Here, in a nutshell, is the insoluble probleem with “the humanities” in the academy, by which I mean most people in English departments and a good many people in history, Continental philosophy, art history, political theory, etc.:
1) The scholarly performance of academic humanists is evaluated — by colleagues, tenure committees, etc. — using criteria developed for evaluating scientists.
2) Those criteria are built around the idea of knowledge creation.
3) But many humanists aren’t sure what counts as knowledge creation for them, since they are not able to follow any agreed-upon method for testing hypotheses.
4) This problem grows more pressing as expectations for publication rise: scholars are asked to create more and more knowledge without being sure what knowledge is.
5) Thus the Cycle of Theory, in which an approach to doing humanist work arises, is deemed outrageous, is more and more generally accepted, becomes orthodoxy, is challenged by a new approach, and becomes superannuated. See: the New Criticism, archetypal criticism, structuralism, deconstruction, the New Historicism, Queer Theory, eco-criticism, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But all these movements do have something in common: they generate books and articles that look quite similar. Basically, you get discursive prose with footnotes, and that’s about it (give or take a few typographical eccentricities in the Derridean traditon).As has often been pointed out, no widely influential theoretical model has arisen since the New Historicism, about thirty years ago. This apparent end to a Cycle that has given generations of graduate students and assistant professors new stuff to do has raised anxiety levels to ever-higher levels.One result is that humanists are becoming increasingly willing to look at models of scholarship that offer something other than discursive prose with footnotes. Thus the work of Franco Moretti and his students, mentioned here earlier
, also Brian Boyd
and Jonathan Gottschall
.All of these scholars have decided — in their very different ways — that the humanities need to stop seeing themselves as radically different than the sciences, but instead need to appropriate science and learn from it. This may be a matter of incorporating scientific discoveries (Boyd) or appropriating scientific methods (Moretti, Gottschall). But either way, it creates an interesting new situation in which the problem of evaluating scholarship n the humanities is going to become more, not less, complicated
.Though I am strongly critical of some of these approaches, I think this is an exciting time to be a humanist scholar — or would be, if institutional support for the humanities weren’t evaporating. Though some of this innovation derives from the shaky place of the humanities in the university, and attempts to shore up that place, I don’t think any of that is likely to work. It would be great to see what might come of this ferment in an environment in which the humanities were well-funded and institutionally secure.
June 15, 2010