From where I sit - Bowl out the 'Measurers'

June 23, 2011

In the last days of May, the Australian government came to an unwontedly sensible conclusion in regard to its recently completed Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise. It dropped the splitting of journals into four categories starting at A* and declining to C, with sage commentary that the quality of articles varies within any publication. Of course it does, as everyone knows. But sadly this outbreak of administrators' sanity is unlikely to offer a complete solution to the current obsession with "transparency" in recording academic achievement.

A number of questions arise. First, can Australian academics now sue for compensation for the amount of energy that they have devoted to the grading of these academic journals? To a degree, they expended intellectual time driven by the fear that only appearance in an A* setting would bring in a research grant in the next round. But they used up rather more political time, with a huge effort expended in ensuring that the place where they themselves were accustomed to publish was ranked as high as possible.

In my own field of history, there were droll examples of rampant protectionism in this regard, where historians of Australia campaigned ruthlessly to ensure that, say, Australian Historical Studies was accepted as the equivalent of The American Historical Review, and that the much more downmarket History Australia was almost as good. The email traffic was massive.

The more serious issue appears when we ask what is going on in the insistent and global effort to find a mathematical figure to express academic work. One of my weaknesses in life is a devotion to cricket statistics, a rather odd pleasure for a historian of modern Italy.

I can still alarm friends by reporting to them, say, the Test batting average of Lord Lionel Hallam Tennyson, sometime captain of England (it was 31.36). This score is of simple derivation, based on the runs Tennyson scored divided by the times that he was dismissed. No doubt similar, if more complex, processes give us the daily share price, currency values and pork belly futures.

But can this approach do much with the great majority of scholarly work? Is not any activity based on words by definition traduced by being reduced to numbers?

Moreover is not all publication, like all life, subject to change? No doubt many books and articles briefly strut and fret upon the page and then are buried on some library shelf or website. Yet can we be sure which of these have spark in them and which not, and are any of them reliably dead? After all, as Umberto Eco reminded his readers in The Name of the Rose, dusty books murmur to each other and sometimes even communicate while doing so.

One of the more bizarre figures in Australian public life was the nationalist historian of the nation, C.M.H. ("Manning") Clark. In his overblown prose, he was accustomed to finding Australian politicians fighting off "Dionysian frenzies" too often for my taste. And yet he had one good polemical term - the Measurer.

Such benighted people, the Gradgrinds who are always with us, thought numbers ruled. Examining the detail of ERA and the rest, perhaps it is time that serious academics formed themselves into an anti-numerical front and campaigned for the crunching of the Measurers of our world.

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