AC Grayling, and publication being only part of the story

AC Grayling has an intriguing take on the impact of the cuts on Higher Education. In the current New Statesman magazine, he tackles the problem, as he sees it of humanities disciplines attempting to model themselves too much on the sciences. He reserves particular criticism for the way in which humanists communicate their work via scholarly journals. Humanists, he says, have become ‘gatekeepers of magnificent estates, into which they should usher as many people as possible, adding as they do their own insights and reflections … but the tendency to lock the gates behind polysyllabic obscurities in imitation of scientific research is one reason why we have lost sight of the importance to society of a higher education in the humanities’. Once can certainly not fail to agree with the basic premise that the humanities should be there to enrich the individuals who study them, and the society as a whole that they form, but I suspect that it is not true to describe the proliferation of the kind of formulaic humanities article that Grayling decries as an attempt by the humanities to ape the sciences. Rather, this is external pressure from without: academics in the humanities (as elsewhere), especially young academics, are under immense pressure to publish, quite simply because publication to satisfy the REF is the single most important measurement by which they get promotion, job security (in strictly relevant terms of course), professional recognition and institutional credibility (factors not likely to trouble, say, highly bankable professors of philosophy at Birkbeck College).  But Grayling’s point hints at a wider issue: couldn’t the sheer availability of material online, of citations, abstracts, full articles, JSTOR, institutional repositories, also be feeding a drive towards the (perhaps) more structured, article-based publication model of the sciences? And is this phenomenon present only in publication of scholarship and research (which are not, as Grayling correctly implies, the same thing)?

Notwithstanding that Grayling does not consider research which crosses CP Snow’s famous divide – I feel that considering only the publication end of the research cycle is a somewhat reductionist approach. At the other end of that cycle – at the grant writing end – there is a similar disconnect (I do not wish to discuss here how often grant applicants actually do what they say they will when they write applications – the applications are a statement of intent, and of mind). I am occasionally asked by various funding bodies to review research grants in both the humanities and sciences, and I was struck recently by how abstract the descriptions of the content to be focused on and the methods to be used often is in the former – one recent example amounted to ‘I will go to archive X, read some books, and write about what I have read’. But that’s OK: the researcher knows what they want to look for, and when the research is exploratory, one cannot penalize a grant for not spelling it out.  However, when you compare this with a grant written by people who, say, are more used to writing out methodologies for repeatable experiments, the story is rather different (and more structured).

So if there is indeed (as Grayling suggests) a fragmentation and trivialization of scholarly outputs in the humanities, I think we need look no further than the great democratization of knowledge bought about by the internet, coupled with a lack of epistemic structure, which is lacking because it has never been needed. Until now. Solving this problem is probably *the* grand challenge for the digital humanities.


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