Bob Dylan, impact & the blurring of boundaries

Academic and author Paul Breen writes a guest blog on the growing importance that universities are attaching to the notion of real world impact, without a clear definition of what this means.

WINNING the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature has placed Bob Dylan firmly in the analytical spotlight this past couple of days. It has also opened up a debate centred around the fact that this prize, historically, has been awarded as much for the realisation of idealism (in the original Swedish sense of the word) as it has been for the mastery of language, at which Dylan undoubtedly excels. There is rarely a day that passes without one of his phrases or lyrics cropping up in everyday thought and conversation.

For some, Bob Dylan is the 20th century Shakespeare. There is little doubt that the impact of his music has been a major determining factor in this noble, for some, break with tradition. Others see this as further evidence of the gradual dumbing down of society, where depth of knowledge is replaced by breadth of popular appeal. We only have to look at the content of the current American Presidential campaign and debates to garner evidence for such claims about the dumbing down of public debate.

Yet the reality is that Bob Dylan and many other musicians will have far broader impact in their lifetime than many academics could ever hope to even get within touching distance of. Indeed some would argue that academia has been pushed further out of touch with real world impact because of slowness to adjust to the speed and immediacy of the digital age. Despite that, impact is seen as a critical element of REF 2020, the great guiding light and set of goalposts for all our activities over the next couple of years.

This new emphasis on impact though is not simply talking about our impact in the academic or specific disciplinary context. It is suggesting that we have impact in the real world, which suggests that we as academics are to be measured not just on our professional achievements within work but on our personal achievements outside of it. Does this mean that the university can lay claim to those things we achieve in our spare time that help to boost our profile? For example, shaping political policy at national level can be seen as part of our impact. Thus if we are members of political parties in our spare time and we are invited to join committees that shape or challenge government policy, our unpaid work could have an impact of benefit and relevance to the REF.

In the same way, articles that we write outside of the work context can also be drawn upon in terms of real-world impact, which again asks questions of where the boundaries lie in terms of the professional and the personal. For me this is totally acceptable by the very nature of the jobs we do and the communities of practice in which we operate, but there seems to be a contradiction in this, and the increasingly corporate direction in which universities are moving. Many of us find our time being strictly measured and quantified in workload allocation models, which very often bear little resemblance to the actuality of what we do. Similarly, in theory, any work that we produce in a professional capacity belongs to the institution that we work for, though only technically if done within work time. In theory that should then mean we keep possession of those lessons and materials we produce on Saturday mornings of coffee and a hangover, but you may also find contractual clauses that define our work allocation more qualitatively as being the time it takes us to fulfil the duties of our roles. Therefore the Saturday morning shift still belongs to the university courtesy of the fact that we were not quite able to meet all the demands of our role in our regular Monday to Friday slot.

Similarly too, in some workplaces, there is a ban on use of personal email or on using the university postal service for personal purposes. So let’s say I am a member of the Green Party (hypothetically) and I use the university’s mailing service to distribute some promotional material to a newspaper. The folks in the post room may see this as personal, nothing to do with my job if I am a lecturer in English Language for example. Yet, let’s say I climb up the ranks of the party in terms of reputation as a consequence of my promotional efforts and end up becoming invited to join a government focus group on sustainability in higher education. My contribution to this group could count as impact.

Impact though remains a difficult phenomenon to measure, which brings me back to Bob Dylan. A lot has been written about the impact of his music upon culture and the changes to attitudes he has brought, particularly in his highlighting of social injustice. It is these changes to attitudes that satisfy the idealism criteria required by the Nobel judging panel. But did he really chronicle the fate of the African-American community in the manner of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, the man she credits as one of the inspirations for her writing? Has he devoted his life to championing minority causes in the same manner as Ken Saro-Wiwa the Nigerian writer and environmental activist executed in Nigeria in the 1990s? Neither Baldwin nor Saro-Wiwa won Nobel Prizes, and nor have countless other minority voices, particularly those further inhibited by being female. Bob Dylan holds the cultural capital of being from a global superpower and presents his message through the highly commercialised and commodified medium of the music industry.

But to conclude I do think Bob Dylan deserves the prize because he is a master of language whose voice and lyrics cycle through our popular consciousness on a daily basis, and who reminds us all that writing belongs to those who poeticise, rather than prophesise. It would be wrong to deny the greatest lyricist of our age this prize on the basis of those who might also have deserved it either in the past or the present, but did not get it. This award has been a powerful statement on a contemporary redefinition of literature in an age when people are reading less and less, and on the importance of real-world impact.

That seems to be the buzz word/phrase of our era, though impact can be such a subjective factor, and the measurement of it raises as many questions as it offers answers. That’s no less true in the university environment than it is on the judging panel for literary prizes. The times they truly are a changing, as higher education redefines its own sense of impact.