June 19, 2017
For the Love of Liberal Arts Research
In our capacities as research administrators, communicators, editors, and grant writers, sometimes we come across research that challenges us in new ways.
For example, as a humanities graduate in Cinema Studies and English, I find CIHR- and NSERC-funded research a bit more of a puzzle to process. Conversely, my colleagues in the pure, social, and applied sciences may find research in the humanities difficult to comprehend, especially when it comes to determining how this kind of research benefits society.
“How is studying the artwork of an obscure Renaissance artist relevant to people in the 21st century world?” you might ask, or “What can be derived from analyzing 300-year-old Italian literary manuscripts?” or “Why should we care about the archaic trading practices of a long-gone civilization?”
To investigate these topics more closely, a study was commissioned jointly by the University of Cambridge and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The result was a 2010 report by RAND Europe, “Assessing the impact of arts and humanities research at the University of Cambridge,” with Ruth Levitt, Claire Celia, Stephanie Diepeveen, Siobhán Ní Chonaill, Lila Rabinovich, and Jan Thiessen as lead authors.
The report documents the substantial impact that humanities research has in regards to influencing policy and policymaking, moving traditional leisure and entertainment activities in a myriad of different directions, shaping history, and preserving our heritage. Levitt et al also suggests that arts and humanities research influences our lives in many ways including the following:
1) Humanities-focused books are included on best seller lists with one well known example being Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, which not only won numerous book awards, but was also on The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year (2002);
2) Humanities research influences professional practice such as law-related articles being quoted in court cases, directly affecting a judgment;
3) Media outlets draw on humanities researcher’s expertise to comment on or give context to current events; and
4) Digital humanities research and online databases broaden the impact and potential reach for a wider audience, outside of academia.
A more recent examination related to this discourse is a 2013 Salon.com article by Laura Miller “Will reading make you rich?" Miller’s article cites a study from University of Toronto by researchers Maja Djikic from the Rotman School of Management and Keith Oatley from OISE who have quantitative data that they say proves that reading novels, particularly literary fiction, “...makes people more empathetic, less inclined toward attachment avoidance, more socially adept, and better able to change for the better in personality and temperament”...(Miller, June 21, 2013).
In other words, there is profound value in fields such as literature and art and in how they shape us as human beings. Furthermore, liberal arts researchers delve deeply into subjects that may at times appear to be esoteric, but that help us to better understand our world. These researchers might not be destined to cure the world of the next major pandemic or develop the latest technological breakthrough, but they make the world a richer place through discoveries in music, literature, painting, dance or cinema. In their travails, these researchers expand our horizons and bring joy to our lives by providing us with a sense of beauty, wonder and enlightenment.
It is their passion that intrigues me most as I interview them as part of my job here at U of T Mississauga: their desire to interpret life through theatre, languages or literature; to find joy in exploring visual culture and symbolism in sculpture; or to uncover what the past can teach us about our present.
So the next time you come across the findings from humanities research or are reading through a humanities-research proposal, think about how these impassioned researchers make the world more fascinating, how they reflect and illuminate humanity, and how their work positively impacts our quality of life.
By Carla DeMarco
Carla DeMarco is the Communications and Grants Manager at U of T Mississauga (UTM), and has been working in research administration since 2006. As part of her role at UTM, she reviews grants, writes profiles of UTM researchers for the web and social media outlets, publishes SURGE, UTM’s Research Office newsletter, and works on award submissions with UTM faculty members. She is currently working on a Masters in Information Studies at U of T’s iSchool, and recently had an article published in the inauguraliJournal, a peer-reviewed journal run by graduate students at the U of T’s Faculty of Information. She has also contributed to CARA’s second eBook, Career Journeys: Leaders share different career journeys in research administration.
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