Post Academic

Solutions? Make the humanities (seem) more like the sciences

Posted in The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on April 7, 2010
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In my soon-to-disappear .edu inbox, I found a message relayed by to the grad student listserv (yes, I’m somehow still subscribed) about the imposingly named “UC Commission on the Future.”  The message conveyed a missive sent by the “Research Strategies Working Group”  (herein known as the RSWG) within the “UC Commission on the Future” (herein known as the UCOF), soliciting contributions from faculty for the following:

As part of my work for the Research Strategies Working Group (RSWG) of the UC Commission on the Future (UCOF), I seek your help with the following challenge: *coming up with examples of UC “research breakthroughs” and “discoveries” in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and related fields that might be listed alongside those in sciences, engineering, medicine, agriculture, the UC national labs, etc. in an advocacy argument for UC research.  Please adapt the notion of “research breakthroughs” as appropriate for the humanities, arts, and social sciences–e.g., to include a broad spectrum of intellectual, sociocultural, and creative or performing-arts innovations.  But the constraint is that examples must be UC-related, must be relatively discrete (can be described in a sound bite with at most a few following sentences and/or image), and must have high public impact or recognition, actual or potential.

Parsing the bureaucratic-ese of the call, it basically asks the humanities to justify its existence on the grounds that scientific programs would, trumpeting “research breakthroughs” that would be equivalent to those in the sciences and engineering.  Really, what’s up with quote-unquoting of breakthroughs and discoveries: it’s almost like the RSWG doesn’t believe the humanities can come up with real ones, so the best they can do is some kind of pomo linguistic shell game.  So in effect, the key to the humanities at the UC is to sell itself as more like the sciences–that and more working groups and subcommittees and faculty retreats for members of the commission on the future.

To continue with the report, it provides some examples from the sciences of “research breakthroughs” and “discoveries” that could be templates for the humanities faculty:

To support this recommendation, we have been asked to collect examples of UC “research breakthroughs” and “discoveries” with high public impact that might be showcased to the general public (and also to customized sectors of the public).  So far, the examples we have begun collecting come primarily from the science, engineering, medical, agricultural, and related fields (including the UC national labs), which, as part of their ongoing advocacy, have ready-to-go “top ten lists” of great research.  See, for example, the document I have *attached *…The examples are of the sort: “Cyclotron,” “Laser Diode,” “Insect Control,” “Sustainable Fisheries,” “Nanotechnology,” or “Largest Biological Simulation Improves Medicines.”

Hmm…I’m wondering where something like “What to do with critical theory?” would stand in relation to “Cyclotron” or “Sustainable Fisheries” in the UCOF “research breakthroughs” rankings?  And when in doubt about how to market yourself, the UCOF’s inspiration seems to be “what would David Letterman do,” busting out those “top ten lists” of “great research.”  I had make sure that the date the original message was sent was not April 1, since it reads a little like an April Fool’s joke.

But seriously, it seems like the thinking is that the solution to the problems facing the humanities at the UC have very little to do with the humanities themselves.  While the RSWG of the UCOF is asking faculty to mold the humanities after the sciences, UCLA Professor Robert N. Watson (in an article previously discussed by us here) can, compellingly enough, justify the existence of humanities because they yield a profit.  I guess it’s refreshing that neither argument falls back on the trite humanities-for-humanities’-sake ideology that can be lazy and pompous, but trying to dress up the humanities as things they are not–as the sciences or a profit-generating juggernaut–doesn’t make the most effective case for the humanities either.  On the other hand, snarking at the problem–like I am–isn’t particularly helpful, but maybe I’d be more constructive if they made me UC faculty!

“UC campuses and labs” by Fastfission from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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