The ugliness of ‘impact’

‘Impact’ is of course now a yardstick by which the ‘quality’ of British academics’ research is assessed in the periodic ‘Research Excellence Framework’. I have views about all of those things. (Maybe the scare quotes gave that away). But this post is not about them. Rather it is about something to which, I suspect, this promotion of ‘impact’ in the mind of British academics is a contributing factor: the increasing use of ‘impact’ as both a verb and a noun in British English.

I blame business culture  (and its mysterious hypnotic power over politicians and, through them, the media). I usually do. In my imagination – although not only there, I think – Wolf of Wall Street-types like nothing more than strutting about in pinstripe suits, twanging their obnoxiously-loud braces, and boasting about how their latest takeover bid will ‘impact’ the markets. Meanwhile, the more soberly-dressed managerial classes haunt the corridors of their organisation wondering how many ‘impacts’ on ‘efficiency’ they can chalk up this quarter. Perhaps I am being unfair to such worthy ‘wealth creators’ and their allies when I suppose that an inability to routinely distinguish between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ has also shaped their enthusiasm for using ‘impact’ in place of more subtle and moderate words. And there is, of course, the impressive ability of American English to mould British English in its image to be taken into consideration. Despite my crack about Wall Street, I have no criticism to make of Americans’ usage of American English. It’s their language, and they can do what they want with it. (As the late, great, Peter Lipton – himself American – once remarked to me, if you are American, then ‘any noun can be verbed’). I just wish that British English speakers demonstrated a bit more of the proverbial backbone in resisting this particular trend.

Why do I consider the increasing use of ‘impact’ to be contributing to the uglification of British English? It is partly because of the existing connotations of the word, and partly because of the loss of nuance and subtlety that this encroaching usage entails. ‘Impact’ conjures up for me, and surely for many users of British English, the effects of a violent collision. And ‘impacted’, rather than being the past tense of a verb ‘to impact’, indicates to this reader a condition of the teeth (often of the wisdom variety) or a complicated fracture. Even to read of something ‘impacting’ another thing – rather than ‘having on impact on’ – is jarring. And to be asked to consider the ’causes’ and ‘impacts’ of an historical event is especially distressing; as someone with a modicum of philosophical training, the idea that causes have ‘impacts’ rather than ‘effects’ is impossible to adjust to.

There are associated horrors in the world of Higher Education. Some academics have allowed themselves to become accustomed to discussing how ‘impactful’ their research is. One university department I know of boasts on its website about its ‘impactive’ research. Alas, British universities appear these days to be places in which the jargon and errors of business English hold greater sway than an elegant use of the language guided by those academics who study and use it everyday as practitioners of the Arts and Humanities.

As a professional historian, I want to acknowledge the many and complicated relations between historical phenomena. The effect that one thing or person has on another is not always well-described by a word that connotes violent and dramatic change (let alone a painful medical condition). Rather than being ‘impacted’ all the time, people, places, and processes can be shaped, influenced, affected, moulded, transformed, guided, revised, reformed … There are, of course, too many words to list. Shouldn’t we strive to use them, and keep British English beautiful, supple, and subtle?

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The beauty of getting started

So, it has finally happened. Having previously declared that academic blogging was the Devil’s work, the author of history is beautiful has finally decided to start a blog of his own. (He is also writing about himself in the third person; he’ll try to stop doing that soon).

Why? I’m so glad you asked. A peculiar confluence of events has led me to this act. The title of the blog is meant to evoke David McCandless’s Information is Beautiful, Edward R. Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence, and the whole data visualisation phenomenon – on which more, imminently. I recently attended a data visualisation ‘Masterclass’ at the Guardian – I’m keen to explore the phenomenon more, and with particular reference to history teaching and history research. I have a long-standing interest in the study and representation of networks. A long time ago I began a project on astronomical correspondence of the sixteenth century – eventually published as Bearing the Heavens: Tycho Brahe and the Astronomical Community of the Late Sixteenth Century (hbk 2007; pbk 2011). This year, data I collected for that project is being uploaded to the Early Modern Letters Online database of Oxford University’s Cultures of Knowledge project. I’m also flying across the Atlantic to participate in an event at Stanford, home of the Mapping the Republic of Letters project. The conjunction of these different events has got me thinking again about how technologies of the twenty-first century, the era of IT-mediated social networking, might help us to better visualise, understand, and interrogate, the networks of the past.

More generally, I am interested in digital humanities, the ever-increasing abundance of digital resources available to historians, and even just the proliferation of software and apps that can help jobbing historians as they go about their work. Keeping track of all of this stuff is hard – there is, surely, ‘too much to know‘ – try as I might for my own benefit and that of my students. Part of the purpose of this blog is to externalise my memory of such things (already externalised, to be honest, via proliferating bookmarks, links posted to various Virtual Learning Environment sites, Evernote, and a handful of Filemaker databases), categorise them, and I hope, communicate them to others. We’ll see how well that goes.

Since I’m also interested in the history of collecting, museums, and display, and the visual and material culture of the sciences, I expect that I shall try to make history is beautiful pretty with plentiful images. But being in many ways a traditional sort of historian, I shall also try to find the time and space to remark on the written word and the thoughts it expresses. No doubt I shall have some things to say about poor writing and poor thinking as well. That thought takes me with horrific ease to the topic of the state of Higher Education and HE policy. And, finally, I might even feel moved to share some of the actual academic research I have done and am doing on these pages. Let’s see, shall we?