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Utrecht University Humanities Graduate Conference

Parallel sessions (12.04)

The parallel sessions are formed with the (Re)Ma students’ and PhDs’ presentations, grouped into 4 panels.

Panels Overview

Panel 1: The Humanities and Institutional Politics
Dennis Jansen
Mario Cunningham Matamoros
Sarah Barker

Panel 2: What do Humanities Contribute?
Robin Riemersma
Job Boot
Betty van Dongen
Rianne Piening

Panel 3: Interdisciplinarity
Max Giesbergen
Martijn van der Klis
Rutger van Oeveren
Wim Mol

Panel 4: Scholarship and the Public
Tamalone van den Eijnden
Tom Breedveld
Adriaan Walpot




Panel 1: The Humanities and Institutional Politics

Dennis Jansen: ‘So Much for the Tolerant Humanities?’

How should Humanities scholars navigate the tense political landscape in an age of personalized news feeds, online disinformation campaigns, and cultural backlash against progressive ideas and policies? It is no secret that the university is under attack and that the Humanities are taking a significant portion of the blows being dealt. Humanities scholars are being questioned for their supposedly overwhelming left-wing inclination and the shoddy scholarship this presumedly produces—exemplified recently by the ‘grievance studies affair’. While it is dangerous to treat such arguments as if they are being made entirely in good faith, we cannot neglect to respond in some fashion to the claims that are made and to the political context in which these criticisms situate themselves. Moreover, we should not ignore the fact that these viewpoints find support within the faculty as well, and must simultaneously be mindful that we do not exclude anyone from good-faith conversations about issues like those relating to diversity and social (in)justice, at the risk of alienating skeptics altogether.
In this talk, I would like to offer some personal reflections on how scholars in the Humanities should approach discussions of politically sensitive topics in- and outside the classroom. I do not want to suggest that we let go of our general inclination towards inclusivity and progressivism—in fact, I believe this is vital to upholding the university’s proclaimed values of freedom, accessibility, and universal human rights, even if we do not always manage to practice what we preach. Based on my own experiences as both student and teacher in the Humanities, I argue that we need an approach that is more self-conscious about our own political shortcomings and more attuned to the strategic requirements that the current political moment calls for.

Mario Cunningham Matamoros: ‘The Myths of Universality. A Pragmatist Critique of Decolonial Thought’

There are several ways in which disciplines in the humanities approach the realm of politics. This varies among disciplines but also within one field of study. In this paper, I will reflect on two models of how Philosophy approaches politics: decolonial thought and pragmatism. I take these two models to be representative of trends that can be found within the study of politics in the humanities (methodologically speaking). I will expound on these two models, in the light of a general critique of the concept of universality – as introduced by modern European philosophy.
From a decolonial perspective, many fundamental concepts of modern philosophy (e.g., rationality, reason, and universality) worked as the underlying intellectual grounds that justify historical events like the colonization of the Americas. In other words, it was by using normative concepts like universality, that the conquerors could uphold their hegemonic discourse. If so, thoroughly overcoming this hegemonic discourse require from us the development of new ways of thinking universality.
From a pragmatist perspective, the concept of universality must be abandoned given the inconsistency of the metaphysical assumptions needed to make it work. As a general critique of metaphysics, pragmatism calls for a new way of doing Philosophy: Philosophy as cultural politics. From this framework, there is no need for universality in a world in which we can recognize the value of opening to other worldviews and having a debate in which also the modern European philosophical tradition have something to contribute. In other words, pragmatism calls for the democratization of Philosophy.
By contrasting these two models, I will set forth a more general discussion regarding the methodological aspects of the humanities in the study of politics. Finally, I will claim that the pragmatist approach has more to offers in terms of both what is expected of the humanities as an academic endeavor and the political impact that the humanities can have in democratic societies.

Sarah Barker: ‘Policy Impact on the Valuation of Arts: Consequences of the English Baccalaureate’

Are the arts optional or integral to education? This study will present various narratives that illustrate the impact of an English policy initiative on pedagogical practice, artistic spheres and public discourse. By illuminating the discrepancies between policy objectives and practical realities the analysis will then feed into the broader dialogue debating the value of arts in society.
In September 2012 the then secretary of state for education made recommendations to remove GCSE examinations and replace them with the English Baccalaureate – a programme measuring attainment in five core subjects. The initiative was scrapped after five months of fierce political and critical backlash. Yet today there are several performance measures including the Ebacc that are standard practice in school systems.
The debated value of arts subjects to education has remained constant in critical and public discourse over the intervening six-year timeline as supported by politicians, celebrities, and institutions. This is not a new argument, though by analysing the spaces between research, advocacy and practice depicted by individual realities the study will identify how, though seemingly unsuccessful on paper, this particular policy case has set a clear precedent in the perception of the public, politicians and school systems.

