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Impact needs intermediaries

Not everyone agrees that insisting on the practical aspects of humanities is a good idea.

This past week, I have been spending my time reading through some of these counterarguments. One text that keeps popping up in citations is Stefan Collini’s piece in the Times Literary Supplement in 2009.[1] In it, Collini writes about the Research Excellence Framework (REF) when it was first introduced in UK universities.

Collini, a Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge, is an ardent critic of the marketization of universities in the UK. He has written extensively on the subject, including two books – What are Universities For (2012) and Speaking of Universities (2017). This is also the context of his slashing criticism against the demand for “impact” from the humanities.

And I think I must agree with most if not all his points.

It makes no sense to use similar criteria regardless of discipline or research area. It is overly restrictive to accept something as “impact” only if you can prove that you did it yourself – not to mention that proving that would be almost a job in itself.

Importantly, not all that comes out as a consequence of research is necessarily beneficial (just think of the nuclear bomb), And last but definitely not least, not all benefits are economic.

Collini ends his essay by insisting on the non-instrumental value of the humanities:

[W]hat we call the “humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is … an end in itself.

Again, I would have to agree.

But I think it would be wrong to say that Collini is totally against the idea that the humanities could – or even should – also have effects that reach beyond the walls of the university.

It is just that these effects usually happen in a way that is “much subtler, more long-term, and more indirect than the clacking of one billiard ball against another”. As such, they are often impossible to count. And they shouldn’t be taken as a measure of the quality of research itself.

What I am advocating, though, is that the humanities can also have those more direct impacts and there are ways that they can be advanced.

I don’t say this as a request to the policy makers to ramp up the demands for “impact” from the universities. I’m also not saying that each and every academic should take on this kind of work.

What I am saying is that there is a malfunctioning academic job market with just not enough academic positions to go around. And because of that, there is a host of PhDs with expertise and a deep appreciation of the humanities who would be in an ideal position to act as intermediaries and facilitate the uptake of insights from research in the humanities in different domains.

I am convinced that the world would be better off if the understanding of “human activity in its greatest richness and diversity”, provided by the humanities, would make more ripples into the wider society, business included. For one, that would be the best guarantee against any simplistic equation of impact with benefit, or the confusion of benefit with profit.

[1] Stefan Collini (2009) Impact on humanities: Researchers must take a stand now or be judged and rewarded as salesmen. Times Literary Supplement. November 13 2009.