Finding futures

A blog about imagining futures, social and environmental change, and doing a PhD…

Hidden Humanities?

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I just came across this article in the Guardian – it really struck a chord with me and I thought it was worth sharing! In the article, author Gretchen Busl believes that research in the humanities can be “ground-breaking, life-changing” and yet, often, is ignored.  She argues that humanities research explores all sorts of important issues of human culture from ethics, class, gender, and race to climate change (and much more besides) and as such has a vital role to play in “navigating a complex and rapidly shifting world”.

But so often research in the humanities is met with raised eyebrows, even mockery, because the language that scholars use in this field can be, frankly, mind-boggling.  As Busl writes:

The academy itself is partly to blame for this image problem. The inward-focused nature of scholarship has left the public with no choice but to respond to our work with indifference and even disdain, because we have made little effort to demonstrate what purpose our work may have beyond the lecture hall or academic journal.

I have grappled with with this problem, especially in conversations with friends who work in the sciences, and wonder why there seems to be such low tolerance for complicated language in human and social research when other subjects use equally sophisticated and neologism-loaded language in their own papers. Surely it goes with the terrain that the deeper you go into researching any subject, in the sciences or the humanities, the more new ground a researcher covers and the more they will need to draw on different language in order to describe it. I get the sense that there is an underlying assumption that complex language in the humanities amounts to little more than pretentiousness because, well, the subject is humanity – not outer space or dark matter – and we’re all humans so it should be an easy thing to research and understand .. right?

It seems to me that in a culture (both academic and more widely) that prizes and demands immediacy, results and ‘impact’ above all else, there is less room for research where the message cannot be reduced to a few bullet points. Maybe there is an argument that if you can’t explain something in ‘layman’s’ terms then you don’t understand it yourself, but some ideas are hard to grasp – perhaps because of the complexity of idea itself or because it doesn’t fit with dominant ways of understanding the world. In my own field of cultural/critical geography I am a complete newbie, having shifted my focus from environmental sciences about two years ago, and I find some papers almost completely impenetrable because every other word is one that I do not understand or refers to a concept that I am not familiar with. But just because a message isn’t immediately ‘available’ doesn’t mean that the message, ultimately, isn’t valuable. As a friend helpfully pointed out recently, in many instances in the humanities the intention of the author is not simply to convey a particular point, but to make the reader think and question. This approach has perhaps inevitably been sidelined in a culture that demands immediacy and clarity. And yet some of today’s biggest challenges, it seems to me, require some serious deep thinking (or rethinking) about how humans should organise themselves, relate to each other, and relate to the non-human world. This is not an easy task and has some fundamental ethical, philosophical, epistemological, ontological and other words-that-I-don’t-fully-understand, questions at its heart.

I agree that research in the humanities would benefit from being more accessible, and that often – as with lots of writing – some papers are unnecessarily ‘flowery’.  Going back to the article, Busl suggests that the current academic model can hinder scholars’ attempts to reach out out beyond the ivory towers:

This antiquated system encourages scholars to write and speak only for an audience of peers, keeping graduate students from branching away from the proto-book dissertation model and faculty from exploring popular venues for their work

Addressing this problem could help to bridge the much-lamented gulf between the sciences and the humanities (although that’s a whole other blog post!), and perhaps the humanities can learn from the success of science outreach here. However, as Matt Bluemink, in the comments section, writes: ‘the shift will only come when the bias against the humanities and their relevance to contemporary society becomes acknowledged by academics and non-academics alike.’ In my opinion, overcoming the bias requires effort on both sides – for the humanities to reach out but also for the sciences to be open and willing to listen to ideas from the humanities, however ‘weird’ they might appear at first glance. Ideas in critical geography, for example, are often by their very nature ‘weird’ – they seem strange because they seek to challenge or critique the dominant ideologies that we live by and take for granted. The cynic in me would tend to agree with another commenter, ‘CraiginKC’, who asserts that ‘the fields aimed at cultivating the skills for identifying and critiquing the production and maintenance of ideology will always be undervalued by those who benefit from the prevailing ideology.’ But perhaps that’s just a way for me to revel in a sense of ‘radicalism’ in my own field which is an underdog in a culture that prizes scientific knowledge above all other forms of knowledge and ways of interpreting the world.

In the end, a bunker mentality gets no one any closer to closing any gulfs or to demonstrating the relevance of the humanities to society and to contemporary problems.  I for one am grateful when scholars can make their ideas and their research easily understood, but maybe there also needs to be a wider tolerance and a mutual respect between subjects and within departments for different styles of writing and presenting, to see the value of both ‘short, sharp’ messages that are easy to digest as well as longer, more convoluted ones that may require some ruminating!

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