Panel 2: What do Humanities Contribute?

Robin Riemersma: ‘The First- and Second- and Third-person’

Many areas in contemporary academic research hold their capacity to be objective in high regard. Objectivity is often taken to mean the minimization of the role of the subject that does the research. The object should “speak” for itself without the interference of subjective qualities. This is achieved in many ways: stating and testing hypotheses before the research allows us to do away with retrospective explanations in physics, repeated experiments strive to do away with undetermined factors in psychology, quantitative methods and statistical analysis reduce variation in sociology and formal methodology forms a clear boundary for what an accepted argument is. I call this mode of knowledge a third-person mode of knowledge, as it centers around the object of knowledge while trying to do reduce the influence of the knower themselves. If the knower is studied, then they are studied as an object, that is, from the outside. In contrast to this, many areas in the humanities also tend to develop modes of knowledge that are centered around the role that the knower has. Here, the relation between the knower and the object of knowledge is facilitated by the very “subjective” aspects (culture, emotion, judgment) which third-person knowledge tries to abstract from. I will call this type of knowledge first- and second-person knowledge.
In my presentation, I will discuss two modes in which first- and second-knowledge plays an important role. The first will be hermeneutics as introduced by Schleiermacher and Dilthey: we need to be aware of our own values so that we can understand our relation to others who are differently constituted. This type of first- and second-person knowledge plays an important role in history, literature and gender studies and cannot seemingly be reduced to third-person knowledge. In fact, it complements it. The second form of first- and second-person knowledge can be found in those thinkers that strive to characterize the forms of being by looking at the essential forms of thought. I will discuss Aristotle and Hegel and show how their first- and second-personal ideas are currently used in a fruitful discussion with third-personal physics.

Job Boot: ‘The Humanities Today and Maurice Blanchot’s Exigency of Discontinuity’

“The master is destined,” Maurice Blanchot writes in an essay titled “Thought and the Exigency of Discontinuity,” “not to facilitate paths of knowledge, but above all to render them not only more difficult, but truly impracticable” (6). This statement, so contrary to the common discourse that exists around matters of education, is what I would like to further explore in my paper. Especially today, when we raise the question about the value of the humanities in terms of usefulness and productivity, Blanchot’s statement does not only seem more strange, but also more important. What is at stake in this relation described by Blanchot where the teacher’s fate seems to be contrary to what is commonly taken for his goal?
For Blanchot, this fate is not a failure but rather a prerogative. Indeed, Blanchot sees it as the opportunity to think plurally: to think thought as essentially plural. Indeed, when it becomes impossible for an object of knowledge—be it a fact or a concept—to be transferred perfectly from one interlocutor to the other, it becomes impossible to think the same thing in the same way. Of course, such continuity between interlocutors is the ideal of clear communication and its value need not be contested here. But nevertheless, I argue, it is this situation of radical impracticability, of inevitable discontinuity, which is proper to the humanities: to persistently question the conditions of thought makes impossible the perfect transference of knowledge. What matters in such questioning is not to think any singular truth but rather the interval that differentiates those who think. Such would be the exigency of discontinuity: to preserve the plurality of thought by persistently returning to it as a question rather than as an answer. Only then, it seems, can we keep open the conversation.

Betty van Dongen: ‘Creating masterminds at university’

