Ineke Sluiter

Anchoring innovation

Ineke Sluiter, Classical languages and culture, Centre for the Arts in Society, Leiden University

0.     Introduction

With my sincere thanks for the honour of being invited to contribute to the Vilnius conference on Horizons for the Social Sciences and Humanities, let me turn to business straightaway. This session is about training and education, about the next generation. I would like to make three points about the future of education in the Social Sciences and the Humanities – henceforth SSH. All of them are premised on the preliminary point that it is impossible to think about academic teaching without connecting it to research. Teaching and research are the core business of SSH academics, and they come —they should come— as a package deal. That realization has consequences for how we think about funding, about knowledge utilization, and  about the place of research in the curriculum. I will argue (1) that teaching itself is a form of knowledge utilization for the researchers in SSH, one that should be openly and firmly asserted, and one that should be generously and fully acknowledged. I will also argue (2) that the importance of research to teaching entails that it should be embedded early, in undergraduate teaching, where we should stimulate undergraduate research. And finally (3), I will say something about the organization of graduate education and the creation of a compelling and stimulating research environment for young researchers, using as an example the Dutch National Research School in Classical Studies, OIKOS. And as we will see, that will bring us full circle to the issue of knowledge utilization.

1.     Teaching as Knowledge Utilization

In SSH, maybe more than in any other academic domain, the direct relationship between teaching and research is crucial. Why is that? It is probably a fair claim that we are the ‘teaching faculties’ par excellence. If I look at all universities in the Netherlands, freshmen enrolments in SSH this year are on average 33% of all students. This includes technical universities. At my own university, Leiden,  freshmen enrolments for SSH this year cover 47% of all new students. If we look at BA diplomas for 2011/12, SSH was responsible for 37% of all BA diplomas nationwide and for 52% of diplomas at Leiden University: we teach between one third and one half of all students who enter university, and we help them to graduate.[1]

I know that researchers are all supposed to be able to specify what added value to society their research creates. But it is my contention that we ask this question in a very crude way by demanding of each individual project  that it prove its usefulness, its potential for knowledge utilization. Although this is often possible, and without a doubt this also goes for SSH,[2] there is still a lot to be said for a helicopter view of this issue. The argument that I would make for a decent base-level funding for academic research across all disciplines in addition to what we budget for teaching runs as follows (note that at this point and for the sake of the argument I accept that the rationale should have an economic basis):

  1. There is a considerable differential between the market value of the 18-year-olds entering the university and the young adults with BA and MA diplomas that we send into society. That added value in earning capacity is to be credited to us, collectively.
  2. As an example, let us consider a specific societal domain that is overwhelmingly populated and run by SSH graduates: the media, journalism, newspapers, radio and television. Our graduates carry the major responsibility in those fields to promote the free flow of information in our society, but not just any kind of information: We need information that is accurate, that has been thoroughly researched, critically appraised, with a good sense of the value of different sources, and that is clearly presented. If that kind of information is available, this will lower transaction costs for our society as a whole, and that again represents a great economic value:  SSH should claim at least part of the credit. It will begin to add up.
  3. Let us reconsider those qualities of accuracy, thorough research, critical appraisal, evaluating sources, and clear presentation: aren’t those precisely the academic objectives that you will find in all our university education documents? To acquire these qualities it takes exposure to, and if possible  active involvement in research. As instructors who are also researchers we model academic values for our students and help them experience what it is like to solve problems with limited means.
  4. This is why we need research in teaching. And this is what makes the class room an arena for knowledge utilization for all our researchers. Note that it also requires high-quality academic pedagogy!

We need, therefore, a base-level of research funding for SSH on the strength precisely of the role of research in teaching. The research can be purely fundamental. Even if it serves only the quest for knowledge, if it produces purely fundamental knowledge, of interest to specialists in a field, without (for the moment) changing the lives of our citizens from one moment to the next: if done well, and if the researchers are also instructors, it will also and at the same time serve to model the values and the academic quality that we want our graduates to bring to their own work in society, as responsible citizens. And please note now that, although I started this argument by accepting the economic frame of funding research on the basis of its potential for knowledge utilization, I ended on what may sound like a more principled defense of the relevance of research. My point is: either way, the importance of research informing SSH teaching cannot be overestimated.

