That Would be an Ecumenical Matter – Measuring Impact in the Humanities

In the hit Television series Father Ted about three Irish priests living on an island off the west coast of Ireland, Father Ted coaches the irascible and blunt Father Jack to respond “Yes” or “That would be an ecumenical matter” when presented to a formidable group of Irish bishops who may ask him tricky questions. The purpose of the exercise (apart from not embarrassing Father Ted) is to prevaricate and to say something so vague that the bishops will leave Father Jack alone. I often think of this episode when I hear discussions about measuring impact in the humanities.     

It is difficult to know what impact our research will have in advance. I believe, like Abraham Flexner, the first Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the man who hired Albert Einstein, that good research is driven by unhampered curiosity and by the pursuit of intellectual interest for its own sake.

 “Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity, and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest.” Abraham Flexner, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

An Example from My Own Research

As someone who has spent most of their career working in the humanities, one of the surprising and unexpected recent developments in my area of research has been the creation of The Columban Way, a two thousand mile pilgrimage trail that weaves its way across the breadth of Europe from Ireland to Italy.

It’s a new trail that follows in the footsteps of a sixth-century Irish travelling monk – the route follows his travels from Ireland through France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. After the Camino de Santiago, it will be the second longest cultural heritage route in Europe. 

The Columban Way. Map from thecolumbanway.eu

When I started my PhD research on Jonas of Bobbio, the biographer of the Irish saint and monastic founder Columbanus, in 2005 I couldn’t have imagined that a pilgrimage route that follows the itinerary as recorded in Jonas’s account would develop within ten years. I was simply following a strand of research that I found interesting in and of itself. I had sensed that this would be a fruitful avenue to pursue my doctoral studies in as I had identified a gap in the research.

Around 2013 a Scientific Committee was formed to determine the most likely historically accurate route and this has led me more recently to serve on an advisory committee for the development of the Irish section of the pilgrimage route which was launched in July 2018.

An academic colleague initially scoffed at the idea that a sixth-century Irish monk could have any relevance for 21st century Europe, but his dismissive attitude is being contradicted by the numerous local grassroots communities across Europe who are developing this trail, communities in France, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland who are rightly proud of their links to Ireland in the places where Columbanus established monastic communities.

As a historian who has been dealing with this material from a professional historical perspective, it has been instructive and inspiring to realize that this story is very much actualised and relevant for many people and that it has the potential to bring communities across Europe closer together in an age of growing division.

The celebration of Columbanus’s legacy every November in Bangor, Northern Ireland, where Columbanus had been a monk, opened my eyes to how a pre-Reformation figure could serve as a unifying figure for communities from different Christian denominations and faith traditions.

What impressed me so much about the festival in Bangor was how it is run across denominational lines with events held over the course of a weekend in the Catholic community centre, a musical evening in the Anglican church, and a prayer service in the Presbyterian church.

How these communities in Bangor could mutually embrace and celebrate this historical figure was truly inspirational and something that I had never considered while I was engaged in my historical research. Those involved in developing The Columban Way connecting Southern and Northern Ireland are similarly committed that this will indeed be an ecumenical matter (in the true sense).

A Model for Measuring Impact

In terms of trying to measure impact in the humanities, researchers in this field need to object to criteria taken from the sciences and business metrics which are increasingly pushed in a top-down manner from people who have no expertise in this domain. This is both inherently unfair and inaccurate as the same metrics cannot and should not be applied to measuring impact in the humanities. 

One possible model for measuring impact in the humanities would be to assess four separate fields –

1. Scholarship, 2. Cultural, 3. Social, and 4. Economic.

Each field could be assessed on a sliding scale of 0 to 5 with 5 being the optimum then multiplied by 5 to give a total impact score.

For example, if the researcher was assessed with a score of 5 in Scholarship, 4 in Cultural, 5 in Social, and 4 in Economic giving a total of 18 then a total impact score of 90 would be achieved indicative of high impact across all fields.

4 criteria (marked from 0 to 5) X 5 = Total Impact Score

A 70-20-10 ratio for managing research projects as used to drive innovation in Google could be applied to those working in the humanities so that 70% of their time could be dedicated to their core tasks and current research, 20% to tangential projects, and 10% to exploring new projects and research interests that may have (seemingly) little promise of impact.

Applying a fairer measurement to gauge impact in the humanities would indeed be an ecumenical matter worthy of celebration.   

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