On academic reporting

Having completed my new film, The American Who Electrified Russia, which was funded by the AHRC, I have to fill in the end-of-award report. Since the last time I had to do this, they’ve added a new section on ‘impact’, which is extraordinarily ill-conceived. It’s all on-line, of course, and very rigidly implemented, but the real problem is this: how are you supposed to assess the impact when you’ve just completed the work and it has yet to be shown or published?

Of course what you do is what we teach our students to do: you have a screening and get feedback from people. And of course I did this, and it was a great evening, about sixty people came—participants, colleagues, family (after all, it’s a family film), students and some friends. I got enough (very gratifying) written feedback from academic friends to make the report what is called ‘evidence based’—and now I’m just hoping that the film festival folk who view the submissions are as intelligent in their viewing as the aforesaid friends.

And there’s the rub. How do you measure the impact of a film—or a book, or a journal article, whatever—before time, before it’s gone out to meet its audience?

The term is frankly too vague to be considered a useful concept. Even my computer dictionary advises under ‘Usage’ that since the use of the word ‘impact’ is associated with business and commercial writing, it has the status of jargon, and is best avoided. Perhaps the funding council should change their computers. Meanwhile they ask for a measure of impact along a simple linear scale of ‘considerable’, ‘moderate’, ‘low’ and ‘none’, and under two headings, one for the ‘subject area’ and one for ‘outside academia’. You might be conscientious and answer ‘moderate’, you would probably have to be depressed to answer ‘low’, and positively suicidal to declare ‘none’.

‘Subject area’ because that’s how academia is (dis)organised nowadays—disciplines as such have broken down. Outside academia? I’m reminded of the action taken in 1947 by Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton when he slapped an ad valorem duty of 75% on imported films. You might do that with bars of chocolate or books—75% of a known quantity is a known quantity, but how are you supposed to know the (exchange) value of a film before it’s been exhibited? Dalton had no time to find out. The Americans reacted immediately, and the very next day the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) announced an embargo on the export of new films to Britain, throwing the entire British film industry into crisis.

But this is not about commodities, it’s about the supposedly disinterested support for reflective cultural creation. Sixty-something years later, in order for an academically-funded low-budget digital video film to have any impact outside academia, you have to launch the film from the margins into a market place which is international, governed by trends and fashions, controlled by gatekeepers, and irrational. Not that I’m complaining: I like working my way. That is, I long ago abandoned the aim of the kind of impact you might have on television, because of the compromises you have to make. Academia is still governed by academic freedom, which is not a commodity and cannot be bought and sold. And mostly I think it more valuable to have a small but attentive audience than a vast and anonymous one that is only half watching anyway. Not very fashionable, of course, but the books I write aren’t designed as best-sellers either.

Lucky the performance artist, the actor, the musician, anyone in front of an audience, who can immediately sense their response. Even then, the impact of the live is only immediate, and impact of other kinds need time. The impact of Walter Benjamin’s entire oeuvre was virtually nil until until a quarter century after his death. For more ordinary mortals, you know the book you wrote some years ago has had some kind of impact when it gets reprinted or goes to a second edition. The impact of the pair of films I made twenty-five years ago on Latin American cinema was much greater than I ever imagined—they went on sale as VHS cassettes from a distributor in New York and sold steadily for practically twenty years—a good long shelf life.

The impact question as presented on the report form is specious. It can only produce spurious data to feed the paymasters, the political class, who appear to suffer constitutionally from tendentious ignorance, a wilful refusal to understand the complexities of the matter in hand, and not only in education policy.

Still, the form is filled in and the button ready to be pressed. And this is what blogs are for: to vent your frustration, annoyance at time wasted on illusory bureaucratic targets, anger about misconceived managerialism, without expecting to have any impact on anyone as your words fly out into virtual space.

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