Measuring the humanities

The Times Higher Education reports on the British Academy’s worries that policy makers underestimate the value of the humanities and social sciences. In a recent report, “Punching Our Weight: The Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making,” a working group chaired by Sir Alan Wilson reported that policy makers do not make optimal use of research conducted in the humanities and social sciences. The working group commissioned a team from the London School of Economics to advice on measures to improve this situation. The team recommended that the impact of the humanities and social sciences should be measured, because, apparently “what gets measured gets better valued.” 

Fortunately, the British Academy did not uncritically accept the advice it sollicited from the London School of Economics. According to the THE, the report boldly rejects the idea that the relevance of humanities and social sciences research could be captured in mere metrics. The actual rejection is not as full-scale as the THE seems to suggest, but the text does point to the problems of measuring impact:

No single measure will capture the rich and varied contributions that Humanities and Social Sciences research makes. There is a risk that pressure to develop simplistic measures will eventually lead to harmful distortions in the quality of the research that is funded by the Research Councils. There needs to be a greater awareness among government and policy makers of the damage that over-simplistic indicators might cause. The focus should be on developing a series of indicators (as both the AHRC and the ESRC have sought to do) that will help to illuminate some of the impacts that have been achieved, while recognising the inherent constraints and limitations of such measures. [Executive summary and Recommendations; #13]

In The Netherlands, a committee called “National Plan for the Future of the Humanities” is also researching the value and position of the humanities in a Dutch context. The committee was convened in September 2007, but has not yet published their report.

What has recently been published, however, is a critique of current thinking about the university, and the humanities in particular, in terms of output and performance. In his Top kitsch en slow science Dutch philosopher René Boomkens introduces to Dutch readers arguments perhaps familiar from the works of Michael Bérubé, Marc Bousquet and Cary Nelson. According to a review in this weekend’s NRC (David Rijser, “De Verlichting doet het niet,” Boeken 19-09-2008), Boomkens questions the predominance of the idea of efficiency in the management of our universities, and challenges the notion that the quality of academic research and education can be measured. I’ll go after a copy of the book tomorrow.

See also: Alex Callinicos, Universities in a Neo-Liberal World (PDF)

 

 

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