October 8th, 2009
Is your research relevant? Relevant used to be a big word when I was an undergraduate in the late ‘sixties, early ‘seventies. Using the term relevance immediately registered a kind of political statement. Viet Nam was raging with war and it was a time of strident student protest. Many of us felt we needed to make a strong connection between the esoteric research we were doing and the knowledge we were acquiring in our courses and programs and the reality of life on the streets or on the bloody battlefield. There seemed to be such a disconnect between us and real people, or between us and social problems. We started to feel guilty. Locally, we were also dealing with the War Measures Act in Quebec and the separatist movement in Quebec. The streets were loud and noisy with marches and people chanting comforting slogans. Long before filmmaker Michael Moore and his cinematic rants against capitalism, we were challenging what we quaintly called the status quo.
And so it was that the ‘seventies turned into the ‘eighties and the rest is unfolding history. For a few decades between then and now, the whole relevance question more or less went underground. Money for research projects flowed from Ottawa or from other public sources in this country. Researchers started to assume an air of entitlement. Questioning what sort of contribution one’s research would be making towards the social good was considered an affront, even an offense. Don’t ask: none of your business.
Today’s researcher is being asked to confront the R word again, but in a radically different political context. Today, accounting for relevance means not so much challenging the status quo as tweaking it, advancing it, or adjusting its meaning. A consideration of relevance is now tied to a wide demand for accountability.
Most research in this country is publicly funded directly by tax payers, and so it follows that those contributors have a right to know what kind of research they are supporting. We don’t want the mob, so to speak, telling us what we should be researching on the one hand, and we need to protect academic freedom at almost all costs. But on the other hand we do have a responsibility to make connections between what we are working on and the world beyond the lab or the cloistered office. That’s not a contradiction: it’s a challenge and a duty. A quick glance at the planet confirms that we are in a mess. There are some 65 military conflicts (wars?) going on in the world as I type, and child poverty, illiteracy, AIDS/HIV, and the huge and growing disparity between rich and poor nations and people remain our most pressing problems. The oceans are in trouble, the air is polluted, health care is in constant crisis, and too many people are out of work. If we are not turning our research projects towards trying to solve these problems then what are we doing?
It is not at all difficult to identify the potential social benefit of working in a cancer research laboratory or examining stress fractures on the earth’s plates, or, for that matter, examining the effects of climate change on polar bears, but it is much more of a stretch having to do so when you are pouring over 18th century manuscripts or working your way through dense post structuralist theory. How is any of that relevant?
That question now weighs heavily on every single graduate student, as it should. Answering it has become something of a litmus test for success, because today’s grant applications demand a full and honest and persuasive defense of your research. This is grant application deadline season: the pressure is on. Adjudicating committees will be looking for strong statements of relevance.
And so, as Madonna once famously asked, how to justify our love for what we are doing? How do we connect the dots between our reading of, say, Jane Austen, and the public good? I honestly believe that not only can we defend the relevance of such a seemingly esoteric and detached program of study but we should.
We have to get beyond critical thinking or the commonplace that education is a darn good thing. We can all say that, and have to. But some of the world’s most notorious tyrants were or are smart and well educated, and so how to express something more sophisticated—and truthful? I extend that invitation to all of you and to all of your research projects, and welcome your comments. Reading Jane Austen might not cure child poverty, but what does such activity contribute to the public good?
Can we share a little here about how one goes about that? Can we make this particular blog particularly relevant?