How should the humanities make the news?
It is very hard to know how you get humanities research in the headlines. My recent brush with the Henry VIII tapestries is a case in point. I was extremely excited to find a specimen of what I think is one of the later branches of the family tree of Henry’s originals. But the only way that is deemed newsworthy is if it can be trailed as one of Henry’s originals, that once hung in Hampton Court: as a “discovery” in other words.
But this is only one instance among many of turning the kind of work I do into “news” on the scientific model. To be fair to my scientific colleagues, they probably cringe at the way science is presented on the news (“boffins discover that water is bad for you” or whatever). But there is something dispiriting in the way that every intellectual step forward, every rethink has to be presented as “new” else it wouldn’t get any air time.
I remember a few years back I was giving a lecture at a northern university (with a particularly active press office) on the Philogelos or “Roman joke book”. They had hyped the lecture in a big way, as new insights (which in some important ways it was). On the train up, journalists kept ringing my mobile. Their first question was: where had I found this text? The right answer was obviously “I dug it up from the sands of Egypt”. When I said that I found it on the library, they instantly lost interest – even though I was doing something with the text that no one (I think) had done before.
What counts as new and newsworthy is the question.
And that is exactly what my own august university struggles with. They have just issued on the website a top 24 of Cambridge research stories this year. On my reckoning, 19 of those are pure science; and, of the rest, the majority are fascinating discovery or rediscovery stories (whether archaeology or a lost musical manuscript). Hang on I think, what are the rest of us doing? Does it really need to be under the radar, compared with (say) the mating call of mice? You’d think from looking at this roster that none of the work that some of us do rethinking Greek tragedy, or the demography of the medieval city, or the impact of T. S. Eliot counted for a hill of beans.
So does it?
To put it another way, if we can’t find a way of explaining (and convincing our universities why it deserves explaining) how those of us who work in humanities have an innovative story to tell, we are lost. Why, for example, do we think we now think differently about the “fall” of the Roman Empire from Gibbon? Might that not be a story to tell… or a story to find a more impressive way to tell?
And there are plenty of other examples we could all add to.