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What is the point of academic research in majors like English?

  1. Dec 4, 2013 #1
    So I looked at some of the research in a couple of literature journals. One of the several similar articles found was a 50 page analysis on a comic: Persepolis. What's the point though? You're putting in more work than the author did, to do an analysis of a comic book. The author doesn't care. Casual readers don't care. The only people that are going to read the paper are academic peers. The world doesn't care. Your analysis isn't going to make the general public more informed and encourage them to think critically. Your analysis is probably not even what the author intended. What is the point? It's almost as if the research is done for no reason other than to call it research. It's also irritating how the entire paper is written in a cryptic manner and with a colorful vocabulary that it becomes a struggle to get the point of the paper. It's as if they do this so that it can be deemed "academic" as laymen won't be able to understand it.
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2013
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  3. Dec 5, 2013 #2

    WannabeNewton

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    I can say the same exact thing about math and physics. What's your point? Academic research isn't PBS Nova, sorry to break it to ya.
     
  4. Dec 5, 2013 #3
  5. Dec 5, 2013 #4

    Office_Shredder

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    You're picking the most practical applications about scientific research and comparing it to the most pointless example you could find of literary analysis, of course science is going to come out ahead.

    There could very well be thousands of papers on string theory which satisfy the following:

    Casual readers don't care. The only people that are going to read the paper are academic peers. The world doesn't care. Your analysis isn't going to make the general public more informed and encourage them to think critically. Your analysis is probably not even how the universe works.
     
  6. Dec 5, 2013 #5

    jtbell

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    In particular, the people on the committee that evaluates you for tenure or promotion. "Publish or perish" is a fact of life for tenure-track faculty at most colleges and universities in the US, at least.
     
  7. Dec 5, 2013 #6

    WannabeNewton

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    I've read a fair number of papers in my most favorite area (general relativity) and I can tell you right now that I could easily replace mention of literature in your original post with general relativity and these papers would be directly supportive of post #2. Don't pick and choose like Office_Shredder said; furthermore, research papers aren't meant to be "accessible" to the public-such a statement is laughably ridiculous you must agree.
     
  8. Dec 5, 2013 #7
    You are right that string theory might be completely wrong and is not even close to how the universe works. That doesn't meant that there is no value in researching string theory. By doing research in string theory, you can come up with new concepts that while may not be useful in string theory, might advance other useful fields in physics.

    Look at pure mathematics subjects that may seem useless at first such as "information theory, computational complexity, statistics, combinatorics, abstract algebra, number theory, and finite mathematics" and realize that cryptography engineering wouldn't have existed if a single one of them was not researched. Even if the research results in useless knowledge, the tools you develop to solve these problems probably have more useful applications elsewhere.

    There is no inherent value in doing research on a comic or literature that is created by another human being. Humans are simple; you are not going to discover something incredibly useful by doing research because the author probably doesn't know anything incredibly useful to incorporate into their writing. It has been demonstrated that there is inherent value in doing research in a science. The point is you don't know if the research in science has any value until you have researched it; this does not apply to literature because it has never been demonstrated (feel free to provide a counterexample).

    This seems like circular logic. You do the research for tenure-track faculty. The faculty exists because of the research.

    I will admit that general relativity doesn't have as many applications as something such as classical physics but I would bet more applications will be found in the future.

    If you are arguing that a single paper doesn't have any application, then I agree with you. A single paper doesn't have to be useful. The collection of research over a large amount of time should be useful or else it is a waste of time.
     
  9. Dec 5, 2013 #8

    jtbell

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    At many (probably even most) schools whose main function is teaching undergraduates, faculty must still publish some sort of research. This is true at low- to mid-level state universities (which are not "flagship" research universities in their states) and at many generic small liberal-arts colleges that offer only bachelor's degrees (and which are not elite colleges like Swarthmore or Williams or Middlebury).

    A large part of this is because these schools feel they need to raise their prestige in order to compete for state funding (for the state schools) and good students. It looks good to be able to say their faculty have published x number of papers during the past year.
     
