Problems with interdisciplinarity in the humanities

At a recent workshop on interdisciplinarity for researchers from the Coimbra Group in Trinity College Dublin, at the Long Room Hub, there were some interesting presentations (especially by Britta Padberg of ZiF and Christoph Horn of Bonn University) and conversations had about the challenges and opportunities within this area. It got me thinking about some of the theoretical and structural peculiarities of the humanities that makes the discussion of interdisciplinarity in the arts and humanities different from the STEM, and perhaps also the social sciences. As always, there are counter-examples and caveats, but here are some thoughts under the follow headings.

(i) The place of common theoretical structures in STEM and AHSS interdisciplinarity

(ii) Disciplinary and professional drivers and barriers to interdisciplinarity

(iii) Intra- and interdisciplinarity – or precision versus purity Continue reading

Quote: Academics as the Four Yorkshiremen

While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.

Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.

Rebekah Higgitt, “Who’s missing in modern academia, solitary geniuses, or something much more significant”

This quote brings us to the heart of “well-in-the-bad-old-days-things-were-simpler ‘argument’, that has been trotted out since time immemorial. It’s the academic’s equivalent of the Four Yorkshiremen.

Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”

But you try and tell the young people today that…

The demands made on academics are of course onerous, and we can’t deny that. But nor should we let this blind us to the situation faced by others in the wider academic and research world. We cannot let the poor working conditions of those who are employed blind us to the undermining of the work itself. We see this in the nouveau-indentured labour of the graduate students, the adjuncts, the non-tenure track lecturers, and the researchers on short/fixed-term contracts, all with little hope of security. Being aware of this casualization of academic labour, and the erosion of tenure, is imperative.

Getting rid of the academic as the heart of the academy is not a matter of ‘including stakeholders’, or ‘increasing efficiency’, or bringing better organizational models to bear. It is a coup against knowledge, and all the processes required to create it. Lecturers and researchers are at the heart of academia, as they live their lives in it. They cannot do what they do without the university. Administrators could go and administer anything, elsewhere. Students hang around for 3-4 years (any longer, and they cross over the border from student to researcher, on to the academic side of things) and then are gone. Presidents and Rectors always have the option to helm other forms of organization. But when we allow the role of  the academic as researcher and teacher to be shunted to one side, we lose something. It is not to suggest that, Smaug atop the horde, the academic is at the pinnacle of a hierarchy, and all others are subordinate to them. Rather it is that the academic has the centrality of the hub, the central node in the vast knowledge-creating network that is the university. Only by recognising, and asserting this can we preserve the workers as well as the work.

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Quote: Why you don’t fucking love science

So you think you love science, do you?

What does that mean to you, exactly?

For most people, I’m guessing it means something like this:


Or perhaps something like this:


That’s not what science is, though.  That’s data, and like countless “Principal Investigators” of the science world (the professors who are named on research grants), you’re confusing data with science.  This is what science is:

Science is people.  It’s a collective human endeavor, where people make theories, test them based on observation, and then refine the theory when the tests disagree with it.  Data, seen in the beautiful pictures before, is just a side object that confirms the process is working.  Science is the process and the people.  Data is the residue.

I’m not making it sound very nice, am I, to love a “residue?”  Good.  There’s a reason for that.

Read the rest of this excellent post (with graphs!) by John Skylar over at The Anachronist.

A structural reason for technology’s ethical blind-spot

I want to offer here a possible structural reason for why when technology is subject to ethical critique that their response is often all too insufficient. I am thinking primarily of the inability of the targets of Evgeny Morozov‘s broadsides to respond either tonally or in terms of content to what he has to say. One reason I have heard in discussions is that those who are subject to attack want to somehow “rise above” what is being directed at them, but to me this misses the point, and the dual failure here (of style and content) is connected to something broader.

