It’s about time: literary research and the inarticulate voice of scientific measurement

Professor Clive Barstow interviews Professor Jill Durey

Within the broad definition of practice-led research, how has contemporary literature fared in terms of its categorisation, measurement and funding compared with the visual and performing arts? I interview Professor Jill Durey, previous head of English at ECU and now retired, and who has lived through the various incarnations of ERA.

CB: What do you see is the essential process of research and practice in literature and what are the pros and cons in the context of higher education in Australia?

JD: All research takes a long time. Literary research, like other older humanities, requires huge amounts of reading, as does lecture preparation in literature, not only in the literary corpus but also in the critical literature. At the same time, Literature, as one of the lowest funded of the university teaching categories and among the most efficient, understandably is used to subsidise subjects requiring expensive equipment and much smaller staff-student ratios. Although this means a double load for the academic in Literature to pursue research that is separate from lecture preparation, research itself is personally rewarding, simultaneously providing enrichment for the discipline and a stimulus for postgraduate supervision and undergraduate teaching.

Just as Literature is an efficient subject to teach, it is also an efficient subject to research, in terms of precious university resources. I believe that modern universities should take full advantage of this essential difference between the Arts/Older Humanities and the Sciences and actively facilitate this kind of research in its recognition and rewards structures and processes. The newer Australian universities could seize the reins and, as a pioneering country, Australia could lead the way.

It is time itself that literary researchers require the most ... The breaking of the nexus between ERA rankings and ARC funding ... would enable the universities to leave Arts and Humanities Researchers to concentrate their precious time on the research itself.

CB: Can you expand on this and talk about the differences in methodologies between science and literature?

JD: Since universities have been trying to run themselves along business models necessitating quantifiable formulae to fund core areas of ‘business’, research in Literature has been compelled to follow scientific models which are frequently incompatible with its essential modus operandi. Collaborative research, except for certain very broad encyclopaedic projects, is neither necessary nor productive for most literary research. Collaboration entails the constraints of compromise. It slows down literary research, already a slow process, and prevents independent and idiosyncratic creative thinking leading to new discoveries.

Literary projects tend to be solo, and are the deeper for being solo. The mandatory “research question” or commencing hypothesis, driving narrow directions leading to self-fulfilling conclusions before the research is complete, is not just a scientific model, it is an old European model favoured particularly by French and German academics. This model, often ideologically driven, has its own merits, although it tends to use the abstract to shape the concrete evidence. Empirical research, famously conducted in science by Charles Darwin, and involving evidence based on experiments, uses the concrete evidence to shape the abstract theory. In this way, new discoveries from observing the concrete evidence can lead to new theories and new paradigms.

Why penalise efficient researchers simply because they do not require funding for their research? ... Why not make Research Grants mandatory for the expensive Sciences and voluntary for the efficient Arts and Humanities?

Research in the sciences requires specialised spaces, often laboratories on campus, or expensive field trips, and frequently large numbers of living beings involving complicated ethical issues. Huge data sets have to be housed safely, securely and ethically on campus. Research in Literature is more flexible. It can be conducted at work, or quietly at home, over weekends and public holidays, at a time and place convenient for the researcher, who now has the choice between hard and soft copied data.

CB: How does research in contemporary literatures deal with what Zygmunt Bauman terms “Liquid Modernities” that is multi-cultures in flux?

JD: Empirical research was not only useful for Darwin. It is the most useful for modern research in Literature. Zygmunt Bauman’s “Liquid Modernities” encapsulate the modern global migrations, with their enriching interactions between different cultures and ways of thinking, which are changing literary paradigms. Modern literary research, in its embrace of new literatures, requires the wider liberty and authenticity enabled by empirical research. Empirical research can start with a research idea and test that idea through observation, in the knowledge that, by the end of that research, the idea may have evolved into a new one, not previously conceived or believed possible. This ensures original outcomes. It also ensures that research in contemporary literatures, which manifest redefined and fluid literary genres, can capture these changes in world literature through empirical observation, rather than through a prescribed theory modelled on rigidly defined literary genres still valid for older literature.

CB: In the previous edition of NiTRO, Professor Ross Woodrow discussed the correlation between ERA rankings and ARC funding. What is your experience with research funding for literary publications?

JD: ARC research grants, with few exceptions, are really the only kind of national grant that, in theory, can fund literary research. The parochial nature of the advice I was given by the Chair of the ARC interviewing committee assessing my Trollope book project long ago was much more dispiriting - and shocking - than my failure to gain an ARC grant. The advice was to jettison the project and only pursue research in Australian Literature in order to secure a national grant. The Trollope book took me 10 years and was published by a well-known international publisher. Nor do I regret not wasting precious little research time applying again for a national grant.

Literary research now can more easily be conducted through electronic means. It is time itself that literary researchers require the most. Longer time-line expectations from quality assessors would encourage and nurture more ground-breaking research, not just in Literature but across the Sciences and Arts. The breaking of the nexus between ERA rankings and ARC funding as far as Research in the Arts and older Humanities is concerned would liberate more funds for the expensive Sciences and Social Sciences and would enable the universities to leave Arts and Humanities Researchers to concentrate their precious time on the research itself.

CB: And what about measurement and assessment, how do current models used by ERA represent the actualities of literary research?

JD: The quantifiable business and scientific model, unsurprisingly, is also used by universities to assess quality. “Measure”, the totally meaningless word in relation to Literature, is from the Sciences, and is used in national quality assessments of university research. It is this old model, ostensibly connoting specificity and giving preferential positioning to the sciences, that is currently under the critical spotlight of the Australian University Heads of English. To reduce the emphasis on narrow categories in the six-digit codes that do not cater for changing research practices and foci, the consensus so far among the Australian Heads of English is to suggest the elimination of these codes and simply retain the more flexible and general four-digit codes. This addresses the important question of categories, but it does not address the model itself of measurement and assessment. Why penalise efficient researchers simply because they do not require funding for their research? Why not choose a “road not taken”? Why not make Research Grants mandatory for the expensive Sciences and voluntary for the efficient Arts and Humanities?

CB: There seems to be no privilege for the text based arts when it comes to an acceptance of creative processes that are difficult to define, and particularly when these practices rely on an evolving and often life-long commitment that by their very nature will raise more questions than they answer. As Keith Moxey suggests in his thesis on heterochronic storytelling, “these essays ally themselves with persistent questions, never pretending that they can be settled for good.”

It is clear that the process of writing, just like performing or visualising, requires time. The often yet-to-be connected component parts of our storytelling need to be recognised as a true representation of the journey we take as humans, a journey that defines itself through time and not by a moment in time.

[1] Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

[2] Moxey, Keith. 2013. Visual Time: The Image in History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Jill Durey is adjunct Professor of English at Edith Cowan University

Professor Clive Barstow is Executive Dean of Arts & Humanities at ECU and President of the DDCA