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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Value of Literary Research

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Whisper it quietly, especially if the universities minister David Willets might overhear, but Mark Bauerlein may have a point. In an article for the US Chronicle of Higher Education, Bauerlein, a literary scholar, argues that most literary research is by and large useless.

Using Google Scholar to track citations, Bauerlein points out that most research has only a minimal impact within the academic community, let alone outside of it. Of course, citation indices alone are not a guide to the value of research (something that those designing the Research Excellence Framework for the humanities need to bear in mind, as they strive for a simple mathematical way of assessing the impact of research). After all, it might be that lots of innocuous and largely unnoticed articles feed in to the one rare work which is genuinely groundbreaking and impactful. Below the surface research is essential to build the tip of the iceberg that people (perhaps even the public) take note of. Bauerlein recognises this, but notes that:
If a professor who makes $75,000 a year spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication), the university paid $125,000 for its production. Certainly that money could have gone toward a more effective appreciation of that professor's expertise and talent. We can no longer pretend, too, that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today, after three decades have produced 2,007 items on the poet, as they were in 1965, when the previous three decades had produced only 233.
Academic research is notoriously inefficient or unproductive, by any standard economic model. That does not of course invalidate the case for funding it from the public purse. In fact, given that there would be few private sources of funding for free thinking - not only in the humanities but also in the theoretical sciences - this is actually a very strong case for offering public support for research that does not seem, on the face of it, to do much. Nevertheless, especially in the present socio-economic morass, it seems better to admit this head on, rather than pretend that, say, that one's two thousand and first monograph on Emily Dickinson is suddenly going to change everything.

Having said that, the root of the problem is precisely the longstanding imposition of an economic model of value upon disciplines and research activity that simply cannot sustain it. In the US, the sheer quantitative volume of publications is what will guarantee tenure. In the UK, the REF and its predecessor the RAE require an academic to publish a certain number of articles or books in order for them to be judged research-active. Universities, like mass-production lines, are judged to be working well when they are churning out widgets, no matter whether anyone is actually "buying" its widgets, or whether ten low-quality widgets are preferable to one high-quality one.

This is why I largely agree with Bauerlein. On the face of it, his blunt but true statement of the value of the discipline seems to bow to those in government who would have universities focus only on those practical disciplines (such as engineering or medicine) that have an immediate "impact." But thinking more deeply about it, his call for quality over quantity is actually in defiance of the ways in which economic judgements of value have been imposed on the sector for many years, long before the current economic crisis sharpened minds about the degree to which the public should subsidise universities.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:31 am


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