Interview with Professor Christopher Newfield

British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow famously delivered a lecture, The Two Cultures, in 1959, wherein he postulated that the intellectual life of the whole of western society is split into the sciences and the humanities – a major hindrance to solving global problems.

This concept continues to prevail today — particularly in the way scientific research is valued and shared – and Christopher Newfield is determined to help overturn it. I’ve never been very good at staying in a silo, and I’m opposed to the STEM versus non-STEM cultures that we’ve inherited not just from Snow, but also from the last 500 years of Western intellectual history.

Newfield is committed to helping to build knowledge landscapes that are appropriate to and welcoming to the full populations of countries, rather than just the narrower traditional groups that have always gone to university, he says. We also need bibliometric and contemporary knowledge-management systems that can create a place for arts and humanities and qualitative social sciences knowledge.

Newfield posits that current metrics and rankings systems often change how academic programs are developed, structuring them towards specific metrics rather than what academics care about. Research has found that people have to do what they most want to do on the side or undercover, he says. For example, legal clinic work may not be promoted in a U.S. law school’s public profile because it’s not valued in standard rankings, and thus could be seen as an expenditure that isn’t going towards improving the ranking. The result is a misalignment of incentives.

In this vein, his latest research, Limits of the Numerical: Higher Education in the Age of Metrics, which received a two-year grant from the US National Endowment for the Humanities, explores the impact of learning and research measurement on higher education.

As a member of the ICSR board, Newfield is eager to explore ways to make visible work that is currently invisible under traditional metrics and rankings systems – in particular, studies of societal and cultural issues such as climate change and migration, continuous low-level warfare, and the decline of the diplomacy system – all of which involve both technical and non-technical knowledge. We need a more holistic understanding of these different types of knowledge that will allow us to look at them not just through one lens, but through many.

That understanding will emerge from group deliberation among different types of researchers, leading to more inclusive decision-making, Newfield believes. Single-unit meetings at one institution are not really good for that, he says. Discussions are fragmented and often decisions have to be made before people even know what’s going on. There’s a lot of advocacy of positions rather than listening.

With open discussion and communication at the core of ICSR, Newfield is hopeful that significant progress can be made in going beyond numbers, and creating integrated metrics that more accurately reflect the work that researchers at all levels and in all disciplines are doing to address some of society’s key challenges.

Portrait of prof Chris Newfield | Elsevier

Christopher Newfield is Professor of literature and American studies in the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He earned his PhD in English literature at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.