In Which I Discover That I Am Without Impact.

thelampAs some of you will know, although I retired from full-time University work some time ago I still keep close contact with the Institution where I studied and spend a lot of time around the place working with postgraduate students.  So, when a couple of weeks ago I got the sudden urge to get back into the research field myself it seemed obvious that I should first discuss what I had in mind with the senior researcher in my general field of study.

Now, to be fair, since I completed my PhD the department has shifted considerably on its axis and the focus of most of the staff and students’ work is very different from what it was.  I wouldn’t find anyone there capable of supervising my thesis these days.  Furthermore, since I am (she says, blushing modestly) the UK expert in my field I would probably find it difficult to locate anyone nationally who could supervise the first part of what I wanted to do as it consisted of extending a system of narrative analysis into previously uncharted waters.  But then I wasn’t looking for a supervisor, I was merely saying that I had some research I would like to do and asking if I could base it in the department so that I would have a community around me with whom I could discuss things.  Research can be a very lonely occupation and anyone undertaking a long term project should ensure that they have as many sounding boards around them as they can find.  I am not, it should be noted, any Tom, Dick, Harry or Alex walking in off the street and asking this.  I have an Honorary Fellowship in this department; I belong.

Well, I was given a fair hearing, but then it was explained to me that the department really wouldn’t be interested because my work would have no impact.  Have you come across the use of the word impact in HE circles?  Basically, what it means in this context is money making potential.  Any research undertaken by university lecturers these days has to impact upon the commercial world.  Having importance in the world of academia is not good enough. Discovering something new that people will find fascinating and which might spark interest in your field in other scholars simply won’t cut the mustard. No, to be allowed to pursue your chosen research pathway you have to be able to show that someone, somewhere is going to pay to have access to the results.

Does this fill you with the same sense of horror that it does me?  Isn’t education about learning rather than earning, or is that a very old-fashioned pre-Govian notion of mine?  I think I would eventually have something very interesting to say about the progression from oral story-telling to the written form via the Elizabethan theatre and the consequent changing relationship between teller, audience and the society at large.  But, surprise, surprise,  this is not going to be of interest to big business, it isn’t going to make the university a fortune, it isn’t a project they feel they can encourage.

I don’t know what makes me feel the more discouraged, the fact that I really can’t explore what seemed to me to be a truly interesting line of thought or the changing nature of the university system in the UK.  Where now does the scholar go who wants to develop a research profile in the world of the Arts or Humanities?  I really don’t think this is something you can do without being part of an active community.  That way lies the madness of Casaubon and we all know what happened (0r didn’t happen) to his magnus opus.

So, with great reluctance I have had to stash my great plans back into the inner recesses of my mind.   The world will have to live without my words of wisdom on the prologues and epilogues of Jacobeathan plays and what they have to tell us about the morphing role of the story teller in our society.  I was, of course, encouraged to look for something else that I could pursue, something that would have impact.  But, as those of you who have followed the research path will know only too well, if you are going to devote all your energies to one particular course of study it has to be something you are happy to live with for the two, three, four, however many years it takes to complete and I have no intention of devoting the next half decade to making money for the current educational hierarchy.

PS  Sorry for the rant.  This is something I have needed to get off my chest and I thought you might understand.

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18 thoughts on “In Which I Discover That I Am Without Impact.

  1. The modern world is run by financial interests alone, which is tragic. You should be able to do research for the sake of knowledge and nothing else. The Govian education system is a nightmare, and I really sympathise with you over this. I hope you find some way to progress your researches – good luck!

  2. Hi, Alex. Though I’m not at all versed in your particular area of study in English or Humanities (my Ph. D. was on Henry James), a possible angle of approach is to find a press (university or otherwise) willing to back your study or an editor who vouchsafes interest in the same, and then go back to your department with that weapon in hand. It might help, because they couldn’t say you wouldn’t have impact if you stood ready to prove the opposite. Sorry about the rude reception your ideas received.

  3. How infuriating – and yet wholly unsurprising given current trends. Among the many absurdities is the assumption that somehow we can predict what will turn out to have some kind of impact — whether economic or other. It doesn’t sound as if you were asking for very much from your department: I don’t really understand why they would turn you away if all you want is a place for your research to call home. I’m offended on your behalf! And on a more personal level I’m sorry for the setback.

  4. I’m afraid that Universities are becoming more and more a tool to turn out workers rather than a field for academic research. It was, I suppose, an almost inevitable side-effect of the desire of various governments to make a university education the norm for most youngsters – laudable, but it was always going to devalue the academic side of it, partly by driving up the need to target resources at the undergraduate level. I’m sorry you were disappointed – wouldn’t you be able to carry out your research there informally, with nearly as much contact with your colleagues as if you were doing it formally? (That may be a stupid question – i don’t know what support a department normally provides in cases like yours…)

  5. This really reminds me why I was so glad to get out of academia. Impact, my goodness — how utterly appalling and depressing. But could you do it anyway? Just for your own pleasure and satisfaction?

