Post-Brexit, we must make the case for scholarship, not just science…

Exit
Credit: Billy Frank

The vast majority of UK academics supported Remain.  The free movement of ideas and people is vital to what we do.  EU colleagues have brought expertise, students fresh perspectives, and, of course, the UK benefitted disproportionately from EU funding programmes.  Despite this near unanimity, there is a divide in UK academe that I fear Brexit will only sharpen.

Throughout the pre-referendum ferment and into the frankly frightening aftermath, I was one of many non-scientists who followed Scientists for EU.  It’s a great initiative – probably the most active and visible academic campaign.  Everyone knows (or at least says) science matters, right?  It’s easy for a campaigner on the doorstep, or a Minister on TV to talk the talk of celebrating UK science and the need to protect investment, if only as some kind of marker of international prestige when few others come to mind (whether they walk the walk is, of course, another thing…)

The problem is – and this is no criticism of Scientists for EU – that it’s not just science at stake here.  Of the ten most vulnerable subjects to EU research funding, six fall outside the STEM designation.  Beyond money, there’s an intellectual case too.  The lone scholar in the humanities is a prevalent but only a partial picture – and a potentially damaging one.  All disciplines thrive on collaboration and conversation, even if (and even when) our labour is often solitary.  Sustaining a meaningful, productive community of enquiry in the humanities means people meeting, talking, sharing, debating and generally pushing against the boundaries of what we think we know.  Scholarship is always a collective endeavour.  There is more we have in common within academe than divides us along disciplinary boundaries.

But leaving both those arguments aside, perhaps the most powerful case from a policy perspective for dealing with scholarship rather than just science is that, when it comes to solving problems, it’s the mix that matters.  In the UK, we’re just starting to think about how to deal with one of the most complex, divisive and unstable set of social, economic and political problems.  Whatever the toxic views that were peddled about experts in the lead-up to the referendum, we should surely be drawing on all the cognitive resources we can possibly access as we tackle its consequences.  That includes the humanities.  In my recent book, I argue that ‘policy is multi-dimensional, messy, uncertain, ambigious, shifting and contested because so too are the human beliefs, commitments, decisions and interactions at the core of the exercise of power.’  The humanities give us insights into and purchase on the inescapably human dimensions of life – including constitutional crises…

It worries me that in a context where STEM subjects are perceived as the only useful forms of knowledge, science becomes a proxy for the total research base as the impact of Brexit is evaluated and policy responses formulated.  There is an opportunity now for advocacy groups such as Scientists for EU to defend science not just in its own terms, but also as part of a broader collaborative effort to make the case for scholarship and evidence in the broadest sense (even if people in this country had indeed ‘had enough of experts‘ before the vote, they seem to be grasping for expertise now).  And it should be in scientists’ interests that the UK maintains a vibrant mix of intellectual activity.  Dynamic trans-, multi- and interdisciplinary work relies on active, sustainable, ambitious and confident disciplinary cultures.

This agenda also means historians, philosophers and linguists (i.e. all of us humanists) being willing to engage with greater commitment, and to take a platform in the way Scientists for EU have done.  My sense is we have much to learn from the ways they used social media to take an active role in public debate, including tweeting and vlogging on Facebook and Youtube.  We too need to be open to pressing not just for the value of our own fields, but for a genuinely rich ecosystem of enquiry and expertise.

No policy issue is ever purely technical and no one discipline can ever produce all the answers.  As scholars, we need to see science, social science and the arts and humanities as complementary forms of knowledge rather than as competing in some zero-sum policy and funding game.  Advocacy groups have a core purpose in their own domain, but that shouldn’t preclude some timely and targeted joint efforts.  It’s both/and rather than either/or.  Surely now of all moments we should be making common cause?

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Why would anyone not want to be a [insert your job]?

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Eiffel Tower construction from 1889 World’s Fair

‘I can’t believe that anyone would not want to be an engineer.  It’s baffling to me’ said Naomi Climer, the new President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology on The Life Scientific.  As the head of a guild (her term) she’s in advocacy mode, and rightly so.  Many of us share that sentiment.  We often have strong beliefs about the merits of our own profession (‘I feel the same about physics’ Jim Al-Khalili added) and its value and importance to life, the universe and everything. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s baffling for anyone else to want to do and be something different.

Does being a ‘serious’ engineer, historian or economist mean acquiring a kind of tunnel vision that only sees one’s own field and methods of enquiry?  I’m not suggesting for a moment that Climer was actually suggesting that engineering was the only profession worth pursuing, but it’s interesting that she reached for that turn of phrase to express commitment to and enthusiasm for her discipline.  It makes me think of Jacobs’ notion of ‘explanatory imperialism’ that it’s all too easy to fall into*.  It blinds us to the ways in which different forms of knowledge can combine to answer the complex questions of life, the universe and everything more productively, creatively, insightfully etc.

That’s why it’s important that historians do more than raise the ‘History Matters’ banner.  History does matter, and in all kinds of ways that are underexplored and underappreciated.  But my sense is that the ‘case for history’ will be most cogently and convincingly made by showing how historical modes of thought and ways of working interlock with those from other disciplines in the making of meaning.  We should be looking for complementarity not competition.  Collective puzzling can happen alongside individual scholarship.

History doesn’t matter more than literature or sociology or chemistry – it matters with, alongside and in conversation with them (and always has – history is always ‘history of…’, its eclecticism and reach are sources of strength).  I’d like to think we can all get beyond bafflement and develop boundary-crossing communities of enquiry that really appreciate the distinctive contributions of their members.  Engineers welcome.

