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In my opinion

The humanities in the culture of research

In an era of eroding government support, it’s little wonder that universities have felt pressure to adopt an entrepreneurial approach to knowledge.

BY DANIEL COLEMAN + SMARO KAMBOURELI | NOV 23 2011

If you don’t work at a university, the institution may not seem much different than it did a century ago. But beyond the grand, ivy-covered buildings – or in its newer version, the gleaming glass towers – its goals, systems of governance, patrons, demographics and priorities have changed radically. The change has been felt most acutely in the humanities.

Although many factors have reshaped the social contract that binds Canadian universities to society, none has been as influential as what we call the culture of research – that is, the pressure to balance budgets by attracting external research funding from governments and corporations. The emergence of research culture began trickling into universities 30 years ago and now swamps campuses from coast to coast; it has polarized campuses, presenting a difficult yet hard-to-resist scenario for university administrators who have to balance the books in the wake of eroding government funding.

It’s not just about funding, however. The pressure to attract external research funding comes with the need to please government and corporate sponsors by producing knowledge that is directly applicable to their needs and priorities. Little wonder that universities have been compelled to adopt an entrepreneurial approach to knowledge, and rhetoric to match. You can see it in the rise, over the past three decades, of offices of research services staffed by teams of managers, accountants, and public relations officers rather than scholars, who coordinate and prioritize university research, cultivate external donors and markets, manage research accounts, and maintain close ties with the three federal research granting councils in health, sciences, and the arts.

The race for research funds runs the risk of flat-lining the kinds of scholarship that universities promote and reward. Teaching and learning, for example, are increasingly seen as tangential spin-offs from research. Of course, Canadian parents still want their children to receive a university education, believing that a degree will give their kids a respectable income, but Canadians seem less concerned about the content or quality of a degree than they are that their children simply get one.

Some disciplines in the university can adapt readily to the culture of research, especially those focused on applied research. Others, where the outcomes of discovery are seen as less immediate, cannot.

Very often, the data- and fact-oriented knowledge produced in applied fields permits large classes with low professor-to-student ratios, and the type of learning may be more easily assessed by computer-graded exams. Graduate student training in these fields fits smoothly into the protocols of the laboratory, where students use a research team’s equipment to produce quantifiable knowledge that may be sold. A simple count of new buildings on any university campus and affiliated research park reveals partners in the pharmaceutical, agricultural, manufacturing or technological industries to sponsor the construction of these expensive labs, allowing them to capitalize on the research results while the university bears the cost of operating the facilities.

This offers great relief for university administrators in a period of shrinking public funding. University responsiveness to immediate public needs – for medical technologies, agricultural improvements, technical designs, or consumer products – has made research capitalism the primary model of the 21st-century university.

What is striking from our perspective, a quarter of a century after these concerns were raised during the recessions of 1980s, is how research capitalism has become normalized as the solution to economic crisis.

We argue against this normalization. For all the predictions about the decline of the humanities, student registrations in humanities disciplines are as healthy as ever. Despite perceptions that humanities graduates don’t get jobs, they are some of the most adaptable employees in today’s shifting economy. Regardless of the non-commercial nature of many humanists’ contributions, Canadian humanities scholars address some of today’s most challenging and crucial concerns, from how to understand relations among Canada’s various indigenous, settler, or immigrant populations to how to address memories of violence in homes, history, or community. In short, rumours of the death of the humanities, to adapt from Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated.

The essential strengths of humanities scholarship – the ability to read the world in context, aware of not just present urgencies but also historical background, the capacity to reflect critically upon cultural movements and developments, the ability to communicate in compelling ways whether written, artistic, or digital – these contributions remain fundamental to the activities of any meaningful university system and society at large. The culture of research has generated a retooling of the humanities, some of it welcome and some of it cause for serious concern, but the inevitable tensions involved in that retooling are signs of ongoing vitality.

Daniel Coleman and Smaro Kamboureli are the editors of
Retooling the Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities
(University of Alberta Press, 2011).

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