Underestimating the Relevance of Obscure Research

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have asserted that the relevance of humanities and social science research for all fields, including the hard sciences, is typically underestimated. Rather than the traditional method of focusing on citations of articles, this research group analyzed the access through online journal portals, suggesting that humanities and social science journals are accessed more often than they are actually cited. The authors assert, “There can exist stark differences between what people claim they do and what they actually do. This also applies to the distinction between citing behavior and online information seeking behavior. The first is a public and explicit expression of influence by scholarly authors, whereas the latter results from the private navigation behavior of scholarly users of web portals.” Figure 5 in the article is the central image showing the centrality of many humanities and social science fields in the interconnections of science research. Continue reading

The Lure of Hard Science

Can research in Humanities and Social Sciences be quantified? Is something lost in the effort to make our data into tidy, quantifiable measures? A recent post on Scientific American‘s blog argued that too often scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences moves towards the quantifiable to gain legitimacy from the hard sciences. The author writes, “Every softer discipline these days seems to feel inadequate unless it becomes harder, more quantifiable, more scientific, more precise. That, it seems, would confer some sort of missing legitimacy in our computerized, digitized, number-happy world. But does it really? Or is it actually undermining the very heart of each discipline that falls into the trap of data, numbers, statistics, and charts?”

Follow the Money

The challenges that a liberal arts education faces in today’s environment became apparent to me in a new way this week. I noticed for the first time a television ad for a for-profit college that features a young man explicitly asserting that he did not gain job skills in college, so now he is training at this for-profit educational company. Beyond the ideological challenges that public institutions face in today’s climate, a clear monetary incentive exists for some to question the relevance of what happens in liberal arts institutions. The combination of for-profit educational institutions, online education, and the business model for public education together heighten the need for clear articulations of the relevance of fields that do not have simple answers to the employability debate.

Assessing Assessment

Does the move toward assessment provide support for the Humanities and Social Sciences or threaten them? Cary Nelson, the final speaker in our series on the Relevance of the Humanities and Social Sciences, published a provocative essay in which he described the move towards assessment as a threat to the “fierce humanities,” which he describes as “teaching that seeks not merely learning, but unlearning, that seeks to unsettle knowledge and assumptions in ways more fundamental than any exam can or should test.” Continue reading