On impact

This post is, by my ad-hoc self-imposed standard, a week late. Where’ve I been? To Texas, to Texas, for ASTR: that’s the annual meeting of the American Society for Theatre Research. Aside from being an excellent excuse for three days of barbecue, chilli and margaritas, ASTR this year featured a glorious celebration of one of the most influential, thoughtful, and eclectic scholar-teacher-activists in my field: Professor Jill Dolan.

Jill supervised my postdoctoral research at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005; she’s also been mentor and friend to, and vigorous defender of, a large number of my friends and colleagues in the discipline of theatre and performance studies, both younger and older. She deserves a place on countless teaching genealogies, not least because of the exceptional work she’s done in recent years on her performance blog, The Feminist Spectator, which was named after her important 1988 book The Feminist Spectator as Critic, and which has just spawned a new volume of its own, The Feminist Spectator in Action.

Thinking about Jill now, I always think first about her blog; I often read it over lunch, to see what she’s been watching (at the theatre and on TV and at the movies), and to admire her accessible yet rigorous style. She gets it just right, I think; The Feminist Spectator (which is, in many ways, a model for this blog, and for several academic blogs in my field, I’d wager) seeks to cut across audience demographics, and makes the crucial, generous assumption that every audience member is a critical one, interested on some level in thinking deeply about the material he or she watches, even if that spectator doesn’t realise it in the moment (while enjoying the show, which we all should do, of course). As it addresses all comers with its open, even-handed tone, its forceful critique, and its deliberately feminist engagement, the blog “smartens up” rather than dumbs down contemporary entertainment and insists its readers are absolutely smart enough to “get it”. And, in that, I guess The Feminist Spectator “has impact”.

What’s impact? This question tears the hair out of academics working in the UK these days. We’ve all just (about) finished a massive, top-down governmental audit of our research practices and outputs (that’s books and articles to me and you!) called the REF (“research excellence framework”), and one of the most important measures in this year’s REF (accounting for 20% of individual department scores and, according to the Guardian, spawning a new industry thereby!) is “impact”. Research impact is both a superficially clear concept – it means to have a measurable effect on people and groups (and companies…) outside the academy – and a deeply fraught one. Is being interviewed on the BBC “impact”? What if nobody is listening? Is speaking to large gatherings of non-academics “impact”? What if nobody takes any notes? Is spearheading scientific research designed to drive fresh product development or manufacturing innovation “impact”? What if nobody “buys” what the research is selling? For each of these, the answer is moot until we get the results of the REF next year; the question that remains in the air, though, is: whose impact is better (more impactful?) than others?

At this question’s prompt, I’m reminded of something that “impact” absolutely is not: one’s own teaching. Our teaching “outputs” do not count toward our REF submissions; writing a book about teaching, for example, is useless as far as the REF (and thus your department’s monetary investments in individual researchers’ REF potential) is concerned. Perversely, if I speak about my research on the radio or on TV, that work is naturally considered “impact” (even if nobody listens); if I deliver the same talk to my students in a seminar, with all of them taking notes (and then taking their learning out into the world) that work is not.

How utterly ridiculous – of course. And I have no doubt, personally, that the reason the former counts as “impact” and the latter does not has to do with money, plain and simple – with who spends what money where, and with how that spending gets counted by the systems that govern the funding of higher education in the neoliberal state. But I also have to laugh at the Kafka-esque nature of the REF’s relationship to teaching, because talented scholars like Jill Dolan, who “impact” diverse constituencies with their work every single day, make very little distinction between teaching and research labour, and indeed likely think – as I do – of teaching as the most impactful labour they do, in a huge variety of forums. So I’d like to raise a toast (make mine a margarita, on the rocks, please!) to Jill, and to everything she has taught her colleagues in theatre and performance studies, gender studies, and queer studies, as well as her many and varied readers far and wide: about how we talk to one another, both inside and outside the academy and both inside and outside the classroom; about how that teaching labour is both pleasurable and activist; and about how that labour is absolutely, unequivocally, a form of research. Which we must carry on. Because, REF it or not, it damn well has impact.

Cake

With spirit,

Kim

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About Kim Solga

I am a university professor currently based in London, southwestern Ontario, half way between Toronto and Detroit. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. I am a feminist, both intellectually and politically; I believe that my research makes its greatest impact in the classroom. On Wordpress, I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.

2 thoughts on “On impact

  1. Hi Kim
    Just want to say I agree heartily on all points – about Jill- and about teaching and the idea of ‘impact’. best Gerry

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