Making It New: Innovation in Arts & Humanities Research

English: A drawing of index cards with tabs. T...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Research” in the early days—and by that I mean in the days of elementary school—was a straightforward affair.  Or it was until the revolution of the parenthetical citation marked a turning point in the yearly convention of the spring research paper.  In those early days, “research” also looked quite  different, in that it was largely done by looking books up in a card catalogue and then writing notes on index cards.

If a “research paper” was simply an organizational task, a test of paper control and shuffling cards, then I was quite well suited for the mission. To me, writing a research paper simply meant the power to quietly talk with friends in the school library and, most significantly for me, the literal physical freedom of being able to stand up and sit down at will (that’s a big deal when you’re 11).  But I had the extraordinary misfortune of being drawn last to choose my research topic that year.  By the time I got to write my name on the sheet, “Dolphins,” “Killer Whales,” “Jelly Fish,” and “Coral” had all been taken.  What I was left with was the most inauspicious of topics: “The Barnacle.”

Buoyed by an embarrassment with my topic, I staged a rebellion.  Questions were asked: In what ways where the facts written on my index cards different from the source material itself?  Who was I learning for, and what was I learning? At what point do influence, innovation, and index cards meet?

Fast-forward to 2012.  Innovation in the arts and humanities might not create multi-million pound spinout companies or accrue dozens of patents, but to what extent is the model of innovation and enterprise an effective framework for approaching research in these fields?  How must research students in the arts and humanities learn to think in order to operate in a global society increasingly concerned with the valuation of ideas?

Since I have yet to find answers to these questions, I have started the mission with my own students.  In my both my composition and literature courses, I have begun teaching argumentation using what seems, at first, a somewhat reductive enterprise model.  “What do you think the innovation of your argument is?” I ask students in the classroom. “Good.  But be sure to communicate the value of the argument you pose,” I note on student essays.  But such a vocabulary, perhaps more at home in a business department than an English department, is not entirely divorced from the principal assumptions of what literary analysis is meant to be.  It simply forces students to appreciate that research, whether in 5th grade or in an undergraduate seminar, isn’t simply paper pushing—it’s a formula for stating the original and for innovating, on whatever scale.  For me, trying to articulate the value, in real terms, of my fifth grade work on “The Barnacle” could have been a challenge, but if I had been lucky enough to get “Killer Whale,” things would have been quite a bit different.

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