  6. How can they say your chosen field doesn’t have impact! It strikes me that maybe another institution like the RSC or Globe Theatre – who put on precisely the productions you want to research could benefit from it – and indeed might like to sponsor your study? Try not to be too disheartened. Unfortunately the bean-counters have us all in thrall these days which isn’t how it should be.

    1. I am so sorry about this – it seems that this very restricted concept of what counts as impact makes any work in the humanities almost impossible. The “morphing role of the story teller in our society” – how fascinating. Surely works from Humanities scholars have become part of our culture and should be a major part of how that culture is explored – to devalue this is a deeply depressing development.

  7. I strongly suspect that part of this too is the gradual channeling off of funds for Humanities studies into the Sciences, which are now the preferrred investments (along with Business courses) of a lot of universites. Even if what you’re basically asking for is a conceptual home for your work. We all know that those science and business students need what the humanities can teach them as much if not more than those who choose Humanities majors, but everybody seems to assume they’ll just luck into it by osmosis of being at a good university! Good luck, Alex. I hope something happens so that you don’t have to give up your dream.

  8. Don’t give up! I know it is discouraging but you are a smart woman and I am sure you will figure out a way to pursue the research especially since it sounds so very interesting! It is a rather sad fact that universities are all about money these days. Even libraries have to prove our value and it is so very hard to prove that having a book on the shelf that gets checked out once ever five years is worth taking up the space. And the number of people who think everything is online and wonder why a library and librarians are still needed is astonishing. Anyway, all that to say I can relate to your anguish. But I do hope you find away to pursue your research!

  9. Hello, my first visit here and to read your description of a horrid and ridiculous situation has infuriated me. Do It, do it. Surely this is something the Society of Storytellers newsletter would publish. Or BBC arts programmes would make a programme about. You have knowledge and expertise you want to develop, a number of us would love to learn from you. I hope blogging here about it casts up a place you could work in. Best of luck.

  10. How horrible. Is there any learned society which might provide an academic version of a support group? I couldn’t do my own (much lower-level) research without the enthusiasm and support of the Iris Murdoch society, including them allowing me to present at their conferences etc.

  11. What a ridiculous response to your request. If I understand this correctly you were not asking them for funding, just a little corner where you could do your research. You don’t strike me as anyone who would cause a nuisance nor are you someone without a track record. So why would it be such an issue? Wouldn’t it even enhance their reputation to have someone like you in their circle??
    Sometimes I get so frustrated with the way our public bodies and institutions set their priorities. But as Stephanie says don’t let them get away with this. If they can’t see what they’re missing, find someone who will understand the value.

  12. I thought your premise had originality and interest and is certainly something I would want to read. And given the research in Shakespeare and Elizabethan times currently going on, I would think that your idea is perfectly timed! I can’t believe they didn’t see it as of interest. Possibly you could approach another university with the same idea? As a Fellow, you carry authority and credentials not just at your own university, correct? Although I understand you want one you can go work in and discuss with people around you as your research develops.
    Susan – You Can Never Have Too Many Books

  13. Oh this sucks so much. The scientists are up in arms about impact, so imagine what it does to arts and humanities? If there were ever a way for the government to refuse to fund just about any non-scientific proposal, this is it. I promise you are NOT alone in feeling despair over this recent rewriting of the RAE – everyone I know thinks it is the most ridiculous, stupid, small-minded, crippling decision ever taken by a government and there are quite a few contenders for that prize. If you want to do your research, do it. You have an army of blog fans more than willing to read what you write if you feel in need of artistic discussion. Can’t let the apparatchiks win.

  14. I’ve only just read this Alex, and am horrified and confused. Horrified, because as far as I can see you weren’t asking for much, in my albeit limited experience of universities academics are always keen to discuss research without – shock! – being paid for it. So I don’t understand what their objection is. And I’m confused about this whole impact thing. How does one measure or predict that? Why is impact in academia considered unimportant?

    Like everyone else, I urge you to go it alone with such a fascinating project. You still have access to the university library, is that right? And I’m sure that the Globe for one, as someone else suggested, would be interested in your work. They’ve just recreated Blackfriars theatre – would that count as ‘impact’?

    Really cross on your behalf. Please don’t be disheartened, I am sure you’ll find a way. And I too would love to read the fruits of your work.

  15. As an educator of thirty years, albeit in an elementary classroom, I so feel your distress. Education is not what it used to be, I find it on quite a tilted axis. The values have shifted from where they used to be, but those of us who are true educators, truly into learning, will never leave the value of knowledge behind. Or even shifted to the side. I link arms with you.

    1. Thank you, Bellezza. I suppose in one sense I am luckier than others because I no longer make my living in education but it is so distressing to feel that real learning has gone and commercialism taken its place. I know of two appointments that were made last week on the basis of the impact their research would have rather than their ability to teach.

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