October 6, 2009

The Romance of Pure Research

Filed under: POV — dhi @ 9:38 pm

by Claire Waters, an associate professor of English

“Time to cut the public funding of this circus. And all the ‘research’ supposedly provided by these academicians, where and what is it?” [Reader comment, Sacramento Bee, September 23, 2009]

Nobel Prize winner Carol Greider said today that “winning the Nobel prize was especially significant because it recognized the value of discoveries driven by pure curiosity.” [“US trio wins medicine Nobel for telomerase,” Nicholas Vinocur for Reuters, October 5, 2009]

The initial debate and disagreement that led to our recent protests was over furloughs, or over, in essence, whether research is worth anything, should be publicly funded, is worth doing. I think most academics would say that research and teaching are intimately linked in all kinds of ways obvious and non-obvious, and that to talk about one apart from the other is in some ways to falsify what we do. But since teaching’s value is more immediately obvious (in both economic and non-economic terms), as the Bee comment above suggests, I’ve been trying to think about how to explain why research is so important, and how I might convey that to people who find it easy to dismiss.

I’m teaching medieval romance to undergraduates right now, which has provided a strange contrast with what’s going on around us. But it’s also helped me think about research, because in a sense the central event of a typical medieval romance, the quest, is a model for research. In going out on a quest, the knight doesn’t go knowing what he will find. He goes to find aventure, adventure—a word whose Latin root literally means “that which will come toward you.” The knight has to be prepared and worthy for that adventure to find him, but he can’t determine what it will be, or what it will tell him, or where it will lead him. Strange as it may sound, medieval chivalric adventure is quite a good model for research; if you know exactly what you’re going to find when you go out looking, then it’s not really research.

And the aventure is not just what comes toward you, but the story you tell about it; the quest is not done until the knight returns to court and tells his story. Whatever changes and development he has undergone, whatever he has learned about himself and the world he inhabits, has to be brought back and relayed to others, to contribute to the larger good.

To assimilate research, especially university research, to medieval knighthood is to invite ridicule; talk about an ivory tower. But every culture imagines its own model for exploration, and research is essentially exploration: and exploration is not the province of the few. Exploration of the world in its various aspects is something that should be available to everyone. The fact that some of us do versions of it as major parts of our paid labor does not mean that it is not available to others; instead, I would argue that the fact that some of us are doing this in a focused way much of the time expands the possibilities for others’ exploration. I’m certainly grateful for researchers every time I teach something for the first time, or read a good newspaper article, or watch an interesting television program about something I know nothing about. And we’re all grateful for the advances in science, medicine, agriculture and engineering that make our world more knowable and welcoming, and help to preserve it.

All of these undertakings are related. We study ourselves, the world that produced us and surrounds us, the things we ourselves have created, and the realm of ideas. All of those things are interconnected, as we are reminded more every day. If we study only one part of that system, if we value pure curiosity only in some areas, we’re missing important pieces of the picture; whole realms of understanding and research could die off if we decided it was important only to study things that had immediate practical application, and whole areas of discovery that come about by researchers following their noses might never be reached. Research is the work to understand tiny parts of a huge system, manifestations of intertwined complexities that we can’t even fully imagine.

It seems clear that one thing we are built for, as a species, is to be curious, to explore, to figure out new things, including new things that are not obviously useful. How to do that in a more focused and productive way is one of the major things we are here to teach our students, and maintaining the worth of doing research, even when it is not immediately productive, values the curiosity we all share and should foster in ourselves and each other. To do research in one context—medieval romance, crystallography, labor economics, fluid dynamics, cell biology—creates a skill that will carry over into contexts yet unknown, as we go out to explore the world, and enrich it, and take the adventure.