This presentation argues for new interdisciplinary Master studies in universities, studies that can be filled in completely by choice from all disciplines to create specialized academic innovators. Challenges in society call for breakthrough research. In 2018 the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) started funding the National Research Agenda (NWA), covering all disciplines and focusing on the entire research chain. But is the academic world ready for this resilient future? Universities still work in discipline silos with specialized studies. Truly groundbreaking new concepts arise from combining information from different fields. The presentation will take you through examples of connectors. Then the pattern in these examples is applied to the idea of new interdisciplinary studies. The first example is in our human nature: with our senses we gather information, we hear, feel, see, taste things, and the information combined constitute a new concept in our mind (Jolicoeur, Lefebvre, & Martinez-Trujillo, 2016). Senses are specialized units in gathering information and the mind is specialized in combining the information. A second example is life hacker Martijn Aslander: a professional connector for people, information and ideas. He speaks at conferences, advises authorities and industry, and he connects groups. His knowledge of developments in a multitude of organizations enables him to provide new insights into major challenges instantly. From these examples we can conclude that source information and connections go together. There is not one without the other. How can we translate this to academic life? This argues for studies in which the future academic connectors are educated for a new valued skill set, in open-mindedness, soaking in knowledge and needs on the intersection of two or more disciplines, by learning, discussing, experiencing these disciplines. The Humanities could take their head start making interdisciplinarity structural utilizing the teachings from their many interdisciplinary studies, like my own field of Human Language Technology.

Rianne Penning: ‘The Humanities as a Counter to Computational Thinking’

Despite the promises of Big Data to make all knowledge computable – from the recognition of Rembrandt paintings to consumer behaviour – that same abundance of data erodes our trust in information. Fake news, alternative facts and Russian trolls are just a few of the symptoms of this trend. Starting from a dialogue between James Bridle’s The New Dark Age (2018), I will explore how the humanities offer indispensable tools for coping with this crisis of information. Bridle establishes in his book that the current belief that everything is calculable given enough data is not only false, but actively undermining our capacity to deal with the ever-growing uncertainties of knowledge in the digital age. He proposes the need for new conceptual models to keep afloat in this so-called ‘Dark Age’ of information uncertainty but remains vague on the specifics; I argue that the humanities offer precisely such a model, aimed at a flexible understanding of large bodies of non-calculable, ambiguous information that allows nuance and alteration. To support my argument, I will not only discuss several traditional interdisciplinary examples, like source criticism and visual literacy, but also turn around the ongoing discussion about the struggle of the digital humanities to quantify humanities’ subjects to suggest that therein lies, perhaps, precisely what makes the humanities unique and needed.

Panel 3: Interdisciplinarity

Max Giesbergen: ‘Generative Friction’

The paper I will be presenting focuses on the value of the Humanities by connecting Peter Szondi’s claims on the nature of knowledge—especially on how its relation to the humanities is a precarious one compared to other scientific disciplines—to the broader topic of interdisciplinarity. According to Szondi, the difference between the natural and humanistic sciences lies not in the way that they attain knowledge, because all knowledge is perpetuated Erkenntnis—literally, perpetuated knowledge, but more often translated as perpetually renewed understanding. Rather, what makes the knowledge of the Humanities fundamentally different lies not its essence, but in how it is enacted. Whereas other sciences see this understanding as a tool to facilitate knowledge, philological knowledge sees its purpose as lying in this constant renewal. Studying art thus demands and facilitates a distinct kind of knowledge not acknowledged by the natural sciences—more dynamic, less teleological; ‘understanding’ as a verb, not a noun. This inherently contains a critique against the wish for objectivity and the penchant for the Humanities to feel the need to seek validation through the scientific method, as their respective relations to knowledge are intrinsically disparate. This tendency is traceable to the categorizing imperative (i.e. knowledge is only valid if it can be systemized, codified, cataloged, and/or organized) popularised during the Enlightenment. The supposed potentiality of the scientific method to create more ‘valuable’ knowledge, entailed that the Humanities tried to fashion themselves in agreement with scientific designs. This paper, however, argues that the Humanities’ importance lies precisely in its specialism; that is, as long as it stays true to its own characterizing properties, its value lies in difference and the uniquely productive friction it generates. As relative motion between two distinct surfaces is requisite for friction, the singularity of its methods needs to be perpetuated in order for this value to be maintained—intradisciplinary integrity is vital to interdisciplinary friction. Keywords: perpetually renewed understanding, interdisciplinarity, friction, dialogism.