2.     Undergraduate Research

On to my second point, undergraduate research. I am a classicist. By the time I’m done with my students, they can read Latin and Greek, they can hold forth intelligently about Homer, the origins of Greek democracy, the place of the arts in society and a host of other topics. But in the meantime, they will have been offered the opportunity to engage in a number of active and relevant research enterprises that will not only give them the academic qualities I just mentioned, but also skills that are transferrable and will help them on the labor market wherever their careers will lead them.

This summer, I brought a Leiden team of undergraduate students to Harvard’s Center for Hellenic studies in Washington DC. We joined teams of undergraduates and instructors from a number of American Universities and Liberal Arts colleges to take part in the Homer Multitext Project [see]. We studied the oldest Homer manuscript with a complete text of the Iliad, the Venetus A (10th cent. CE).

Figure 1: Venetus A, folio 12r, the beginning of the Iliad.

What you see in figure one is not just (in the darker ink) the text of the Iliad. The manuscript is also chock-full of annotations, in all the margins, and between the lines, going back in part to Greek scholars from the 3rd cent. BCE. This manuscript and all the information it contains is being made accessible to scholars through a very sophisticated digital research tool, which my students were making a modes contribution to create.

What did they learn apart from reading more Homer, deciphering ancient manuscripts, and the excitement of being in direct touch with a very ancient intellectual tradition? They learned to use XML, up to standard digital processing, how a research tool is designed, and they acquired a digital portfolio for future employers.

But more importantly, they worked in teams, shoulder to shoulder with faculty, they learned to work in very structured and systematic way and to check each other’s work. Learned when to make a judgment call and when to call in expert help. Discovered that the expert would not always know the answer on this unexplored terrain, and that sometimes they, the students themselves, would simply have to acquire the particular bit of expertise that we needed to continue. Invaluable. Undergraduate Research: stimulate it, and where possible integrate it into your curricula!

 3.     OIKOS: Anchoring Innovation

Image with permission of the board

My third and last point concerns graduate education, and again I will be using an example from my own experience. The Dutch National Research School in Classical Studies is called OIKOS [see:]. I had the privilege of directing it for 11 years. It is a collaborative enterprise of the six Dutch universities that offer Classics—a relatively small humanities discipline. By organizing ourselves nationally, and making our individual areas of expertise accessible to all graduate students, we have improved the teaching we could offer to our graduate students immensely.[3] A  student in one university will know personally all the people (senior and junior) working in his or her area in the country: a wonderful network. We organize seminars, Master classes, and other teaching events, but mostly, once again, a form of training on the job: ideally, this is the last step in familiarizing students with active research that started in their undergraduate training. In our thematically organized research groups, which cut across the Universities, senior and junior faculty collaborate, and the junior faculty once again are in a position to model their professional identity as a researcher on the behavior and practices of experts with whom they are actively engaged in research. This makes for a compelling and stimulating research environment, which the students themselves take an active part in shaping. The latest result of that collaboration is the development of a research agenda that brings us full-circle in this paper and demonstrates that SSH (even a seemingly theory-oriented discipline as Classics) need not be afraid of issues of knowledge utilization in the by now more traditional sense of research results addressing current societal issues.

The theme of the OIKOS research agenda is Anchoring Innovation, and the intellectual problem that provoked its formulation was the rise, nationally and on the European level, of an almost obsessive focus on innovation. We observed a tendency to delegate innovation to the technical and natural sciences and to medical specialists, apparently without realizing the possible differences between invention and innovation and the limits that society imposed on its own success without realizing it. A recent study suggests that in a successful innovation, i.e. the profitable adoption of a new solution, only about 25% of the success can be attributed to the original ‘invention’, to whatever was ‘new’: the other 75% has to do with ‘the human factor’, whether the new item will be acceptable to the group for which it was intended, whether it matches beliefs, values, understandings and world views.[4] An innovation must somehow ‘land’ in the environment where it should function. If we are interested in innovation, we should include thinking about these factors in the design phase of developing new research. Innovation needs to be ‘anchored’.

