Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

evaluating the humanities

Here, in a nutshell, is the insoluble probleem with “the humanities” in the academy, by which I mean most people in English departments and a good many people in history, Continental philosophy, art history, political theory, etc.:

1) The scholarly performance of academic humanists is evaluated — by colleagues, tenure committees, etc. — using criteria developed for evaluating scientists.
2) Those criteria are built around the idea of knowledge creation.
3) But many humanists aren't sure what counts as knowledge creation for them, since they are not able to follow any agreed-upon method for testing hypotheses.
4) This problem grows more pressing as expectations for publication rise: scholars are asked to create more and more knowledge without being sure what knowledge is.
5) Thus the Cycle of Theory, in which an approach to doing humanist work arises, is deemed outrageous, is more and more generally accepted, becomes orthodoxy, is challenged by a new approach, and becomes superannuated. See: the New Criticism, archetypal criticism, structuralism, deconstruction, the New Historicism, Queer Theory, eco-criticism, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But all these movements do have something in common: they generate books and articles that look quite similar. Basically, you get discursive prose with footnotes, and that’s about it (give or take a few typographical eccentricities in the Derridean traditon).

As has often been pointed out, no widely influential theoretical model has arisen since the New Historicism, about thirty years ago. This apparent end to a Cycle that has given generations of graduate students and assistant professors new stuff to do has raised anxiety levels to ever-higher levels.

One result is that humanists are becoming increasingly willing to look at models of scholarship that offer something other than discursive prose with footnotes. Thus the work of Franco Moretti and his students, mentioned here earlier, also Brian Boyd and Jonathan Gottschall.

All of these scholars have decided — in their very different ways — that the humanities need to stop seeing themselves as radically different than the sciences, but instead need to appropriate science and learn from it. This may be a matter of incorporating scientific discoveries (Boyd) or appropriating scientific methods (Moretti, Gottschall). But either way, it creates an interesting new situation in which the problem of evaluating scholarship n the humanities is going to become more, not less, complicated.

Though I am strongly critical of some of these approaches, I think this is an exciting time to be a humanist scholar — or would be, if institutional support for the humanities weren’t evaporating. Though some of this innovation derives from the shaky place of the humanities in the university, and attempts to shore up that place, I don't think any of that is likely to work. It would be great to see what might come of this ferment in an environment in which the humanities were well-funded and institutionally secure.


  • I haven't thought about this in detail yet but a couple of quick questions:

    1. In your opinion, do sociology, cultural anthropology and political science fall into the category of "the humanities" or are they the social sciences?

    2. Isn't the "cycle of theory" common to all disciplines? If yes, what makes the cycle of theory in the humanities different from the cycle of theory in the social sciences and the natural sciences?

  • 1. Mainly the latter, though there are "softer" versions of all — that's why I said political theory in my post, since political science is often more empirical in orientation.

    2. Different meanings of the word "theory." In the humanities a theory is an overarching approach mant to govern particular acts of inquiry or interpretation. So when we say that the New Historicism is a theory, or a theoretical approach, we mean that it's a pre-established way of coming at a text or set of texts. But in the sciences a theory is an attempt to give an account of what a particular set of data adds up to. So the Gould/Elldredge theory of "punctuated equilibria" is their attempt to account for the evidence about the pace of evolution that appears in the fossil record. But G & E didn't have a conception of what evidence is that differed from their peers, and they shared with their peers a way of discussing and evaluating evidence, even if they came to different conclusions.

    Does that make sense?

  • Do you think of your own printed, non-review work as discursive prose (often) with footnotes?

  • Do you think of your own printed, non-review work as discursive prose (often) with footnotes?


  • Dr. Jacobs- I have a few questions. please address what you deem helpful.

    Are you saying that "discursive prose (often) with footnotes" is a negative consequence of the scholarly status quo within the humanities?

    Is your quibble not so much with the form itself but with the bland repetition similar sounding work? Do you imagine that if the humanities are taken as appropriately different from the sciences then a different, more vibrant form of scholarly work will emerge, or is scholarship not so much the point as the kind of scholarly expectation imposed on humanities from the sciences?

    Hope you're well, and I look forward to reading Wayfaring soon. Thanks for writing.

  • Heck, I like discursive prose with footnotes! Some of my best friends write discursive prose with footnotes! (As do I.) I wasn't being critical, I was just pointing out that most of us have been trained to do a particular kind of thing and therefore aren't quite sure how to evaluate something that's quite different.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I'm afraid the embrace of scientific models for evaluating scholarship has only contributed to the marginalization of the humanities.

    I'm sure it's unfair, but as an outsider I have the impression that, for instance, New Testament studies has a lot of rubbish that results from too many people trying to find and write about something new from essentially the same small set of data. I think people have similar reactions to English scholars -- Can you really say something new about Shakespeare or Milton? Should you really be trying to say something new about Shakespeare or Milton?

    These disciplines are trying to use a scientific model for producing knowledge without the reality check of making testable predictions or developing technology that can demonstrate to outsiders whether the discipline as a whole is really doing something worthwhile. That makes it easier to dismiss the whole enterprise.

    When newspapers run their annual Can-you-believe-this-crazy-paper-at-the-MLA-conference? story, the scientific knowledge production paradigm doesn't really give you any way to convince people that the discipline hasn't run off the rails.

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