Entering the conversation; or talking past one another

by Anna Blanch on December 15, 2009

“We can only set right one error of expression by another. By this method of antagonism we steady our minds…by saying and unsaying to positive result.” John Henry Newman

One of the most common metaphors presented to me for Academia is that of the conversation. Yet it is so rare to find large numbers of scholars interested in the same things that when it does happen it becomes the subject of books and films and folklore. Think the Inklings, or the Belfast Group…or whatever comes to mind. So instead the conversation and debate takes place through journal articles and books and at conferences (about the only time academics are face to face) when ideas are raised and referenced, debated and teased out.

What is the purpose of this? Is it really a conversation or merely a series of monologues where people talk past one another. Are we merely communicating with disembodied voices who have long since ceased speaking?

Recent discussions about research impact here in the UK have highlighted the problematic scenario of citation metrics in the humanities as a measure for impact. This post about the comments of Clive James on the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) will give you some background. Citation metrics seem to work better in the Sciences where articles cited provide a base of valuable work that has been completed in order to establish the need for the research. In the humanities citation of articles and monographs theoretically performs the same function, however the “conversation” is broader than this – often articles are cited in order to highlight their limitations or in order to disagree with them. In some ways the most cited articles are not a reflection of the best, but of the most polemic, the easiest work with which to contend with. Sometimes too the best is not cited as much as it might because you are almost spoiled for choice – for example, the leading scholar in a field may have published so much that it is sometimes difficult to fully explain the extent of their impact because citations will not always reflect the extent to which their work shapes the field.

Are we listening enough to each other or just talking ourselves into something to say?

Related posts:

Previous post:

Next post: