Created By: on 01.10.1999 at 16:39
| Assessment Report / Aesthetics|
Category: 21 Art Research Category2: Aesthetics, Assessment Reports
UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI
RESEARCH ASSESSMENT EXERCISE 1999
PANEL 21. ART RESEARCH
1. GENERAL COMMENTS
1.1. Thanks and congratulations
We are honoured to have been invited to contribute to Helsinki University=s research assessment exercise, and should like to thank the University for the friendly welcome and generous hospitality we have received during out site visits.
We congratulate the University on having devoted so much care and attention to the well-being of the units we have been inspecting. In many respects their resources are very good indeed, and they are especially fortunate to carry out their daily work in a physical environment at once so beautiful and lovingly preserved. Also from the point of view of organization, we have the impression that the University has been taking its responsibilities seriously, and we are specially struck by the new institutional framework for art research, which seems very much to the liking of most of the scholars involved. In our view, it has great potential for future development.
Above all, however, we have been very favourably impressed by the units themselves. Much of their published research is of a very high standard, and their members of staff show a true love of their subjects, a strong sense of dedication, and commendable energy.
1.2. The balance of responsibility
At the same time, it is quite obvious that some units, when judged by the criteria the University has asked us to apply, have not been performing too well. Our reports on the individual departments will apply the criteria as strictly and clearly as possible, and this may well give some units food for thought.
In our opinion, however, the units which have problems may not bear the sole responsibility for the present state of affairs. We are wondering whether questions might also have to be asked about the larger academic milieu within which they are operating. It seems to us that certain issues may call for consideration at the University=s higher levels of decision-making, and that the University should perhaps ask itself whether, despite its praiseworthy and very concrete commitment to humanities subjects, it is in every respect living up to its own high ideals.
By way of introduction to some more particular comments on this (1.3-8 below), we should like to offer the following general observation.
If subject areas such as Finnish- and Swedish-language literature in Finland, Finnish art and architecture, theatre in Finland, and Finnish musicology were allowed to decline in Helsinki, it would be unrealistic to hope that other universities will be able to fill the gap. On the contrary, the University of Helsinki can surely be said to have a quite unique cultural and social responsibility here.
1.3. The culture-bearing role of humanities subjects
Much of the most important work done by the units we have examined does not show up in the kind of evaluation we have been asked to carry out. Quite simply, it does not take the form of front-line research publications. We are not suggesting that these units should be allowed to produce fewer front-line research publications. On the contrary, the University would in our view be perfectly justified in hoping for more pioneer research in certain areas. Yet the fact remains: Helsinki University has had a long tradition of scholars in humanities subjects who have also played a significant role in the more general cultural life of the country. In a way which foreign visitors often comment upon, these distinguished men and women have contributed to a high level of public debate, and to a widespread interest in languages and the arts. Finland can justly claim to be a civilized country, and a due share of the credit for this must go to Helsinki University.
In the units we have visited, there are still gifted scholars who are shouldering this vital task. Yet the subtext of the message they are sometimes getting nowadays, and not least from this evaluation exercise itself, is that such activity is not really very important at all.
If, as we fear, there is indeed a problem here, the blame can hardly be shifted onto the Ministry of Education. If the Ministry of Education=s own way of distributing funding is unenlightened, the University should in our view say so, loudly and clearly. The University=s internal distribution of funding is in any case its own responsibility.
We repeat: there can be no question of the culture-bearing role being seen as an alternative to front-line research. On the contrary, of the units we have seen, the one which at present is performing best according to the evaluation criteria is also the one which has been doing most in the way of essential cultural work in society at large, particularly in the form of truly excellent Finnish-language publications for a broad audience. Yet even this quite outstanding unit has now been forced to cut down on such activity for purely economic reasons.
1.4. Support for internationalization
The University has asked us to make allowances for the fact that the most obvious audience for publications on the so-called national subjects is in Finland, and that the language of publication for much of their front-line research is therefore likely to be Finnish or Swedish. This seems to us a very sensible consideration.
At the same time, however, we are pleased to report that the scholars we have been talking to would be keen to get a wider international exposure for their work, and that this applies not only to scholars in subjects such as art history and comparative literature, where a serious scholar should certainly have an ambition to publish in an international language, but in the national subjects as well. We think this reflects credit on the scholars themselves and the University. It means that Helsinki scholars really want to do their bit to ensure that people in other countries get a reliable impression of cultural life in Finland.
What we are wondering, however, is whether scholars are receiving appropriate kinds of moral and economic support here. More particularly, some scholars will inevitably need help in getting their ideas and findings into a truly attractive and persuasive form in one of the major international languages, and some of them would probably welcome a chance to improve their skills in academic writing in, say, English. Also, the University could well consider the possibility of establishing a humanities translation fund, whose importance could be compared to financing a new and effective scientific instrument for the Alaboratory sciences@. Furthermore, the University could perhaps itself make a major new initiative in international publication activity, either in the form of a fully developed Helsinki University Press, or through cooperation with established publishers in Finland and elsewhere, with various funding bodies, and perhaps with other Finnish and Nordic universities as well.
As a gloss on this last suggestion, we can mention that books published in Finnish scholarly series are sometimes classified by British and American libraries as periodicals. This means that some very learned and beautifully produced volumes of Helsinki research are less than readily accessible, simply because of the way they get catalogued.
Similarly, the fact that most Finnish doctoral disputations still take place on the basis of a published book means that in other countries they may be poorly received or even totally ignored. Many foreign reviewers expect a doctoral thesis to be published, if at all, after the degree has been awarded. This means that the text can be revised, and also made a bit more readable.
Here we are not suggesting that Finnish scholars in the humanities should be even older before getting their first major work into print. On the contrary, we think that the requirements a doctoral thesis is expected to fulfil in the humanities are sometimes unrealistically high, both as regards scope and finish, so slowing young people down and making them uncompetitive in the international academic job market of the future. (Please see further comments on doctoral theses below.)
But clearly, with the number of doctoral disputations steadily increasing, the University may well have a responsibility to see that only the best theses get published in book form, and that these become available through channels, and in a form, which will attract the widest possible readership.
Interestingly, the most successful of the departments we have examined has already established a fairly regular connection with a major university press in United States, with whom they jointly publish some of their most important works. This already suggests one kind of model for the humanities, which the University could perhaps seek to encourage by positive assistance.
1.5. Scholarship and gender
Like other universities in Finland, Helsinki University has an extremely serious gender problem in the humanities. This is part of, and contributes to, a problem in Finnish society as a whole. We are strongly of the opinion that the University has a crucial role to play in trying to counteract the very damaging polarization of Finnish social, cultural and intellectual life into masculine/feminine, hard/soft, science/humanities.
In the units we have visited, there are very few male students and researchers indeed. This is disastrous for women, because it means that the subject areas concerned, and the professional openings they lead to, are regarded as women=s branches, and therefore offer low pay and poor job security. For men, it is perhaps even more disastrous. It means there is a huge social and peer pressure on boys to study anything but the humanities, so that many of them probably end up pursuing studies and careers to which they are less than perfectly suited. For Finnish men, the threshold to humanistic studies is so high that those of them who do cross it are sometimes extremely highly motivated and perform exceptionally well. For Finnish society as a whole, one of the most obvious consequences of the unfavourable gender ratio is that the majority of schoolteachers are women.
We should not recommend a policy of positive discrimination for men in the humanities subjects. This would be unjust to women, and would in any case probably backfire. But we do think that, through a variety of well-planned and co-ordinated measures, the country=s leading university, ought to be able to get across the message that the humanities are for everybody. This is clearly an issue for the entire University to think about, since if the number of male humanists were to go up, the gender balance in other faculties would probably be affected as well.
If the units we have studied could be encouraged and fully backed up in an effort to break out of this tragic vicious circle, we are sure that their entire working atmosphere and sense of social mission would be radically improved. So much so, that their research quality and productivity could also be expected to rise.
1.6. The procedure for professorial appointments
In at least one of the units we have examined, the disappointing statistics for doctoral disputations are partly linked to discontinuities of staffing at the professorial level. A long interregnum between the retirement of one professor and the appointment of a successor can have very serious consequences. We would suggest that, as a perfectly normal procedure, the Deans of Faculties ought to indicate to professors that they are expected, for the good of their own department, to hand in their resignation at least two years before their actual retirement. This should be enough to ensure a smooth change-over
1.7. Job cuts
Some of the units we have examined are suffering very badly from job cuts, or are living in the fear that cuts may be coming in the future. Even if cuts are sometimes unavoidable, and even if efficiency is bound to be one of the relevant criteria, it is important that a unit should not be hit by a serious cut at the very moment when it is in the process of significantly improving its performance. Nothing could be more demoralizing and counterproductive.
1.8. Acceptance of proposals for doctoral theses by the Faculty Board
We have seen one or two signs that the Faculty Board regards the acceptance of proposals for doctoral theses as a routine matter not requiring much discussion. Ideally, the Faculty Board should be trying to check that doctoral students are tackling realistic and well-planned tasks, that they have the benefit of all the relevant on-site wisdom, and that all the different departments have roughly similar expectations in terms of the scope and quality of work involved. In saying this we are not criticizing the proposals supported by any particular professors. The point is merely that in academic, no less than in medical matters, a second and third and fourth opinion can sometimes be helpful. Professors interested in their students= welfare will only welcome an increased element of collegiality in these matters. After all, the theses produced are an advertisement for the entire Faculty.
The Department of Aesthetics has had a very dynamic and productive record for the five year period. It produced five doctoral degrees, two of them in the past year. Some of the research is at a high international level. The chair of the Department seems to be a very good leader and he seems able to inspire confidence in the Department through his own expert publication record.
The Department is well connected to the study of philosophy at the University, although it historically has been a sub-area of the Department of Comparative Literature. Its major areas of interest are in philosophical aesthetics. It seems to feel itself as closely oriented to philosophy, and tends to treat aesthetics as a sub-discipline of philosophy.The work is solidly grounded in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, but its two leading researchers seem at the moment to be moving towards European phenomenology (especially Heidegger) and to environmental issues and perhaps other areas where aesthetics meets practical issues.
All but two of the fourteen publications are in English; many in well known journals of philosophy or with publishers of international standing. The department has a sturdy research connection with the Institute of Applied Aesthetics in Lahti that publishes some of their books and hosts conferences and summer schools for their use.
The Department has also had a series of nationally and internationally funded research projects of which some have already terminated in publications. There have been two dynamic research projects devoted to interpretation, and another project about the Unity and Distinction of Aesthetics and Ethics, which deserves attention for its international potentialities. They also have one whole issue per year of the journal Synteesi devoted to aesthetics.
It might be good for the Department to have more cooperation with the Philosophy Department. But it would also be useful to develop closer contacts to the contemporary art scene in Finland. The number of students is significant of the appeal of the Department’s teaching. The teachers have a solid grounding in philosophy and theory in general, as well as in aesthetic theory. The Department could also more usefully supply the research training in art theory that some of the other Departments in the Art Research Institute are now providing for themselves. But the team still very much needs new members.
In sum, the Department of Aesthetics may be considered as belonging to the top 25 per cent of comparable departments in Europe. Its activity opens up the possibility of a wide field of exchange with other academic research centres in Europe.
Present rating: 6
3. THE HELSINKI POTENTIAL, AND HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF IT
3.1. The quality of the students
In all the units we have examined, there is no shortage of excellent research students, who have a very solid and broad-based humanistic education behind them.
3.2.The special Finnish profile
Helsinki scholars in the areas we have been examining share a most distinctive profile, which means that they have a quite exceptional contribution to make to international research. This profile has two main aspects.