Martijn van der Klis: ‘Circumventing technical and social pitfalls in the Digital Humanities’

Over the last decade, the digital humanities have increased in popularity. With over 900 submissions, the DH2019 conference in Utrecht reflects this trend. While the digital humanities has the potential to further the field as a whole, it comes with a variety of pitfalls. These difficulties are not only related to data, algorithms and visualizations, but I will argue communication between researcher and programmer also forms an important bottleneck.
First of all, algorithms often act like black boxes to researchers (Kemman et al., 2013). Off-the-shelf bag-of-word-models like word clouds, topic modeling or word2vec do not capture the intricacies of the data, not only because they lack domain knowledge for the research field at hand, but also because they disregard linguistic notions like constituency and compositionality (e.g. Rogers et al. (2017)). Copyright issues can make data unavailable for sharing and results unverifiable (Hedstrom (1997), Terras (2012)). This latter point also holds for software, which generally has a very limited lifespan (Brügger and Finnemann, 2013).
Moreover, communication between the digital world of programming and the analogue reasoning of the humanities can frustrate both researcher and programmer. With experiences from both sides of the spectrum, I will argue that successful endeavors will need investments in management of expectations from the programmer and clear functional specifications (in the form of user stories) from the researcher. Ownership of the research questions should be shared by the programmer and the researcher, and can be enhanced by co-authorship.
All in all, digital humanities can only be a way forward if we not only recognize the inherent mismatch between the quantitative and the qualitative, but also between the two worlds of programmer and (humanities) researcher. Given such an environment, the pitfalls for the digital humanities concern not only interacting properly with the data, but also with each other.

Rutger van Oeveren: ‘Why the sciences cannot make do without the humanities’

In this paper, I argue for the indispensability of the humanities for the sciences. In doing so, I draw on Van Woudenberg’s ‘The Nature of the Humanities’ (2017), in which he makes the case that the humanities are geared towards an understanding and explanation of the “meanings, intentions, and values” deriving “from human conventions, from human intentions, and/or from human purposive behaviour” (pp. 113, 126, emphasis original). Utilizing this understanding of the humanities, I more specifically argue that they are in indispensable for carrying out scientific research in three ways: a) in determining the objects of study; b) in guiding the research process, both in what may be called procedural issues (such as informed consent obtainment) as well as in more substantive methodological issues; and c) in reflecting on the application and valorisation of scientific research.
I will focus on a number of contexts in each of which at least one of these three aspects apply. First, in a context of democratic funding, both an understanding of democratic values and an understanding of what is democratically valued are vital in determining the objects of study. Second, whenever science is carried out or applied in a human context, an assessment of stakeholder impact is asked for. Such an assessment includes an recognition of the (implicit) values of the stakeholders and an evaluation of the impact on stakeholders’ conventions, intentions, and/or purposive behaviour. Third, in the context of the scientific research itself, the humanities are called for to critically assess presuppositions in the sciences about human conventions, intentions, and/or purposive behaviour. In all these contexts, the need for the humanities has important ramifications for scientific research in one or more of the three ways mentioned above.

Wim Mol: ‘On disciplinary essentialism and tolerance’

 “the entire body of the science can be considered as an ocean, continuous everywhere, without interruption or break, though men conceive parts in it, and give them names according to their convenience” Gottfried Leibniz. The Horizon of Everything Human.
When answering the question of what makes philosophy[1] and the humanities valuable or useful to society we must beware of a certain trap. It is tempting to seek out the essential characteristics of the humanities or philosophy and defend their value based on some positive traits of these essential characteristics. We might be tempted to say, for example, that we at the humanities study the products of the human mind. Such attempts at definition invariably run into counterexamples. Don’t computer scientists or mathematicians study the products of the human mind? Are they part of the humanities, then?
I would defend that in practice, the reason why philosophers, linguists and historians are all in the same faculty and mathematicians and legal scholars are not, is, as Leibniz indicates, according to convenience. There is simply more overlap between the work of historians and philosophers than between that of historians and computer scientists.
That said, those working in digital humanities or logic might cross over to the STEM faculty more often than they do towards their coworkers in the Spanish Language department. This brings me to my second point: we should exercise a certain tolerance and embrace good research in our departments even if it seems fairly accidental to our field of study. Such tolerance is easier if we realize that the arrangement of fields into larger faculties was already somewhat arbitrary and pragmatic. As an example I will talk about the reason why the interpretation of quantum mechanics is often discussed in departments full of innumerate philosophers. I will argue that while the conception we have of our own field can be useful in directing our own research and interests we should beware to project that same conception onto all of our coworkers.

[1] I will mostly speak of my own field of philosophy and the humanities broadly. Some of the things which I say of philosophy might not transfer easily to History, Gender Studies or Celtic Language and Culture.

Panel 4: Scholarship and the Public

Tamalone van den Eijnden: ‘Is the bio-hybrid stingray a case for the humanities?’