  10. Dec 5, 2013 #9

    WannabeNewton

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    The term "useful" carries with it a lot of complexities; furthermore, your definition of "value" is not a universal one. That being said, sure one could argue that a collection of research over a long period of time that amounts to nothing of "value" in your sense of the word is a waste of time. Why do you think this is unique to fields like literature however? Axiomatic set theory, algebraic topology, algebraic/topological/functorial quantum field theory, and the conventionality of simultaneity are all topics that arguably suffer more from this than does literature. I've read physically insightful and instructive papers on the foundations of GR (e.g. http://www.socsci.uci.edu/~dmalamen/bio/papers/RotationNoGo.pdf) but it's obvious that they don't have "value" within the utilitarian framework that you have established.
     
  11. Dec 5, 2013 #10

    epenguin

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    We wouldn't get certain of the jokes a 2,000 years old comic made without a scholar to explain them to us.

    The only one I remember offhand was when a King told Demosthenes he would grant any wish he expressed. He said he wished the King would stand out of the way of his sunlight.:rofl:

    Well I find that funny, I don't know if the King got the joke.
     
  12. Dec 5, 2013 #11
    Actually, comic books are a form of entertainment and therefore have economic value. So an academic study of English language comics may seem more "practical" for an English language scholar than studying ancient Anglo-Saxon noun declensions.
     
  13. Dec 5, 2013 #12

    epenguin

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    My reply was flippant maybe.

    You cannot necessarily equate a comic now with a comic then. Greek culture was a heroic and brilliant step of humanity, is our heritage - but we have so modified what we inherited it is good to have a perspective on what it was. 'Comedy' and the theatre in general, was not the sort of secondary entertainment it is for us, but a vital part of politics, involving all citizens. You can illustrate their politics and history with their theatre and vice versa. I don't know much more, but I would not mind knowing - i don't know much more because like you I do have to focus efforts somewhat, but this does not reach the point of me calling my ignorance a virtue, or decrying someone else's efforts to further his and others' knowledge. So your prejudice is making you miss something (which maybe you don't want to know either) and can make you narrow-minded, ready to mature in later life into a smug self-satisfied complacent philistine bore. :tongue2:
     
  14. Dec 5, 2013 #13

    George Jones

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    What do you mean by "useful applications" and "many applications", as these are subjective terms?

    For example, right now, we are in a "golden age" of relativistic cosmology. As usual, on my way to work today I stopped at a coffee shop for tea and a cheese croissant. While I sipped my tea, I read some fascinating technical stuff about dimensional regularization in quantum field theory applied to the cosmological constant problem.

    How is this going to help to save the world? :biggrin:
     
  15. Dec 5, 2013 #14
    The only point I can make out of the entire post:
    No one cares except those who care.
    Okay... So?
     
  16. Dec 5, 2013 #15

    jgens

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    This is absurd. Literature has immense value for documenting societal views and certain aspects of history. It gives rare insight into the human condition and is one of the best mediums for conveying the great "philosophical" problems of our time. Research into literature has a role in distilling and fleshing out all of this information. While individual articles have essentially no impact on day-to-day life, collectively they can have an important role in shaping our common cultural paradigm.

    Examples of this can be seen throughout history and for the sake of illustrating this point I will name two below:
    1. Most of us have an understanding of consciousness and the subconscious. Yet these notions were first developed in "academic papers" in some sense or another, and furthermore, most people have never taken classes dealing with the subject matter nor read any source material on the subjects.
    2. The way people understand infinity and nonconstructive proofs in mathematics has changed rather drastically in the last 100 years or so. There are results (like Cantor's Theorem) and proofs (like the Hilbert Basis Theorem) that for a time were rather divisive in the mathematical community. The problem was that these results clashed with how people at the time intuitively understood infinity and logic. Eventually this all got sorted out. The really interesting thing here is that nowadays the usual ways people intuitively understand infinity and logic are completely compatible with these results.
    What happened in both of these cases is that paradigm shifts in academic fields gradually shaped the general public's conception of these ideas. There is no reason to think that modern literary research cannot do the same.

    It depends on what you mean. We can calculate with incredible precision the motions of interstellar bodies as well as the behavior of many elementary particles. Trying to model human interactions of ANY sort with that kind of precision is pretty much impossible.

