Monday, 22 June 2009

utility sucks


"To the question 'of what use are the humanities?', the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise."
~ Stanley Fish

My least favourite part of modern academia is its continuing commodification: the necessity for an education to mean something, to confer something, to be anything other than what it is and ought to be. And it's not just because I'm a classicist that I lament the demise of the humanistic education. It's because at least then we as a society felt we knew what an education ought to be and what the goal of a good education was. Now, because of the diversification of subjects into mainstream academia - hello film studies and hotel management, surely these things do not belong in modern universities? - we are less sure what should constitute a good modern education.

I'm not entirely sure when utility as a measure of judgement seeped into British Universities, but I'll wager it was sometime after 1970. The advent of the research councils in the late 90s meant the complete death of academic freedom in the UK. A contentious and controversial statement for sure, but look at it this way. Most students in this country do not complete a PhD unless they receive funding - in my case it's the AHRC which provides funding for Humanities students. A student will not even be encouraged by their department to submit an application for funding unless it is likely that the student will actually receive funding, as each department has a limited number of possible funding allocations per year. As the department knows that the AHRC only funds a certain kind of research, this is inevitably the kind of research that gets put forward and funded by the AHRC, and is thus the kind of research carried out in British Universities. Utility is one of those buzzwords greedily devoured by the AHRC and its funding panel - how does this add to the subject, to the canon, to the body of research - they want to know. This means that graduate students rarely get to tackle the big, important, interesting ideas as they're too busy analysing one sentence of an obscure text no one gives a damn about - but at least this obscurity guarantees 'utlity'.

I realise that Universities must find some method by which they can support themselves, whether it's by raising fees or through alumni donations, I certainly don't have an easy answer. But academia has always been about research and big ideas, but most importantly, about providing an environment of freedom and safety in which to carry out research and have these big ideas. As soon as the Universities start putting a price tag on ideas - and utility carries its own price tag, believe me - they quite obviously cease to be free. Learning is exciting, stimulating, and enriching. When did Universities move away from promoting these ideas?

In my second year viva last week, one of the main criticisms of my work was that I wasn't careful enough in 'preserving the conventions of academic presentation.' The marker actually said, 'Crystal must preserve the conventions of academic presentation' and I couldn't help thinking - is this what we've really come to? Are we, as academics, more concerned with the proper citation of footnotes than with the big ideas? Sadly, I think for many the answer is yes. And for the next generation, who may arrive with big ideas, we're browbeaten into submission by the current staff, so that by the end of the process we've just given up. And the saddest thing is that this focus on technicalities only disguises the fact that what's really missing are those very same big ideas. This obsession with utility and convention and presentation only leads us farther away from truly revolutionary thinking - from making those big breakthroughs. You might think that in a field like Classics there aren't really any breakthroughs left to be made. But, for example, most of the old guard are too busy lamenting the death of Greek and Latin teaching in schools to even discuss the merits and possibilities of learning via translations of classical texts. While the rest of the literary world is running away with classical discourse and debate, stealthily stealing it straight out of the classicists hands, Classics dons are getting hung up on the fact that their students are occasionally using poor grammar in their essays or reading from the translation instead of the original. So what!

Academia has become, well ... just so boring. It used to be that the most brilliant minds in all fields came from within the academic tradition: the Cricks and Watsons, the Eliots and Wittgensteins, but none of these people would stand a chance in today's academic culture. First of all, these days a paper without footnotes would get thrown straight in the fire, and forget any sort of academic career if you aren't publishing regularly. It's just all a bit depressing. But thankfully, I've at least least come to one conclusion: this is my PhD. These are three years of my life and my future we're talking about.
I'm not about to let any 'conventions' or ticked boxes get in my way. You can stuff your obsession with utility. I'll take my big ideas any day of the week...

2 comments:

J. Harker said...

You know, we hosted a colloquium that was meant to raise just this very point. Unfortunately, few papers actually did so. I'd have been quite interested to hear you give a twenty minute rant on the subject...

Moogee said...

sooooooooooooooo true....
the arts are a slowly festering pool of mediocrity where I am ( name withheld for obvious reasons) but my cesspit no worse than all the rest..AHRC AM HEA..acronyms which cover up a fountain of garbage disguised as learning....

a friend of mine (brilliant military historian reduced to washing buses and working at Bodleian Oxford ) summed up the difference as 'research' being by people who are not and never will be scholars ......perfect..

we have research disguised as learning when there is no genuine scholarship behind the facade of grant application and conference treadmills...anybody and I mean anybody could do that...