Archive

Tag Archives: research

Over at Talent Egg, Krysty Rydz has been discussing what she calls a Young Life Crisis, that scary, scary moment when you realize that you’re almost at the point where you have to enter the Real World, and may not find that job you’ve always thought would be waiting.

Now, I’ve never been afraid of the Real World – I’m pretty excited about going out, earning money, being completely independent, and doing something that is rewarded in money or its own impact, rather than letter grades which are, let’s face it, pretty irrelevant in the long run. Then again, maybe the reason I’m not afraid is that for me, the Real World is still a ways away – at least 4 or 5 years, if all goes to plan. And the fact that, after all, the Academia brand of Real World isn’t all that different from school.

My crisis has been slightly different. If you’ve been reading my blog (not that you have… that’s ok), you’ll know I’m pretty big on Academia being useful; for me, it’s just a waste of grant money if it doesn’t say something new in concrete terms.

…which, I’ve been coming to realize with a shudder, is a pretty hypocritical ideal for a medievalist. Or is it?

That’s the question I’m stuck on. The answer I keep coming up with is that if your research is good enough, it’s useful. Genuinely new research in medieval studies may never help children in Africa or revamp Canadian diplomacy, but it can and does have real and gigantic effects on the field. And, as my roommate has pointed out, the fact that it contributes to a society that is willing to fund things which do not have a utilitarian application is use in itself.

But these justifications seem a bit thin when I’m sitting here tweaking a paper on a monument most people have never heard of, or on dead Anglo-Saxon infants. I love what I’m studying, but does anyone else care?

And should I even care that no one else cares? Is it enough to contribute to your own field? Does everything have to be utilitarian and tangible? What about the fact that, as my roommate points out, every drop of research, however esoteric, contributes to the general knowledge-horde of a society? Or that every drop of research, however esoteric, may have real-world effects that are intangible?

I guess what it comes down to is whether it’s enough for research to be new and concrete. How utilitarian does it have to be, to not be a waste of grant money?

That’s what I can’t figure out. I keep having visions of Reason coming and closing the gates to the Middle Ages, telling us that everything that we need to know has already been found out, and none of the rest matters.

Today, I went to a lecture on “Guerrilla Diplomacy,” presented by Daryl Copeland. Despite the somewhat misleading title, it was about how the world, and Canada specifically, should revamp the way they do diplomacy in order to make it effective again, steer it away from being done by conservative, pin-stripe suited diplomats whose only friends are their LAV drivers, and stop it from being usurped by the more effective yet also more violent military. But I’m not going to talk about the lecture.

What bugged me about the lecture was the same thing that bugs me every time I go to IR lectures – how little was actually said. All of the IR speakers, Copeland certainly included, say a lot about what they think the world should be like. They talk about what’s wrong with our world. They tell us what we should change.

What they don’t tell us is how we should change it. Yes, it would be wonderful if diplomacy (along with the rest of the world) was a sleek, efficient, vital, honest, perfect machine. But it’s not. Unless you give us some real, concrete information on how you want us to change it.

To be fair to Copeland, he tried. He said that diplomats, the way he wants to see them, would be self-sufficient, would go out among the populace and understand the populace that they’re working with. He said that diplomats should be given more autonomy (although he didn’t quite say what he meant by ‘autonomy’).

Yes, he tried to present some solutions. Which brings me to my second problem: if solutions are presented in IR lectures, so very few of them are actually viable. Yes, it would be great to have diplomats have some autonomy, but how exactly do you see this happening when every move they make has such gigantic repercussions? How do you expect your diplomats to get chummy with the populations of the countries they’re working in if the governments of those people are sure to perceive this as an inflammatory act?

I know, no one listens to academics anyway, so they can go on being idealists for all it matters. Or is that the problem? Isn’t that the reason why no one listens to academics? that they’re just so damn useless? That they’re armchair theorists? This is a problem in my field(s) too. So much of what gets said and done in academia is just so useless. No one cares if you prove that, if you just jump up and down and do the polka, Beaumont and Fletcher can seem like good writers.Why is it so difficult for academics to be concrete? To make their research come to a conclusion, to make concrete suggestions?

What bugs me about IR is that unlike in my field, they have the option of being very, very concrete. Medieval studies, history, English, have to stay descriptive to some degree. In IR, you have the option of being prescriptive: I want to change the world in THIS direction. Here are n number of steps that we need to take in the next x number of years in order to accomplish it; here is y amount of money that that could potentially take, and z political steps that will need to be taken. The change doesn’t have to be big. I know it’s more exciting if you tell us how to overhaul Canada’s entire diplomatic system, but maybe we’re not there yet. So tell us, instead, how you can overhaul the way Canadian diplomats operate in central asia.

Everyone knows that humanitarian aid is not working. Everyone knows that corruption is bad, and that there’s lots of it. Everyone knows that the government doesn’t work the way it should. So stop wasting everyone’s time on this. We don’t need to hear these things: we need to hear how you want to change them. And not how you wish you could change them; how you CAN change them. If you don’t want to or you can’t, just sit down and give someone else a chance to take the floor.

The thing I get criticized for the most in my English classes is presuming to know the author’s intentions. I like to look at a book or a poem or a play and figure out what the author intended for us to know. I refuse to believe that all of the different possible readings of a work are equally valid. The author was trying to say something, not an infinity of somethings. We may never know what the author really had in his or her head, but shouldn’t we at least try to find out?

First, not all interpretations are equally valid. Some things are simply impossible – no matter how many times you see groups of three in The Odyssey, reading the Holy Trinity into it is simply not acceptable. Second, even of the interpretations that we can’t rule out as definitively, what do we gain from allowing all interpretations? The whole point of books is to learn something, to look at life in a way that you are not used to. You learn by listening to what others tell you – and that means listening to what the author is saying, not what you choose to say on the basis of his book. If you only pay attention to your own opinions rather than trying to find definitive fact, you generate no new knowledge.

Maybe this is exactly why English “research” is so amazingly useless. To accomplish something, you have to generate new knowledge, and, moreover, knowledge that can be applicable to something outside of itself. Coming up with a definitive answer as to whether Richard III is a good play is useless. Finding that it portrays Shakespeare’s frustration with political manoeuvring tells us a lot about him, the time he lived in, and the way that the Wars of the Roses fit into the lot. Finding out that it is just as likely not to portray his frustration with politics accomplishes absolutely nothing.

The biggest argument I’ve been given against my point is that we can never know an author’s intentions. But this isn’t math, not even biology. We can’t know anything for certain in any of the humanities. And yet historians aren’t afraid to make definitive answers. We can never know what was going through F.D.R.’s mind when he decided to enter the war, but we still unabashedly explain the reasons for why he did it. How? They gather evidence, weigh both sides, and make conclusions. Sometimes they supply a caveat with it, that these are only possibilities. But at least they don’t give the other options equal weight.

So really it should be even easier for us to guess at authors’ intentions than it is to guess at those of historical figures. Authors, unlike everyone else we study, take their ideas – their purpose – and write works hundreds of pages long telling us all about them. Everything in their books is their intent. Nothing is in there by accident. We can over-analyze, but then we can also do that with history, politics, even biology. That danger shouldn’t stop us from reaching and publicizing conclusions.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine