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The Limits of the Numerical: Metrics and the Humanities In Higher Education

Funding Source:  National Endowment for the Humanities
Principal Investigator: Dr. Chris Newfield, Professor English
Post Doctoral Scholar: Dr. Heather Steffan

Numerical systems now measure outcomes in all major dimensions of university life and higher education. The project focuses on three areas in which quantitative and qualitative modes of thinking come into conflict:

  1. research bibliometrics,
  2. learning outcomes assessment
  3. debates over the value of higher education

In each of these areas, qualitative analyses are being supplemented and even replaced by quantitative metrics that are regarded as objective, comparative, and external to the practices and relationships being evaluated. In the first area, faculty research productivity and performance are gauged less by peers than by bibliometrics systems relying on citation counts, impact factors, and journal rankings. In the second, the assessment of student learning increasingly hinges not on college teachers’ local knowledge but on outcomes measures developed by foundations and consultants. In the third, discussions of the value of higher education for students and society are predominantly framed by economic considerations—particularly return on investment calculations as measured by personal income some years from graduation—that have progressively drawn attention away from the university’s less quantifiable humanistic purposes of self-development, knowledge of cultural and artistic traditions, and the advancement of humanity as a whole. The project seeks to provide a basis for expanding humanities understandings of metrics, measurement, and indicators in higher education by developing a historical and cultural theory of metrics in higher education that can account for universities’ and colleges’ adoption of quantitative measures and offer humanistic methods for evaluating their educational and research impacts. We are particularly concerned with their impact on humanities disciplines and with the ability of humanities disciplines to develop responses that grow out of our own methodologies. In what follows, we describe how we will examine the origins and current operation of three areas of measurement discourse—research bibliometrics, learning outcomes assessment, and the value of college education—and investigate alternative models for improving research productivity and learning quality. 

Broadly, we address three questions about each area:

  1. How were the relevant metrics developed and adopted?
  2. How have the relevant metrics affected the humanities disciplines?
  3. How could these metrics be replaced or supplemented with other methods of assessment that better reflect the work of humanities disciplines?

Our project seeks to provide a basis for expanding humanities understandings of metrics,
measurement, and indicators in higher education by developing a historical and cultural theory of metrics
in higher education that can account for universities’ and colleges’ adoption of quantitative measures and
offer humanistic methods for evaluating their educational and research impacts. We are particularly
concerned with their impact on humanities disciplines and with the ability of humanities disciplines to
develop responses that grow out of our own methodologies. In what follows, we describe how we will
examine the origins and current operation of three areas of measurement discourse—research
bibliometrics, learning outcomes assessment, and the value of college education—and investigate
alternative models for improving research productivity and learning quality.

We will develop a theory of how metrics affect the humanities and higher education by aligning our three areas to generalize about how metrics enter and behave in universities and how countermeasures succeed or fail. Employing a combination of literary analysis techniques, oral history, philosophical reading, and cultural theories of institutions will allow us to explain how metrics function as organizational instrument and as narrative and rhetorical strategies. How, we ask, do metrics change and shape the stories of aspiration, innovation, and democratization that define U.S. higher education?