Returning for a moment to those doing the attacking, such as Morozov or Dale Carrico, they tend to view the ethical blind spot I mention here as wilful, as a sin of commission rather than one of omission.  The sense one gets in reading their pieces is that technologists are dastardly and malevolent in their intentions. I shall add a caveat here, and say the positions of Morozov, but especially Carrico are considerably more sophisticated than this outline can do justice to, but that neither of these figures (whom I agree with across the board) are the focus of what I am saying. Their critique is a staging area for my observations here. I am less vituperatively inclined Continue reading

Humanities IN crisis, or humanities AS crisis

Reading Eleonora Belfiore and Anna Upchurch‘s edited collection of essays, Humanities in the Twenty-First Century: Beyond Utility and Markets, I noted how Belfiore draws attention to the fact that the humanities seem to have continual identity drama. We have, as they say, issues. Now, this takes many forms, be it in terms of the job crisis for recently doctored researchers, or issues of public funding, or university organization, or may go even deeper to the very metaphysical justification of the humanities themselves. A nadir of this was to be seen the culture wars of the 90s and 00s, which I think we are all tired of revisiting, but which certainly moulded my early years of university education.

In reading Belfiore’s introduction chapter, “The ‘Rhetoric of Gloom’ v. the Discourse of Impact”, a tweet I had read a while ago popped into my head. It was a propos one of those periodic Twitter squalls that whips up over something or other, but unlike many tweets in such circumstances, it cut straight through the particularity of the situation, presenting a view of the grand, long, universal view.   Continue reading

Redefining academic research – capital or plural?

“University scientists still do most of the research, but increasingly the allegiance of many is to the ‘research centre’, a quasi-academic institution which draws its heat and light from the university, its directions from elsewhere.”

“Cooperative groups, from the great industrial concerns to small research teams, inevitably tend to rely on what is already acceptable as common ground, and that means established, specialized techniques.”

“Companion to the team project and planning by committee is the blight of ‘research design’. Instead of being joined together in a flexible arrangement which allows the scientist to follow his own side roads, project members are bound up in a highly detailed, prefabricated master plan of research.”

The above three quotes are not from recent blog posts regarding higher education, or reponses to EU policy initiatives, but  from William H. Whyte’s 1956 work, The Organization Man, in his chapter “The Bureaucratization of the Scientist”.  Though over half a century old, the concerns and criticisms expressed here are as timely as ever they were (with the addition of there being organization women as well as men…), and the problems that prompted such reflections still exist. Indeed, in one form or another, I have heard similar remarks made by researchers, academics, and administrators in the last few years of working in higher education.  Continue reading

Report: Arts and Humanities Research measurement, impact, and evaluation

Recognising the Value of the Arts and Humanities in a Time of Austerity

I link here to a report I co-authored while in Dublin Institute of Technology’s (DIT) Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU). It was undertaken under the auspices of HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), a partnership between 21 Humanities Research Councils across Europe and the European Science Foundation (ESF), which has ‘the objective of firmly establishing the humanities in the European Research Area and in the European Commission Framework Programmes.’ I quote from the introduction:  

“It is against this backdrop that the HEARAVLUE project (funded by the HERA programme, an ERA-NET network funded by the European Commission and 19 research councils responsible for arts and
humanities research across Europe) was undertaken. Drawing on experiences in three countries
(Ireland, Netherlands and Norway), HERAVALUE seeks to increase our understanding of the
contribution that university-based arts and humanities research makes to society and the economy
by exploring how it is defined, appreciated and accounted for by researchers, policymakers and civil
society. It aims to explore assumptions held by these different stakeholder constituencies, and to
compare and contrast their perceptions and considerations of creative values, creativity and
innovation, and impact and benefit. Furthermore, it aims to identify appropriate practices and
methodologies to assess and demonstrate quality and value beyond the academy. The key objective
is to better understand what really matters rather than what is easily measured.

While many of the issues identified above were not fully formed at the beginning of the project, over
its duration, the project’s necessity has become more obvious – and has been eagerly awaited. It has
become clear that arts and humanities researchers, policy makers and funding agencies, and civil
society more widely are, each in their own and different ways, looking for ways to recognise and
value the important contribution of arts and humanities research within the new policy paradigm.
Important discussions have taken place within and between the academy and the policy community,
and an all-island Irish Humanities Allliance has been formed to “generate public awareness of the
importance of humanities teaching and research in higher education and society at large, and to
inform and shape public policy”.

The Irish national study gathered the views of a diverse range of people across multiple stakeholder
groups – researchers, policy makers, and civil society. Both sectors of Irish higher education,
universities and institutes of technology, were interviewed, in addition to representatives of both
the private-sector and state agency policy-makers; members of civil society included communitybased and national-level arts organisations and bodies, as well as the media. In total, the views of
forty-one people were gathered during 2011 and 2012 for this study.”