On the one hand, scholars have extensive and specialized knowledge of Finnish culture itself, a topic which is of far greater potential interest to the rest of the world than most of them seem prepared to recognize.
On the other hand, they all have what, by British, French, German or American standards, is a most extraordinarily cosmopolitan flexibility of mind. This is intimately bound up with their language skills. They have the experience of operating in two minority languages, are for the most part extremely fluent in English, German and French, and often have a working knowledge of some other languages as well. In many other parts of the world, by contrast, even Comparative Literature specialists sometimes base much of their research on texts in translation. Scholars elsewhere simply do not have the Helsinki scholars= effortless ability to navigate, mediate and form new intellectual fusions between the thought- and life-worlds of different cultural traditions.
3.3. Helsinki University as a research milieu
Helsinki University is a large university, with a wide range of subjects, many of them doing research of major importance, and many of them sharing particular kinds of interest. The physical environment is also exceptionally attractive, and the location at the heart of the beautiful capital city of a beautiful country, within easy reach of other major centres, is also an invaluable asset.
3.4. Realizing the potential
Certainly within the subject areas we have examined, there is no reason why Helsinki University should not realize its full potential and become one of the world=s leading universities. In the field of Musicology it has in our view already achieved this, and some of the other units could well be at the same level in five years= time.
3.5. The University=s share of the responsibility
In Section 1 above we have already explained our view of what further measures the University=s higher-level decision-makers could take in order to give the departments the support they need and deserve.
3.6. On-site cooperation
At present, the departments we have visited are almost totally ignoring their single greatest resource: each other, and other departments as well. The new national graduate schools and other large projects may provide important fora for young researchers cooperating with scholars from other universities. But there is no real substitute for a well-functioning home base.
We strongly recommend that the Faculty institute compulsory, credit-carrying research seminars in which students from different departments would meet on a regular basis, and probably use English as the language of discussion. The great benefit of this would be twofold. It would be important for their intellectual development. And it would give the kind of peer pressure and peer support which they need if they are to develop the necessary skills of oral self-presentation.
We quite understand that some cooperation already takes place between different departments. But this is bound to be sporadic, and can never maximize the enormous on-site potential. The seminars would have to be imaginatively planned so as to suit the interests of particular students at any given time. Not all students would necessarily have to attend every seminar. And the seminars could be team-taught, or at least team-planned, by groups of professors, among whom the responsibility for chairing the sessions could rotate.
3.7. Self-confidence and ambition
As for the departments themselves, a fundamental change of attitude is needed. Almost without exception, the scholars we have met seriously underestimate their own importance. What they need to come to terms with is the point we make in Section 3.2 above. There is, in fact, a most striking paradox here. There can be very few other places in the world where scholars are so cosmopolitan in their knowledge, skills and mind-style. Yet it is difficult to imagine scholars who are more nervous about leaving home, both metaphorically and literally.
Individual Helsinki scholars should
* leave desk-top publishing behind them;
* get themselves published through the major international journals and publishing houses;
* travel more, should further develop their skills of oral self-presentation in order to be effective at international gatherings;
* attract foreign visitors and students to Helsinki;
*and be ready and willing to spend at least some of their career in foreign countries.
Professors, and the Faculty Board as a collegial body, should ensure
* that research is planned in such a way as to make the most of the special Finnish profile (as described in section 3.2 above);
* that research workers do not waste time and energy on publications which are neither genuine popularizations of knowledge nor front-line research;
* and that research workers, instead of spending years reading up on everything that has ever been written on every tiny detail even remotely connected with their interests, discipline themselves to a realistic but not over-indulgent timetable for completing their work, which in turn means that they must formulate clear and realistic research questions at an early stage, so that they will know what they are looking for when actually carrying out the research.
Irmeli Niemi (chair)
Roger D. Sell
Professors Michael Ann Holly and Richard Shusterman were not present when the final docu-ments were signed, but have indicated their approval by e-mail.