Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

With the rise of the accountability credo came the question of value and the need to somehow define it. These days, value is mostly considered in terms of valorization. Valorization “encompasses all activities that contribute to ensuring that the outcomes of scientific knowledge add value beyond the scientific domain” (Benneworth and Jongbloed 2009:567). It involves making academic output broadly available and accessible outside academia as well as the co-production of knowledge with non-academics. Broad as this may sound, Benneworth and Jongbloed (2009) note that as a term it has largely become synonymous with commercialization. They relate this narrowing down of the definition to the success of the hegemonic discourse of academic capitalism and the ideology of the entrepreneurial university, which in turn float on the successful commercialization of output from the physical and life sciences. Yet the conditions for their successes are hardly transferable to humanities and social sciences, as these are dealing with complex matters and are unequipped to generate simple responses with fast returns on investment. Their output is more diffuse and difficult to enumerate, their beneficiaries often have lower purchasing power. Also, policy makers generally lack capacities to exploit wider benefits of humanities and social sciences (Benneworth and Jongbloed 2009). All in all, humanities have a hard time legitimizing their funding, explaining their worth and defending their place in universities. To protect the latter, they generally apply two strategies: 1) Duck and Dive, and 2) Go to war.

Duck and Dive
Humanities are under attack. One strategy to cope is a deeper dive into the ivory tower, seeking shelter from the outside world and so rebelliously deny any value of value at all. An anecdote to demonstrate. Some time ago I was at a training for academics about the application for EU grants for starting and consolidating researchers. This was a very attractive grant, because it was for the person, not the institution. I was there because I wanted to apply myself. The tension in the room was tangible. Many of the then present researchers depended on this or a similar grant for their career, as universities tend to hire only people who bring in their own money. One of the exercises was to create an elevator pitch. The first academic to practice his pitch in front of the group, a young male with a background in the humanities, described a very interesting project to finish, quite smugly, with “And there’s absolutely no value for society at all.” I thought, in contrast, that it had a lot of potential for solving some of the issues I come across in my own work, specifically in large-scale narrative research and the need for software to handle big quantities of spoken data. I voiced my thoughts and he seemed to enter into a deep shock. He fearfully asked the trainer as if she were his kindergarten teacher: “But I don’t have to put that in my proposal, do I?” That in turn triggered my awe. He was wilfully unwilling to be of any relevance to anyone outside of the ivory tower? I always wonder how one could separate conceptually the social construct of the ivory tower from social sense making in the first place, even thought it was an outdated attempt to oppose science and society, but here I was, listening to a young academic who volunteered to exclude himself by drawing the demarcation line so radically, therewith creating the outsider perspective many scholars in the humanities criticize. This may seem to be an extreme example, but many of us academics—myself included—sometimes just want to be left alone to do our research and take our time to think, read and puzzle, which I consider a milder version of the same desire to retreat. Another milder version is what I call “play academia.” In this version, academics do their work, but outside of the competitive context where the “excellence” discourse reigns. Usually, they settle for a career in the easier waters, often at an off-shore campus where the emphasis is on teaching. To keep up the appearance of a university, there is research and there are conferences. Their research is not necessarily ill performed, but often of limited scope and impact. Their conferences are social meeting points and the academic quality of some if not most papers are below limits. Once I sat in a presentation looking at someone’s holiday pictures. I realized that this person flew to one tropical end of the world to do a shady consulting job—confirm what the local clients had already figured out themselves and uncritically validate their conclusions with an academic title—and next flew to the other subtropical end to present about it. I remember thinking “Don’t waste my time!”, grudgingly because I also realized that as a self-employed academic I had to pay for all my expenses and this academic probably had all expenses covered. In my resentful (envious?) moments I call this the “Mickey Mouse academy”, the Spielerei or not too seriously playing academia, a parody of genuine knowledge production. It reminds me of my own master thesis in which I had to do a statistical analysis on six qualitative interviews. It also reminds me of one of my colleagues in an international project remarking about another colleague that his research is a theoretical water head. Both are examples of overkill, featherweight in empirical data and heavy in analysis and theory. I think we can all come up with taboos we only discuss in an inner monologue, concluding with “And you got away with that?” But then I also remind myself that this way of looking at academic performance suggests a Platonic ideal of academia compared to which I find some academic performances better than others (what is “genuine” anyway?). Is there such an ideal and are there any examples that resemble it? If one—as I—embraces the ontology that our institutions are the temporary outcome of historical, social and cultural practices (e.g. Berger and Luckmann 1966), then one has to answer this question with a “no, there is no such thing as an ideal, outer-world academia that serves as our yardstick” and accept that all academic performance is one of the endlessly possible manifestations, all real in their own right. After all, if Mickey had an evil twin brother, that mouse’s academy would be filled with the frauds, thieves, perverts and slyboots we also encounter here and there. At least there is some honesty in the parody. And somewhere between the two academic extremities there is the academic effort that comforts me. In my pragmatic ironic moments (Rorty 2005) I accept that the full range of academia can never outrun the full range of human nature. Still, I sometimes whish that after having read an article or listened to a presentation I would not think “So what?”, that formulaic response with which an audience disqualifies a narrative (Labov 1972). I guess I am one for relevance and value of academia to society, and even though I sometimes want to be just left alone to do my thinking, I see no use in disregarding my public when I show my performance. But more importantly, if I am sometimes left with the feeling of “So what?”, others probably are as well. This is where the second strategy comes in and humanists go to war.