* J. Jacobs, ‘Theory, practice, and specialization: The case for the humanities’ in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 11, no, 3, pp. 206-223.

Reclaiming Relevance from the Dark Side – Public History Weekly – The Multilingual BlogJournal

My latest contribution to Public History Weekly, a playful (and rather tenuous) appropriation of Star Wars metaphors to make a point about the tendency to create artificial and insidious binaries: academic/public, rigour/relevance, pure/applied.  Historians are used to working ‘in many shades of grey that blend, merge and overlap to produce complex and provisional multi-tonal pictures’.  So let’s resist caricaturing ‘relevance’ as the Dark Side and define it with integrity and honesty for ourselves…

Please read and comment at: Reclaiming Relevance from the Dark Side – Public History Weekly – The Multilingual BlogJournal

A Skeptical Note on Policy-Prescriptive Political Science

work shedJay Ulfelder’s recent ‘skeptical note’ on the ‘actionability’ of political science research makes some essential points about the problematic assumptions underpinning policy recommendations. In Britain, the Blairite manifesto pitch ‘what counts is what works’ subdues the complexities of research method that might, at best, conclude ‘what works here’ (with further caveats about target population and other central aspects of the design).
I’m not sure, however, that scholars of any discipline should therefore refrain from proposing recommendations or, even more cautiously, withdraw from offering expert advice.

One of the important problems Ulfelder identifies is the uncertainties that are involved in the space between research and policy. How can a scholar answer the ‘so what?’ question that follows from any finding?  There are two issues that we can unpack here.

The first is the inevitability, indeed, the necessity, of uncertainty. Policy is messy, unstable and contested because it involves human beings and their beliefs, habits, commitments, decisions and relationships – in the exercise of power, the exertion of influence, in policy implementation and debate. Instead of searching for the definitive research design to address all the assumptions about the transferability of findings – or indeed, just leaving it to ‘elected officials and bureaucrats’ to do the interpretation – we should be bringing together different disciplines with complementary insights. Given the uncertainties of anything involving human beings, the humanities need to be in there too, rather than ignored as irrelevant, if not ornamental.

The other issue is the ‘so what?’ question. I agree it’s hard for scholars to come up with policy recommendations, but that’s at least in part due to their lack of experience of policymaking in practice. In the UK, there is far less interchange between higher education and government than in the USA and the academic career is still pretty intolerant of periods spent in other settings, something that needs to change. Taking a look over the fence and trying to prescribe policy interventions based on research designed for academic purposes seems foolish at best, if not rather arrogant as well as misguided. Humanities scholars may be largely ignored, but we can often be too concerned to preserve our integrity by not allowing policy concerns to ‘sully’ our work.

This seems a rather self-defeating formula. Policymakers don’t get access to an ecosystem of expertise. Scholars remain on the far side of the fence lamenting the intellectual illiteracy of political rhetoric and decision-making.

But does it need to be this way? I don’t think so. But there’s no easy policy prescription for fixing it, as it involves major shifts in perspective among scholars – towards actively looking for cross-disciplinary approaches – and in policy communities that often have limited conceptions of ‘relevant’ evidence.

Being honest in response to a request for expert advice is not just about admitting the limits of one’s own expertise but also the limits of one’s own discipline. It’s the mix that matters, but it’s not easy for the expert to admit it.

Dart-Throwing Chimp

My sometimes-colleague Michael Horowitz wrote a great piece for War on the Rocks last week on what “policy relevance” means for political scientists who study international affairs, and the different forms that relevance can take. Among the dimensions of policy relevance he calls out is the idea of “policy actionability”:

Policy actionability refers to a recommendation that is possible to implement for the target of the recommendation. Most academic work is not policy actionable, fundamentally. For example, implications from international relations research are things such as whether countries with high male-to-female ratios are more likely to start military conflicts or that countries that acquire nuclear weapons become harder to coerce.

As Michael notes, most scholarship isn’t “actionable” in this way, and isn’t meant to be. In my experience, though, there is plenty of demand in Washington and elsewhere for policy-actionable research on international affairs, and there is a subset of scholars…

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Backlash against the digital humanities movement

Our new colleague at Hertfordshire, Adam Crymble, has recently written an ‘essay on the backlash against the digital humanities movement’ – a reflection on ‘living in the age of digital hubris’ over the past decade.  Crymble calls for a dose of ‘digital humility’ from his fellow ‘DHers’; digital history has been well-funded at a time when research budgets are being slashed elsewhere – so perhaps the recent backlash is the result of ‘an establishment that’s decided those DH people get enough already.’

Public history hasn’t been on the receiving end of million-pound projects (although streams such as Connected Communities are starting to shape work in the field) but Crymble’s comments about the tensions between new fields and the academic establishment resonate.  Public historians, particularly those who have come ‘alternative’ routes into academe, might well emphathise with his experience:

DH is inherently interdisciplinary. My “core” discipline is history… But if I had to convince a group of anonymous historians that my work was worthy, I seemed destined for the “no” pile.

Times are tough. I can accept that there are other great candidates out there who may have been better for the job, or more worthy of the scholarship. But it’s not just me. Most of my colleagues in Britain were self-funded during their Ph.D.s, or supported their studies as part-time developers and project managers. I know of none with the golden-ticket scholarships that have long been a measure of the top students in the humanities.

There’s definitely some common cause to be made between public and digital historians in building bridges with other domains of academic history.  But a bit of humility on all sides is probably needed, as part of seeking greater integration of the discipline, something Justin Champion and I wrote about in unashamedly advocatory terms.  As Crymble says, we’re all on the same team…

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/07/15/essay-backlash-against-digital-humanities-movement#ixzz38HgdvpEG