‘The humanities’ is an umbrella term with porous boundaries that additionally encompasses a great diversity of fields and research methods. In the light of this heterogeneity, it seems ‘pointless’ to make general claims to defend a certain discipline over another. This is not to discard the question of ‘what’s the point’ in its entirety. To use the question more ‘pointedly’ and understand the implications of such an interrogation, I will ask the question with regard to Kevin Kit Parker’s stingray, a live-muscle robot. This biotechnological object seemingly does not undergo the complicated questioning of “what’s the point?” The fact that it is an innovative technology seems to almost sufficiently justify its raison d’être and a vague promise that it might eventually help to design an artificial heart for humans appears to do away with remaining doubts. However, is this everything to be said about Parker’s stingray? In my contribution I will deliberate additional questions and knowledge that could be generated from a humanities perspective. Firstly, this entails situating the stingray in its historical and philosophical context. Secondly, the question of further socio-political, philosophical and ethical implications will be taken into consideration. The humanities perspective on the stingray exemplified by this means reveals that the stingray is not merely a neutral biotechnological entity but also a cultural object. It is precisely for this reason that it cannot be understood and evaluated by science only, but requires in addition a critical humanities perspective.

Tom Breedveld: ‘L’art pour l’homme – the academic importance of discussing art and her societal effects’

With regards to the idea of studying ‘entertainment’, a common consensus amongst detractors seems to be that entertainment holds no deeper knowledge to be ascertained through academic study – the arts are of an intrinsic value. But why do people respond to certain forms of aestheticism, and reject others? And this acceptance is subjective – one person might enjoy the creepy works of Jan Svankmajer, while another certainly doesn’t. Whilst this means an objective truth might be harder or impossible to discern, this does not mean the subject is arbitrary.
Using psychoanalysis to close-read the subconscious elements of David Lynch’s work Twin Peaks (Season 3), and the way in which this work and its creator aim to ‘make felt’, this analysis hopes to present a case for the necessity of humanities-studies and their analyses of art and media.
Rather than assuming a study to be worthwhile only when objective truth can seemingly be discerned, this paper suggests that it must be realized that an interpersonal connection between subject and art needs to be discerned and discussed. This psychoanalytical approach can provide a more interconnected foundation of knowledge that reflects on both the arts and its spectators – a necessity in today’s mentally overencumbered society.
While the subject sounds psychological in nature, it is the very capability of art to communicate ‘subconsciously’ that makes it decidedly humanities-related. Most people visit museums and historical sites to encounter other cultures through the art they left behind. Observing art leads to being directly confronted with different, socially structured, viewpoints. It is this achieved connection, or lack thereof, through art that might manage to establish true understanding – and representation. The phenomenological approach of ‘affect’ can be indicative of a societal interpretation of events.

Adriaan Walpot: Which Englishes do the Dutch prefer? Anti-nationalism versus speaker authenticity

English is increasingly used in Dutch universities. From this, the question of acceptability of non-native speaker English spoken by lecturers emerged in Dutch society. The field of socio-linguistics addresses this topic and should have been valuable in providing necessary answers. However, the academic debate is limited to arguments in favor or against non-native speaker models in education and mostly ignores learners’ opinions. As a result, a gap has arisen between socio-linguists and their target audience, which limits the social impact of the academic field. Therefore, I positioned myself outside of the debate and started with the target audience. My research has set out to discover which varieties of Dutch learners prefer in various contexts and what their motivations are. Three focus group discussions (N=16) with Dutch students and graduates provided an answer. Afterwards, six English teachers reflected on the preliminary results in individual interviews. During the thematic analysis, attention was paid to learners’ awareness of the potential that non-native speaker varieties have in terms of intelligibility. Furthermore, learners’ preferences for varieties as motivated by the construction of identities were analyzed with Bucholtz and Hall’s (2004) tactics of intersubjectivity. This analysis showed that the Dutch prefer native speaker varieties over their own non-native one for two main reasons: they believe native speaker varieties are more intelligible, and they desire an international identity, for which they need to sound like a native. However, Dutch people often produce unnatural native speaker English, in which case the learners prefer Dutch English. These results show that the acceptability of non-native English is complex and situational. This means that, for socio-linguistic research to be of value in addressing questions surrounding the use of non-native English at universities, academics need to consider learners’ complex standpoints.