Rethinking humane indicators of excellence in the humanities and social sciences

On “The Value of Values” Workshop, Part 1

On “The Value of Values” Workshop, Part 1

During the 2016 TriangleSCI, the HuMetricsHSS team spent a lot of time making lists. Lists of scholarly objects, large and small. Articles, books, syllabi, annotations, editions, committee minutes, e-mails, and blog posts. We even grappled with how to represent the “object” that comes out of the practice of mentoring. Then, we created lists of the fine-grained practices that bring those objects into being–what are the decisions and actions that comprise the steps in the creation of a scholarly object, and what does such a list reveal about the minute collaborations and transactions that take place in our scholarly community to create an object? And, finally, we brainstormed lists of values that inform and guide the work that we do. Eventually, after much debate, we sketched out a set of five core values of enriching scholarship–Equity, Openness, Collegiality, Quality, Community–each with a handful of subvalues that help explain their context and potential use. We blogged throughout that process, and invite you to review those posts for additional detail.

A clear result from discussions we had with our fellow attendees at TriangleSCI was the need to test the value of the set of values we developed. Could we presume these values were universal? (We could not.) How might we craft a framework that allowed for adaptability if not universality? (Certainly not by drawing solely on the experiences of the core team.) Could statements of values serve as markers of aspiration, rather than traps that limit scholarly invention? (That is the plan.) What potential indicators and evaluation practices could exist if we started from a set of values, rather than starting simply from what we could measure? (If nothing else, practices that better represented the work in the humanities and social sciences). These are just a few of the questions that shaped a recent workshop the team held at Michigan State University.

From October 5-7, nearly two dozen scholars, social scientists, librarians, and administrators from across the country joined the HuMetricsHSS team in East Lansing, Michigan, for “The Value of Values Workshop,” supported generously by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The workshop had several goals. First, it was meant to interrogate the values the core team had established at TriangleSCI so pathways toward a more robust framework could be identified. Second, it was meant to test the process by which we arrived at those values, by forcing us to teach the method and lead others through it. Third–and most importantly–we were to listen to others, and learn from experiences and backgrounds that far exceeded our own. Finally, the workshop was meant to assess our own values framework as we attempted to adopt it in the creation and deployment of the workshop itself. The remainder of this post will address the third and fourth goals, and future posts will address the other points.

Nicky thoughtfully captured our attempts to integrate the values framework in the planning process for the workshop–see her On Living Our Values While Under Stress (and Preparing for Workshop One)–and importantly highlights intentionality as a key motivation to use the HuMetricsHSS framework. The framework is meant to encourage moments of reflection in the creation of a scholarly object or in the performance of a scholarly practice, considering questions not only of audience and purpose, but of the values that drive the work. Any set of competing values lead to tradeoffs, and that was no less true as we organized this meeting. In the original conception of the workshop, we thought we would invite speakers and participants, but we quickly realized that such an arrangement failed to meet our own professed value for openness and equity. On the other hand, we faced pragmatic questions such as limited space and budget for supporting travel. Our solution was an open call for participation that included deliberate outreach to potential applicants who could bring diverse perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds to the conversation. We asked people to write brief statements with an eye toward creativity and originality in how they spoke about why the workshop was of interest to them. We decided that we would not record or livestream the conversations, which might have hindered some participants from speaking freely or openly (aligning with our value of candor, and balancing it with openness). However, the core team also took on assignments to live-tweet and later blog the workshop so we could share progress with a wider community. This allowed us both to live up to our value of openness and also to provide participants a means to opt-out of having their words reported. In order to make sure that our voices did not dominate the proceedings, we brought in a facilitator. And when participants asked for even more say in the proceedings at one crucial moment, we all–including the facilitator–worked carefully with the participants to include them actively in shaping the rest of the sessions in a way that would move the conversation forward both for our needs and theirs.

There were moments where values competed, with no clear resolution, which was a valuable lesson in seeing the values framework operate in practice. Some participants found our attempts to broaden equity and inclusivity–through mechanisms such as a code of conduct and a means to indicate their pronoun preference–to conflict with their own perspectives on equity and collegiality. Here, as at other times during the meeting, values were contested (and in one exercise, literally tossed on the floor): in their degrees of importance, their valence of meaning, and their method of implementation. We are reminded that a significant danger remains in how values can be exploited to assert or reaffirm power dynamics. However, participants seemed to agree that the values framework–as a marker of intentionality and reflection–created a productive space and mechanism for conversation and even disagreement about these topics.

By the end of the workshop, every breakout group had established their own values framework, and while we are still evaluating where the groups’ frameworks aligned (or not), it is safe to say that each was unique and there was plenty of disagreement about what core values should be. However, every group appeared to agree that the process of creating their values framework was an important exercise in making more explicit their shared norms and goals, and it allowed them to discuss their own work–and others–in a more fluid and productive way. And several noted that after going through the process of creating their own values framework, they felt better equipped to work with (and interrogate, and adopt) such a framework, even if it was one created by others and even if the framework differed from their own.

We return to the questions that prompted the workshop: could we presume these values were universal, and might we craft a framework that allowed for adaptability if not universality? That we cannot assert the universality of a single set of values is an unsurprising finding given a diverse room of humanities scholars and social scientists.  However, while the workshop prompted active and productive debate on the arrangement of values and their relative worth (which values should be prioritized over another, for example), it also provoked a kind of consensus that values, however arranged, provided a worthwhile lens to think through questions of metrics and impact.  More than one person remarked that the HuMetricsHSS approach gave them language to take back to their institutional conversations about metrics, particularly where they felt that indicators for sciences were universally and uncritically being adopted for the humanities and social sciences.  One clear outcome from the meeting was a call from participants for the HuMetricsHSS team to make explicit the process we facilitated so that it could be replicated on campuses and other communities, work that is already underway.  In a future blog post, we will describe in greater detail the framing and activities for the workshop, which could be adopted in other contexts.



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