Re-thinking the research culture?

Here’s a question that might get some pulses racing: is all humanities research completely pointless? Well yes, suggests Clive Bloom, Professor of English and American Studies at Middlesex University. The whole thing is just a glorified hobby for academics looking for something to give meaning to their holidays. It doesn’t save lives like medical research or create a new product like engineering research; it just fills the pages of journals that nobody will read.

Have a look at a little sample of the kind of argument he advances:

‘How indeed does one “research” such diverse things as Slavoj Zizek’s account of the Iraq war or chivalry in medieval literature or the meaning of Wittgenstein’s theory of colour, but by sitting and reading in a comfy chair with a nice cappuccino and some leisure? In other words, our personal choices about what we research are the merest hobbies, rather like some highfalutin version of model train collecting.’

There are two things in his piece that invite comment. One is his dismissal of scholarship in the humanities, or his calling into question whether the topics that might be addressed are actually of any concern to society or whether the research methodology used is at all respectable. Maybe I should leave the answer to this to colleagues from the disciplines involved, though my own view is that many of the issues that have become crucial to modern society and which need to be analysed and understood are in the humanities. I do however suspect that the continuing insistence of many humanities scholars that they need to work alone and that team work is just for scientists could usefully be questioned.

The other issue is this: do we always know at all why we are promoting academic research with such vigour, or has it just become a way of life that nobody has the time to question? Are we merely worried that nobody will respect us or our institutions if we don’t have a steady stream of publications, or is there a more direct purpose to it all?

In terms of the general value of research, I don’t think the case is arguable at all: high value academic research is at the heart of medical, technological and cultural progress across global societies. It enhances quality of life, supports employment and facilitates critical thinking. No question, it is essential. But is that true of all the ‘research’ pumped out by people who really aren’t scholars but who have been forced more or less at gunpoint to publish something, anything? Probably not. An academic research policy should be about promoting excellence, not about overcoming writer’s block for people who really won’t set the world alight with their published output.

Personally, I believe that strong research is the vital element that makes a higher education institution useful to society. Its existence in the institution is, I think, even necessary to guarantee excellent teaching, because today’s students also need to learn the value of research. But research is worth very little if it is conducted just to meet performance indicators. It needs to be driven by passion, not obligation. And this in turn needs to be reflected in how institutional research is assessed and rewarded financially.

So I do believe that the approach of recent decades – that universities need to be seen to be promoting research – is correct. But this policy should by driven by the desire to have high value research outputs, with support for working methods most likely to achieve that end. Enforcing a writing habit in every academic is not the same thing as promoting a university’s research excellence. We need to get better at distinguishing between the two.

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9 Comments on “Re-thinking the research culture?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I’m puzzled, even disappointed, about your questioning the “continuing insistence of many humanities scholars…” Has it not occurred to you they in general and specific scholars in particular are the best judge of how to pursue their research? Team work doesn’t suit some disciplines, why should it automatically suit all disciplines? Moreover it doesn’t suit some individuals. I have colleagues who only write single-authored papers: its just not their style. As long as they continue to produce good stuff I don’t care. And even if I did, it’s none of my business.
    Personally I enjoy collaboration and find it productive but I keep about half of my papers single authored- its a good discipline having to write the whole damn thing yourself.
    In the natural sciences, some of the “team work” is bogus (I am told reliably) with many of the named authors contributing little to the paper.

    • Kevin, I would never suggest that all academics should always and exclusively work in teams – whether in the humanities or elsewhere. But I have from time to time heard humanities (not social science) people argue that it was intellectually improper for them to do so ever, and I don’t accept that.

      I suppose it’s also a matter of whether you believe that whether or how academics do research is a matter for them only, or whether there is some institutional strategic interest in the matter. Your comment almost suggests you think it is the former, which in turn I might find puzzling… 🙂

      I think that research is an activity that needs to be based on an agreed understanding between the university and its faculty, recognising both the intellectual integrity of the individual and the strategic interests of the institution. I think it can be done perfectly well without any blood on the carpet…

      • kevin denny Says:

        I guess I do think that its former – or pretty close. Because intellectual endeavour is at the heart of what we do and I really believe that scholars have to decide for themselves what they want to work on, how they want to approach it and with who, if anyone, they want to collaborate. Working with someone on a paper is in some respects quite an intimate experience, a distinguished colleague said to me it was the closest you could be to someone while keeping your clothes on!
        So I think there is a “strategic interest” in getting the best out of researchers and that requires not trying to tell them how to do their job [I could also add, not telling them how to teach & assess their courses but thats another issue].
        So if historians choose to work singularly and write monographs and biochemists work in teams and write numerous multi-authored journal papers, I think it is an impertinence of me to tell them otherwise.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Sitting in the Library at TCD is the Gospel Book of Kells. Who nowadays stand before it and use it as intended. Today people stand before it like children and marvel at the embellishment.
    At the Universities today we have extreme endeavors in all areas where on publication can provide a true economic cost per read copy of about EUR20.000. Or we have what amounts, in Journal publication, to the same thing. Why are the publications of the Irish Universities not available at any library on the island. And for that matter why are the dig notes taken on the NRA building schemes not available. Why do they remain the sole property of the NRA.
    As to the Professor of English and American Studies, he is just catapulting cats into flocks of Pigeons. He must have a sense of humour if he sat for that title nailed to his door.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I wouldn’t debate whether all humanities research is pointless, anymore than I’d bother to debate whether the earth is flat.

    But a quick google of Clive Bloom has revealed something intriguing: he’s in fact an Emeritus Professor at Middlesex. This seems to be the flavour of the month, as witnessed by the parade of grumpy retired (and all male) professors in the Irish Times recently. I’m not going to suggest any explanation for this phenomenon, but I do find it rather striking…

    • kevin denny Says:

      But Jilly what is your explanation? Off the fence with you! Grumpy old professors are bound to be male since most professors are male. Emeritus professors have the advantage that they are free to speak in a way that those on the payroll may not feel themselves to be.
      And not all professors writing in the IT recently have been male (or grumpy or (retired)).

      • Jilly Says:

        But the male, retired professors did all seem to have a certain common outlook, shall we say? It did make me think of Statler and Waldorf, I will admit…

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    The absurdity of this argument beggars belief. By Bloom’s lights, one presumes, Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant (to stay only in the domain of philosophy) were also merely indulging a ‘hobby’. At least that’s what they were doing when they were philosophising. So Descartes’ Optics is a work of research and to be taken seriously but his Discourse on Method and Meditations are merely ways of indulging himself. And were Descartes a lecturer in a contemporary university, his Optics would be worthy of funding but the other stuff he would be free to waste his free time on. Similarly, Aristotle’s Meteorology and Movement of Animals are serious works of research but the Nicomachean Ethics, the Metaphysics and De Interpretatione are just so much mental masturbation.

    The name of this particular view is, sigh, ‘philistinism’ (yes, that, again). That such views even get an airing today speaks volumes about the decadence of our society and of many involved in what we bizarrely persist in calling ‘higher education’.

    • Peter Says:

      Good point, Ernie. Maybe to make sure we really don’t suppress the next Socrates or Aristotle we should bring back slavery, disenfranchise women and the poor and chuck in some plague to the mix.

      The original article is, whilst being a little tongue in cheek, not as extreme as its interpretations. The point he is making is that much time and effort is wasted in trying to apply for grant funding under the various schemes and criteria available instead of just getting on with the research. By building in the notion that we can’t do any research until we have a grant and we can’t have a grant until we write a proposal, we’re actually in danger of only ever doing research that is hardly likely to reach profundity or importance, or providing excuses !

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