, for example, what other impact I may have had on past students. Did I know that a former student would come asking for me years after I taught her? Did I anticipate or predict I could ever have that kind of impact on someone? Do I know how every single student in my class responded to a poem, or a book, and how it may have changed their thinking? How do you measure that, and how do you present it to an employer?

Similarly, how can I explain what my research can do? I don’t always have concrete data; I have thoughts and ideas and a contribution to knowledge that is hard to pin down as x and y. Being cited and referenced by other academics, the ranking of the publishers and publications I’ve been published with, are only the surface evaluations of my work. I’m aware they’re necessary for an academic career, I’m aware universities have to measure these things in order to survive themselves. But there’s always a ‘but’. If I’m asked to justify a research project in my discipline, to give concrete proof and data, I will always lose. Because you might as well ask me to prove how love works, to measure happiness and sadness, to justify the existence of a poem or a book or a film the same way businesses justify a business model through sales and productivity figures.

I understand that part of the reason for this justification model is to ensure proper checks and balances in research. And this is absolutely crucial to maintain quality and ethics. But I wish for a tiny bit of breathing room within this model; and perhaps a more nuanced understanding of different disciplines that cannot be clumped together according to one funding model. If we require every single bit of knowledge to be justified with something concrete and don’t allow room for intangibility, I fear we run the risk of killing off the curiosity that compels people like me and like my friends to seek it out in the first place.


Mariella said...

I love this post Hila and I agree with it. I am not an academic but I always loved humanities and never had really an interest in scientific subject, although I acknowledge the importance and value of them. This is just the way that I am , I guess, the way my brain is built. Not for numbers but for words, or images or music.Does that make me less of a human being? According to some social/economic parameters, it probably makes me a loser (that was what my math teacher in high school implied when I said I had no interest in scientific subjects) but luckily, I never believed it.

dobryfilmzlyfilm said...

Thanks for this post! You sum up my thoughts exactly.
There are days that I've wondered if I made the right choice (I almost chose physics or engineering over language and literature)but I've been talking to my friends in the sciences, and they also don't have much "breathing room" (although maybe a bit more than us humanists do). But by the end of the day, as Lizzie Bennet said in the vlog-adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, "today you will struggle in every domain, so why not struggle in what you love?"

Like you said, the debate arts v. sciences is a different matter. I think that the problem that we're dealing here with is not that some academic disciplines are more useful than others, but that university is NOT a business and cannot be run as such. Of course, some fields might offer some knowledge/skills that might be seen as more "practical" from the outside, but in the case of both the arts and the sciences students are given mostly unmeasurable knowledge.
Right now some scientific fields are deemed as "more profitable," and "artsy-fartsy" stuff as a waste of taxpayers money (I'm from Poland, and most universities are free and "funded" by the state). The problem is that no one knows what a university should do -- should it teach practical skills (and what the hell is that in the humanities?) or should it give give knowledge for knowledge's sake (and what the hell is that, anyway?). Everybody knows, however, that they MUST bring money!


As you said, each discipline is different and cannot be brought down to a business plan. Having to justify each and every idea/thesis/project is binding and hinders any development.

Libby Angel said...

The problem now is that academics have to design research projects to fit the funding model criteria. So you get "creative writing" projects as inspired as designing a model for peer-reviewed teaching. WTF????

Hila said...

Mariella: Well, I'm starting to believe I'm loser for choosing to do what I did; it's hard not to when your life decisions are derided as 'useless' and a waste of time.

Karolina: I constantly wonder whether I made the right choice too. But it's too late now, and I have to deal with reality rather than 'what if'.

I agree with you that overall, the situation is bad for everyone, the sciences included. This certainly came through for me when I did a teaching internship with a bunch of science and law postgrad students when I did my PhD. Universities are the first thing that's targeted for funding cuts by governments, because they're such easy targets - nobody really cares about them. At the same time, what also came through was an understanding of how much more of the limited funding the sciences get, and how the funding model is geared towards those disciplines. Even on just the basic facilities level, we noticed the differences. For example, one of the science postgrads I did my internship with was horrified that none of us arts and humanities postgrads had access to our own offices. I've never had my own office (not during or after my PhD), not even one I could share with a few colleagues. At the most, I was given an office for an hour a week while teaching for 'consultation time' with students. Those kinds of small differences in the facilities given to postgrads and staff reveal the larger differences in funding between disciplines.

As you point out, it feels like no one knows what they think universities should be, and in the meantime, they are being managed like businesses. It doesn't bode well for the future.

Libby: I've had many similar WTF momets. I've also had, 'I just want to sit and cry' moments. Sigh.