Friday, January 29, 2010

The entomologist is not my enemy

i was at a meeting the other day about why it's so hard to tell media-friendly stories about research in arts. the president's speechwriter was there - she called the meeting - and it started with the declaration that she (and the president) want to brag about arts, but they don't have the material.

at first blush, it seemed easy to supply story ideas - what about the big CURA grant on the uses of theatre for sex education? why not talk about community-service learning? surely we haven't driven the $4 million triple-matched kule donation into the ground yet?

the more we talked, though, the more apparent the problem became: there is a profound misfit between the narrative parameters of communications and the work we value most. if "communications" is defined as an audience-driven medium based on an emotional connection (parents, for instance, want to hear stories about how their children will succeed; prospective international students want to be assured they should choose the UofA; donors and government officials want to hear how their investment is changing the world), and if "the work we value most" is defined as contemplative scholarship, there is a thought-provoking gap between them. why is that? in this post i begin to speculate.
  1. the anti-superstar thesis: our breakthroughs are modest and historically specific. we uncover new information about a culture's child-rearing practices, or we write a new play, or we find a (slightly) new way to think about agency. none of these are in and of themselves world-changing, the way an insulin protocol for diabetes promises to revolutionize healthcare. related: our discoveries rarely look forward. related: we expect modesty from each other, look down on self-promotion.
  2. the "we eat our young" thesis: in the sciences, if a biomechanical engineer is asked about the work of a theoretical physicist, he is likely to say, "well, it's not my area, but she 's a good scientist." asked about someone who works in an entirely different field from our own - say, an expert in nineteenth-century ukrainian gothic literature - i am likely to raise my eyebrows and refrain from answering at all. partly this is about the crisis of methodologies and disciplinary breakdowns, but partly it's a result of the way we code our work politically and therefore morally, and use those codes to police each other.
  3. the reason vs emotion thesis: much of the work we value is highly abstract and very specific. well, lots of scientific work is specific, so let's put specificity aside and concentrate on the abstraction. this is different from the basic vs applied research question, too (though that is obviously at play in all of this: see below). what i'm after here is more the distinction between reason and feeling. put bluntly, it's hard to imagine an emotional connection to a new conception of sovereignty, or a theatrical technique, or demography.
  4. the feedback loop: communications likes stories that reassure. look again at the examples i gave above, and you'll see what i mean: my kid's gonna be alright, i'm making the right decision, our investment was good. arts research frequently uncovers less comfortable truths. racism is alive and well in canada, women writers are still getting short shrift, arts grads don't always gets jobs right away - and we have a critique of the job market to boot. these stories might engender a strong emotional reaction, but not the one we're after.
  5. the basic vs applied thesis: i've left this one for last because it is so obvious. our work rarely has direct application to policy. and yet my puzzlement is that the same is true for many sciences - hence the title of this blog post. the big distinction in the academy is not between arts and sciences, but between curiousity-driven research and applied research. there are fewer distinctions between an entomologist and a political scientist than there are between an entomologist and an engineer. who is the enemy of the humanities? not the physicist or the mathematician. so, do they have this problem? and if so, how do they address it?
maybe the problem lies in the generic conventions of communications, which might underestimate its audience (more thoughtful than we imagine?), or curtail ideas by focusing on singularities (why not a dialogue? is this why podcasts work?). i'm not done thinking this through yet, so your inklings, brilliant notions and crackpot theories are welcome.


Jo-Ann Wallace said...

I think we do underestimate our audience, and Ralph Klein didn't do us any favours by characterizing the "ordinary Albertan" as "Martha and Henry." The ordinary Alberta includes my hair stylist, who is well read, an avant garde musician, a passionate walker, a passionate Edmontonian. It includes my periodentist, who always wants to talk about politics, sexualities, what's going on in the public schools (while I try to respond around his fingers in my mouth). It includes all those Albertans who are in book clubs. The stats show that ordinary Albertans spend more on cultural events than people from Montreal. The university PR people should stop selling them short and start giving them a little more of what they pay for: smart, complicated, thoughtful stories.

mari said...

In my experience, scientists are extremely eager to talk about what they are doing. Overall, I don't get that sense of openness from the humanities. Or maybe we are offered more science stories than arts ones? I think we could establish better relationships, academia and journalists. I'm always looking for stories.

However, arts coverage generally is getting the shaft from the major media. That's s bigger problem than all of us.