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.