Go to War
One strategy to cope with the attack on the humanities is to Duck and Dive. A second strategy is to resist. My choice of words is not arbitrary here. Flyvbjerg (2001) starts his Making Social Science Matter tellingly with a discussion about the so-called Science Wars, which started with the eponymous special issue of the journal Social Text (the May 1996 volume) and included the article that turned out to be what is now called “the Sokal hoax”. As Flyvbjerg describes, the impact of Sokal revealing his article “Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” (to be found integral and annotated in Sokal (2008)) as a hoax was enormous in academic and popular media around the world: “The appearance of the article was not only taken as a sign of shoddy scholarship by the Social Text editors but as an exposé of cultural studies and social science in general” (2001:1). The hoax was not the only attack from natural scientists and Flyvbjerg cites other assaults. Ten years later, Slingerland (2008) revisits the divide between natural sciences and humanities and claims that the latter are the most active in upholding the divide:

By enthusiastically embracing the confines of an ontologically divided world [i.e. Natur/erklären versus Geist/verstehen]—and vigorously opposing and often demonizing anyone who dares to question this divide—it seems to me that humanists have doomed themselves to endlessly and onanistically spinning stories inside of stories (Slingerland 2008:4).

The starting point of his work is that this “deeply entrenched—but ultimately indefensible—metaphysical dualism hinders the humanities (Slingerland 2008:4). Humanists, says Slingerland (2008) should be more open to what natural sciences have to offer them. Where he pleas for a truce that would enable productive collaboration with benefits for all concerned, others remain in the trenches and reload their guns. They aim at either the questions about their value, the new managerialism in universities or both. Examples of targeting managerialism are many, for instance discussion evenings (such as “De vermarkting van universiteit en wetenschap” (“The marketing of university and science”) on March 29, 2012 in Amsterdam), workshops (such as “Slow Science” in Brussels on March 30, 2012), public campaigning (such as the UK campaign for the Public University) and petitions (such as “Save the Women's Library at London Metropolitan University”), books (such as Topkitsch en [=and] slow science (Boomkens 2008)) and special issues of academic journals (such as TOPIA). There is one book in particular I want to elaborate and that is The Public Value of the Humanities, edited by Bate (2011), which is a mixture of both aims. The book serves as a manual for humanist warfare, especially for the British legion. What happens when humanists go to war?

Bate (ed.) (2011). The Public Value of the Humanities. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Benneworth & Jongbloed (2009). Who matters to universities? A stakeholder perspective on humanities, arts and social sciences valorization. Higher Education, 59(5): 567-588.
Berger & Luckmann (1966). The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Gerden City (NY): Anchor Books.
Boomkens (2008). Topkitsch en Slow Science. Kritiek van de Academische Rede. Amsterdam: Van Gennep.
Flyvbjerg (2001). Making Social Science Matter. Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Labov (1972). Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Venacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Rorty (2005). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Slingerland (2008). What Science Offers the Humanities. Integrating Body and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sokal (2008). Beyond the Hoax. Science, Philosophy and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.