  1. Dear Claire Waters,
    Thank you for your thought provoking article. The explicit and implicit connections you make between teaching and research speak to my deepest concerns. You prove the worth of your personal quest by turning it out to the greater circle of DHI and stimulating us to examine our own roles. The power of the ivory tower metaphor lies not in its medieval connection but in it representation of insularity. Although teaching the skills to navigate a path of adventure is important, I believe our role in teaching the capacity to choose worthy questions more so. What may contribute to the larger good is, in the end, an individual decision, guided by our chivalric code, which far transcends the vagaries of the daily news.
    Con aprecio,
    Adriana Elisa Parra

    Comment by Adriana Elisa Parra — October 8, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  2. I’m always puzzled by the accusation that research is useless because it is not directly “applicable.” I think that people who say this must mean that it is not directly profitable. And much of it is not, either in the immediate, as with basic research in the sciences, or in the long-term, as with most research in the humanities. But I did my first sustained academic research project at the age of 11, reading primary documents from the Salem witch trials on microfiche in a University library basement and writing my 5th-grade term paper (15 pages, typed, with footnotes and bibliography) on the trials. I still remember the exhilaration of finding sources, or unknotting a particularly difficult passage, and the deep lessons I learned from the project: that it is incredibly easy to ruin a life by starting or helping further a malicious rumor, and that knowledgeable women are especially vulnerable to mockery and punishment. I’d layer on other understandings later, but as applications to my basic existence, these weren’t bad tools at all.

    Comment by Beth Freeman — October 12, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  3. I too enjoyed your thoughts. I am currently putting together a piece of practice-as-research in the discipline of practical Acting based on the life of German actress, Tilly Wedekind. While the research is historical, aesthetic, archival, theoretical, etc., the ultimate piece is a play: i.e. the ‘site’ of my own research will ultimately be my ‘self’ as an actor in performance. This research is leading me to goad myself with all sorts of questions about the notion of embodied knowledge and the dissemination of research through means other than the written word. And – ultimately – why should anyone fund me to do it? Your questions are timely given the state of the State, and yet we should lead by example – i.e. show that our own academic curiosity is what keeps us as teaching scholars and practical researchers. Thank you for the further goading.

    Comment by Bella Merlin — October 13, 2009 @ 12:31 am

  4. Thanks for this, Claire!

    One minimal justification for pure academic research is simply that it is no more or less necessary than most other kinds of human work. The investment banker dreaming up new financial deals is certainly less productive (and often more destructive!) than your average medievalist. And the hundreds of thousands employed in mowing lawns are busy with something no less arbitrary than the most recondite theoretical discourse. So I think this complaint should sometimes be met with: “and what exactly do you do that is so valuable?”

    More positively, I think the work of the humanities is the curatorship of culture, and the function of research is bring past moments and alien thoughts into dialogue with present concerns. All but the most antiquarian research (in method, not subject matter) helps maintain the huge stock of human experience for use in the present, a service whose value is beyond reckoning.

    Comment by Mike Ziser — October 19, 2009 @ 5:19 am

  5. Thank you, Claire! You put into words–most eloquently–what many of us are thinking just now. I am glad you quoted Carol Greider–my elderly next door neighbor remembers when Carol delivered the local newspaper on her bike, just another Davis High kid. Encouraging a bent for research and modeling the best way to do it is what we get paid for. There is no Nobel prize in any field I am linked to but the cumulative intelligence and problem-solving abilities of students in the humanities and social sciences, if recognized and valued, is nothing short of astounding!

    Comment by Caren Kaplan — October 19, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  6. An excellent apologia for pure curiosity. The Sacramento Bee reader’s contribution to crackpot realism, with which Claire Waters kicks off her observations, stands in a long and venerable tradition of American anti-intellectualism–not that the US is the only place where that occurs!–a tradition brilliantly mapped by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Not long after Hofstadter died, one of the most prominent of the emerging anti-intellectuals in politics was Wisconsin senator William Proxmire, who used the senate as a forum to single out and ridicule the efforts of academics “wasting” public money on what Proxmire deemed trivial projects. Proxmire held mock ceremonies in which he gave out what he called “Golden Fleece” Awards, to publicly name and thus label/stigmatize these researchers. Should we worry about these voices? How to counter them? Definitely. The beginning is no doubt to articulate a contesting point of view. So thanks very much to Prof Waters for doing this.

    Comment by Mike Winter — November 17, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

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