    I disagree. Many authors have incredibly useful things to say in their writing. My advice is to read better books and literary criticisms if this has not been your experience.
     
  17. Dec 5, 2013 #16

    AlephZero

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    If it keeps cosmologists away from playing with anything dangerous, that might help :biggrin:

    But re the OP's question, the same is true of most papers in scientific journals. You read them, put in some effort to understand them, and eventually figure out they are either just plain wrong, or irrelevant to what you wanted to know about. That's my personal experience, anyway.

    But that doesm't mean that looking for a prince among the frogs is a complete waste of time and effort!
     
  18. Dec 5, 2013 #17
    If by giving insight to human condition and philosophy, you mean giving insight to how the brain/mind works, then there are better ways to do so i.e. the scientific method: neuroscience. Furthermore, some of what I've read from English research papers isn't even what the author intended so I fail to see how that would give one insight to the author's mind and thought process.

    If by philosophy you mean general problems "connected with with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language," then I fail to see how it is not just speculation. I am ignorant on philosophy but has there ever been an application of philosophy to the real world?

    So you're saying that the notion of consciousness was developed from academic papers in literature? Do you have a source? According to Wikipedia, the first peer-reviewed publication was in 1665 and Descartes (1596-1650) was toying with the notion of consciousness and he died before the first peer-reviewed publication.

    This is just mathematical research.

    Why not? Can you provide a counter-example?

    I have yet to see a demonstration of this that has resulted in a meaningful result for the world.

    The only one that has managed to convince me why literature research should continue to exist is jtbell.
     
  19. Dec 5, 2013 #18

    WannabeNewton

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    This thread is pointless now; you can't beat stubborn ignorance.
     
  20. Dec 5, 2013 #19

    jgens

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    This is a naive position. Neuroscience is absolutely fantastic for answering certain types of questions and no doubt it provides valuable insight into the workings of the mind. But where literature shines and neuroscience fails is to actually make you feel something. If you want to understand, say depression, then you can take a very clinical approach and look to science to explain what parts of your brain chemistry are responsible. This will be particularly conducive to creating medications and treatments, but it does not help you understand what that person is going through. It does not show how depression affects people on a human level. It does not show how long-term depression has a tendency to warp an individual's world-view and perception of self. This is the kind of stuff that literature is great at explaining.

    It is nearly impossible to write a serious work of literature without projecting aspects of your particular world-view in some way or another. Sometimes this is intentional but other times it is not.

    To fully explain the following example would require too long a digression, so if you are not satisfied by what follows, then my apologies: In my opinion, one of the most pressing philosophical issues of modern times concerns the role of entertainment in our lives. Whether the issue is real or just perceived and what can be done about it is entirely speculative. That does not mean the question is not worth examining.

    Depends on what you mean by application. Can you build an iPhone with it? Certainly not. But advances in philosophy are reflected in our common cultural paradigm.

    No not in literature technically but pretty close. The point was more that advances in any academic field tend to affect the way we understand the world.

    I refer you to the paragraph above.

    In the past literature has influenced our world-views and so, in the spirit of empiricism you so love, it would be reasonable to suppose that it will continue to do so in the future.

    Because you are looking for meaningful results in all the wrong places. The fact is that literature (and this goes for literary criticism as well) is crucially important for understanding other people. The fact is that literature documents the paradigms and social attitudes and problems of the past. The fact is that literature influences how we as a society view things like love and heroism. All of this seems useful to me.

    Edit: This is actually a great point another member made (they can claim credit if they want). I forgot to add this earlier, but aside from purely documenting societal issues, literature can also help effect social change. An example of this is provided pretty concretely by Uncle Tom's Cabin. So again lit has its own utility.
     
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2013
  21. Dec 5, 2013 #20

    Ryan_m_b

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    +1 to everything jgens has said, especially towards the comment that neuroscience is a better way of studying the human condition than a humanity or even sociology academic field.

    To the OP really the only way for this thread to continue is if you to define what you mean by "value" and propose a way to measure it. From the vague and arbitrary sense you have used it for so far one could argue that 99% of science has no value now. We might as well cut back to the bear necessities of medical research and little else by the logic used here.
     
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