There is something about research in modern languages (or English, as we used to call it) that sets many people’s teeth on edge, but usually for the wrong reasons.
Let’s go back a few months to Congress, specifically to an article Margaret Wente wrote where she teed-off on a paper called “Sexed-up Paratext: The Moral Function of Breasts in 1940s Canadian Pulp Science Fiction”. Her point mostly was about “whatever happened to the great texts?” Which, you know: who cares? The canon is overrated, and the transversal skills that matter can be taught through many different types of materials.
But she hit a nerve by articulating a point about research in the humanities, and why the public feels uneasy about funding them. Part of it is optics, and what looks to outsiders like childish delight in mildly titillating or “transgressive” titles. But mostly, it just doesn’t “look like” what most people think of as research. It’s not advancing our understanding of the universe, and it’s not making people healthier, so what’s it doing other than helping fuel career progression within academia? And that’s not a judgement at all on what’s in the paper itself (I haven’t read the paper, I can’t imagine Wente did either); even if it were the best paper at Congress, people who defend the humanities wouldn’t likely point to a paper whose title contains the words “the Moral Functions of Breasts” as a way to showcase the value of humanities research. The title just screams self-indulgence.
And yet – as a twitter colleague pointed out at the time – whoever wrote this piece probably is a great teacher. With this kind of work, they can show the historical roots of things like sexuality in comics, which is highly relevant to modern issues like Gamergate. If we want teachers to focus on material that is relevant and can engage students, and if you really want scholarly activity to inform teaching, surely this is exactly the kind of thing that should be encouraged. As scholarly activity, this is in a completely different – and much, much better – category than, say, the colonoscopic post-modernist theorizing that was so memorably skewered during the Sokal Affair because you can clearly see the benefits for teaching and learning.
But is it “research”?
The academe doesn’t like to talk about this much because, you know, you stick to your discipline and I’ll stick to mine. You can push the point if you want and claim that all research is similar because, regardless of discipline, research is an exercise in pattern recognition. There are, however, some fundamental differences between what sciences call research and what humanities call research. In the sciences, people work to uncover laws of nature; in the social sciences, people (on a good day) are working on laws (or at least patterns) of human behaviour and interaction. In humanities, especially English/Modern Languages, what’s essentially going on is narrative-building. That’s not to say that narratives are unimportant, nor that the construction of good narrative is easier than other forms of scholarly work. But it is not “discovery” in the way that research is in other disciplines.
And here’s the thing: when the public pays for research, it thinks it’s paying for discovery, not narrative-building. In this sense, Wente taps into something genuine in the zeitgeist; namely, the public claim that: “we’re being duped into paying for something to which we didn’t agree”. And as a result, all research comes under suspicion. This is unfortunate: we’re judging two separate concepts of scholarly work by a single standard, and both end up being found suspect because one of them is mislabeled.
To be clear: I am not at all suggesting that one of these activities is superior to the other. I am suggesting that they are different in nature and impact. For one thing, the most advanced scientific research is mostly unintelligible to lower-year undergraduates, whereas some of the best narrative work is actually – much like Sexed-up Paratext – intended precisely to render some key academic concepts more accessible to a broader audience.
It is precisely for this reason that we really ought to have two separate words to describe the two sets of activities. The problem is finding one that doesn’t create an implicit hierarchy between the two. I think we might be stuck with the status quo. But I wish we weren’t.