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Recognizing Achievements in the Humanities

May 16, 2012

Attending the installation of my colleague, Prof. Jane Dawson, as a new Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the installation of several Honorary and Corresponding Fellows as well, on Monday this week, I was struck by two things:  (1) the impressive achievements and contributions to research of all of them, and (2) the fact that overwhelmingly they were scientists.  When I reflected on the matter, it was clear to me that there are scholars in my own and other fields in the “Humanities” who have an equivalent record.  And yet it seems to me that we aren’t so good at nominating these colleagues for the sorts of recognition that they deserve.

One factor, it seems to me, is this:  Scientists, from their earliest studies onward, work typically in teams and with a lot of collaboration and consultation, often extending to other universities and internationally.  So, by the time that someone has a PhD (or soon thereafter), their work is known, and closely, by a number of other scholars, including (importantly) senior scholars with the clout and opportunity to use it effectively.

By contrast, we Humanities scholars typically conduct “one-person” research, from our PhD work onward.  Indeed, the culture of the Humanities has tended to promote this sort of “long ranger” work.   Also, we tend to prize books as the more effective genre of scholarly publication.  But books take much longer to get published.  And they can take 2-3 years to get reviewed in good journals.  So, recognition comes slower.  Indeed, it’s often only after one’s second book (hopefully well received) that one acquires any significant scholarly recognition.

Now, I guess this is not such a big deal in one sense. After all, how much should be be lusting after recognition?  Shouldn’t we simply do our work and hope that history happens to us?  Well, yes, indeed.  But in today’s academic world (at least in a major university setting such as mine), it’s all too easy for unfortunate comparisons to be made, and then we could have a problem.  So, e.g., the perception can be taken that “research” is something that scientists do, and not Humanities scholars, or at least the impression that scientists must do more and do it much better.  For, after all, they seem to get nominated much more for the awards and recognition that signals such success.

I’ve often been impressed with how almost every field of science seems to have prizes and medals of various sorts, from “best first article” on to lifetime achievement awards.  Maybe they’re just immodest and we Humanities scholars are simply more modest and virtuous.  But I have wondered, sometimes, whether we could learn something from our science-colleagues about recognizing better the achievements and contributions of those who deserve such recognition in the Humanities.

In any case, I am proud of my new FRSE colleague, Prof. Jane Dawson, a historian of the Reformation-era who is one of the numerous highly successful crew with whom I’ve been privileged to work over my time in New College.

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  1. I agree with you. From a purely self-serving perspective, if the sciences can say that X of their students received “best first article” or “best paper by a student” at a conference and their academics have received similar and none of the humanities students and academics have, when universities are making decisions about funding cuts, the science schools are going to look more effective to the administrator who has no idea that we don’t receive them because our organisations don’t give them. My experience suggests that we also need to do work in the area of measures of research success. At a university level one of the main measures of research “success” is the amount of grant funding received. Researchers in the sciences typically far outstrip the humanities in this area, but what is often not recognised by university committees is that it *costs* *far* more to conduct most scientific research than it does to conduct research in the Humanities. It would be interesting to develop something that measured cost per research publication, where we would almost certainly come out way in front.

    • Ah, Judy, a kindred soul! Your observations and your suggestions seem “right on” to me. The tendency to measure research activity in terms of external research income is a science-based model, appropriate for measuring researcher-prowess in those fields, but simply not workable in the Humanities. I remember from my time in Canada that the Science & Engineering Research Council there supported with operating grants ca. 70% of the total university constituency in those fields, whereas the Humanities & Social Science Research Council had funding to support ca. 5% of the Humanities scholars in Canadian universities.
      In the Humanities we have other ways of identifying outstanding researchers, and we need to articulate these means clearly to university and govt and the general public. Academic disciplines do things differently, as it should be. The problem is that govts, funding bodies, and even some university administrators assume that we can all operate (or should) the same way, and that one set of criteria works for all. Wrong!

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