Humanities vs. the Sciences– Who Wins the Prize?

(Here’s another interesting piece by my friend and colleague, Larry Hurtado)

Recognizing Achievements in the Humanities
by larry hurtado

Attending yesterday the installation of my colleague, Prof. Jane Dawson, as a new Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the installation of several Honorary and Corresponding Fellows as well, I was struck by two things: (1) the impressive achievements and contributions to research of all of them, and (2) the fact that overwhelmingly they were scientists. When I reflected on the matter, it was clear to me that there are scholars in my own and other fields in the “Humanities” who have an equivalent record. And yet it seems to me that we aren’t so good at nominating these colleagues for the sorts of recognition that they deserve.

One factor, it seems to me, is this: Scientists, from their earliest studies onward, work typically in teams and with a lot of collaboration and consultation, often extending to other universities and internationally. So, by the time that someone has a PhD (or soon thereafter), their work is known, and closely, by a number of other scholars, including (importantly) senior scholars with the clout and opportunity to use it effectively.

By contrast, we Humanities scholars typically conduct “one-person” research, from our PhD work onward. Indeed, the culture of the Humanities has tended to promote this sort of “long ranger” work. Also, we tend to prize books as the more effective genre of scholarly publication. But books take much longer to get published. And they can take 2-3 years to get reviewed in good journals. So, recognition comes slower. Indeed, it’s often only after one’s second book (hopefully well received) that one acquires any significant scholarly recognition.

Now, I guess this is not such a big deal in one sense. After all, how much should be be lusting after recognition? Shouldn’t we simply do our work and hope that history happens to us? Well, yes, indeed. But in today’s academic world (at least in a major university setting such as mine), it’s all too easy for unfortunate comparisons to be made, and then we could have a problem. So, e.g., the perception can be taken that “research” is something that scientists do, and not Humanities scholars, or at least the impression that scientists must do more and do it much better. For, after all, they seem to get nominated much more for the awards and recognition that signals such success.

I’ve often been impressed with how almost every field of science seems to have prizes and medals of various sorts, from “best first article” on to lifetime achievement awards. Maybe they’re just immodest and we Humanities scholars are simply more modest and virtuous. But I have wondered, sometimes, whether we could learn something from our science-colleagues about recognizing better the achievements and contributions of those who deserve such recognition in the Humanities.

In any case, I am proud of my new FRSE colleague, Prof. Jane Dawson, a historian of the Reformation-era who is one of the numerous highly successful crew with whom I’ve been privileged to work over my time in New College.


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