Money for antique rope

Most humanities 'research' is the self-indulgent pursuit of obscure hobbies that neither need nor merit funding, and produces only unsold, unread and unreadable books, argues Clive Bloom

May 13, 2010

Don't get me wrong - I can easily live with the occasional bung. There's nothing I'd like better than to travel first class, fill my spare room with duck houses and build a moat around my suburban semi (second home and mortgage taken care of); if you want me to, I'll even find time to drag myself on to that flight to the Caribbean for a little lobbying. Just leave a brown envelope filled with used notes round the back of the humanities block and I'm your man.

But I draw the line at research handouts for lecturers who don't need them. No academic that I've ever met works nine to five, five days a week. With three months of holiday and every weekend free, who really needs a cash incentive to finish that groundbreaking study of the use of intransitive verbs in Elizabeth Gaskell's work or undertake that much-needed study of medieval Provencal plainsong, the only window of opportunity for a research trip being July?

Apparently, most of the academic community seem to need financial help for research. Whipped ever onwards by tightening research requirements and the demands of their faculty accountants, academics will spend many a fruitless hour writing a proposal on their latest hobby horse: say, the dusty diaries of some long-forgotten and irrelevant 17th-century female whose only real claim to fame was that she owned a quill pen.

It is not so much that the system is flawed, nor that panels of "peers" (a misnomer if ever there was one) sit in judgement of our proposals, nor that we have to find some "international" professor to act as guarantor of our paper's world-shattering importance. It is not even that the final work will be quite lost in a journal that's just been dropped by every university library, nor that it will be published by some obscure press working out of a tiny village in the shires and sold on demand for £100 (post and packing included), nor even that we might flog 50 copies if we are lucky enough to get a grant and write the bloody thing. No - what is flawed is the whole system and what it does to scholarship and the definition of scholarly activity, the expression of a free, enquiring mind.

Scholarship is the holy grail of academia; the thing we are all meant to cherish as our birthright, and meant to think of when we reflect on why we went into academia in the first place. Indeed, the term "scholarship" has long since replaced the word "antiquarianism", which always gave off a slight whiff of ecclesiastical incense and mould. Yet scholarship nowadays is very different in practice from what it was long ago, being associated with contemporary rather than historical issues. So what does scholarship mean now? It's clearly not like scientific or medical research, where lives might be at stake or technological advances might be halted if not primed with money. Scholarship, for the most part, is confined to things that go on in the liberal arts or humanities. It is usually driven by interest in things that are cultural or subjective.

And it's this subjective aspect that makes the whole idea of modern scholarship suspicious. How indeed does one "research" such diverse things as Slavoj Zizek's account of the Iraq war or chivalry in medieval literature or the meaning of Wittgenstein's theory of colour, but by sitting and reading in a comfy chair with a nice cappuccino and some leisure? In other words, our personal choices about what we research are the merest hobbies, rather like some highfalutin version of model train collecting. We don't ask permission to research what interests us, but we go ahead as if that interest should astound the rest of our "discipline", and we test that same interest by writing a proposal instead of getting on with the task at hand, which is to write something that has the feeling of urgency, immediacy and cogency that the subject requires.

For the most part, this process bogs down in delays asking for handouts from panels whose serious attention to the task before them masks all sorts of private grievances, prejudices (about the institution the proposal came from, for one), snobberies and disingenuousness. The idea that our peers can decide whether our current passion is worthy of being funded is ridiculous. If you have a publisher who is willing to take a punt on your latest offering (and offer a little sweetener in the form of an advance), then you already have approval for your idea, and there is nothing more to do but to get on with it and hope the readers will come.

Whatever the blurb may say on the tin, these august bodies are not our peers but our judges. And I for one don't like the idea that my hobby should be judged by people I probably have not met and who I might well avoid at a conference if I had the misfortune to bump into them. Why bother? If you burn with a passion for a subject, you'll always find time to do it justice and won't need any extra money to do so. Chances are if you are waiting on a grant, you probably didn't really want to write that book you've had in mind all those years after all.

Now that aristocratic patronage has dried up and corporate sponsorship is looked upon as dodgy by most academics in the liberal arts, the Arts and Humanities Research Council has taken on the function of provider of funding, as one of seven main, but not exclusive, agencies across the UK. Ultimately, it is a quasi-government charity that avoids describing itself as such, all the while dispensing £102 million worth of dosh to "support ... study in the arts and humanities ... languages and law, archaeology and English literature" as well as giving a boost to "design and creative and performing arts", a role it has fulfilled since 2005 when it took over from the Arts and Humanities Research Board. It is also trying to secure some of the substantial budget doled out by the European Union's Humanities in the European Research Area scheme.

In all, the AHRC funds 700 research awards and 1,350 postgraduate awards. The whole organisation costs about £7.5 million to maintain. Despite government pressure, it still supports "primary" research, although in reconsidering its parameters, research with social, cultural or business impact is being considered more carefully these days and, indeed, the proposals from research with impact do seem more lively, interesting, rewarding and, dare I say it, more relevant. The objectives are certainly honourable, but is the actual practice? Or is it abused by rather silly proposals given the stamp of approval by myopic grandees?

Even as I write, I hear the din of impending complaints, but I am neither a non-dom Tory nor an avid reader of the more extreme rantings of Jeremy Clarkson or Peter Hitchens. I just wonder if we need a body to dispense largesse to projects that are quite so facile and obscure or those that are the personal pet of some very small clique who believe in the centrality of the oboe to 21st-century culture, or those who are governed by the most fashionable thinking on heritage or the cultural primacy of modern dance, or the digital future of everything. As for the literature projects so in need of funded buyouts, they could either be done at the author's leisure or not at all, rather than splashing their spurious claims of importance across the AHRC's website as success stories. What emerges from a trawl of the winners' enclosure is that the most obscurantist idea dressed up in the most fashionable language wins the day.

Of course, the trouble doesn't stop even if you do win a couple of hundred grand from the academic equivalent of the National Lottery for your magnum opus on librarianship and the virtual object in the digital age. The main problem with those whose business is words is simple: they can't write a decent sentence and the AHRC doesn't bother itself with such niceties.

Here is the rub. Reading 90 per cent of academic tomes is worse than eating a cardboard sandwich: disgusting to look at and impossible to chew. Decent style and a flowing sentence is sacrificed for the tedium of the researcher's "thesis". Many academics seem not to have got over writing their doctorates - their typescripts are full of poorly structured sentences, badly organised chapters and a hopeless attention to what they want to say. Most academic books are remainder fodder as soon as they hit the streets, the money sought and won from the funding body going directly into that giant bin-liner where all unread books go.

If you've got the means to write, write and learn how to write a proposal to a publisher that might suggest your readership is more than you, your mother, the moggy and the AHRC. And before the reader calls foul, I admit to having enjoyed the largesse of both the Heritage Lottery Fund and the AHRC. Lend us a tenner 'til next Tuesday ...

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