It is our contention that ‘anchoring’ will be a valuable concept in discussing societal issues such as innovation. But it is also valuable to the Humanities internally. I have very little space here to demonstrate this at length, but the notion of anchoring as developed in OIKOS can be used to unify and pull together results stemming from a number of different humanities paradigms, such as intertextuality, memory studies, or discourse analysis, to name but a few. When looked at from a slightly more abstract vantage point they can all be regarded as being ‘about’ ways to connect the new to the old and familiar.

But back to societal relevance: we ignore the human factor at our peril. An illustrative example is the tottering vaccination campaign against the Human Papilloma Virus (this is certainly the case in the Netherlands). In this case there were (at least) two major  medical discoveries. The first was the identification of a virus as the cause of this nasty form of cancer; the second is the creation of an antidote. These are invaluable insights, to the credit of the scientists working on this problem. It is important to stress that this paper is not about replacing the claims of one area of research with those of another. Rather, a knowledge driven society cannot afford to leave whole domains of knowledge out of the equation. All relevant knowledge should have been brought to bear, including insights about effective communication and knowledge about the target group. The campaign failed to use the right forms of communication, but initially used snail mail and ignored the social media; it failed to see that one scared mother on an internet forum can outweigh the authority of a medical specialist; it failed to take into account the sensibilities of the parents and of the (pre-)teenage girls themselves, who needed to get the shots; it failed to anticipate the stigmatization that the term ‘Virgin Vaccination’ would carry. It failed, in short, to anchor. My plea, then, is for inclusiveness, to include SSH in thinking about innovation.

The relevance of ‘anchoring’ new ideas can be detected on many levels, in material as well as in immaterial culture. Here is a simple example from ancient and modern material culture:

Figure 2:Metope of Perseus beheading Medusa, temple at Selinus, ca. 550 BCE;
at the arrow: so-called ‘guttae’.

What we see in figure 2 is part of a temple built in stone. The little ‘droplets’ at the place of the arrow do not seem to be functional in the design, neither in the structure nor in the decorative scheme of this part of the temple, where the attention is obviously drawn to the depiction of Perseus cutting off the Gorgon’s head. The lego-like bits of protruding stone are probably visual reminders of what a wooden temple would have looked like, with bits of the wooden pegs connecting the wooden beams sticking out. If we are looking for an alternative function of these guttae, ‘anchoring’ would be a prime candidate: this is what a temple should look like, therefore their presence helps the spectators in understanding the building.

Now think about an electric car. Since the whole point of having an electric car is that we do not need gas anymore, taking fuel becomes a matter of plugging a plug into a socket: it’s just electricity. So why is the socket where it is? It could be anywhere on the car, after all. And why does the whole set-up resemble ‘the old way’ so much: look at the jazzy ‘fuel dispenser’, look at the pipe, look at the nozzle: it is all designed to remind us of a gas station. That is anchoring innovation.×304.jpg


Figure 3: ‘taking fuel’ with an electric car

As the researchers in OIKOS are establishing: this same principle is at work in all other domains of culture, and the phenomenon of innovation and its taking effect is a valuable object of study in its own right: different agents, different ‘anchors’, different ways in which societies conceptualize what is new, and how they see the roles of inventors and traditions. Any innovative society should care deeply about the contributions SSH scholars can make. It is somehow fitting that our Classics PhD students are now thinking about this problem of anchoring, starting from an important anchor of Europaean culture itself, namely classical civilization; all this while our Classics undergraduates are anchoring innovation by using the newest technologies to keep Homer accessible to the 21st cent.

[1] Tables were provided at the conference presentation.

[2] See section 3.

[3] For the sake of convenience I’m speaking about PhD students here. In fact, in the Netherlands the PhD is being pursued by junior researchers ‘in training’, who have a contract and are employees of the University. The PhD is a non-taught degree. However, since in practice additional training is clearly desirable, we have pooled our resources in OIKOS and the senior researchers take turns in offering courses and seminars to all PhD students in Classics (who are interested).

[4] Sociale Infrastructuur Agenda: Meer rendement met een stevig maatschappelijk fundament. De nationale Sociale Infrastructuur Agenda: onmisbaar voor een blijvend concurrerende kenniseconomie. NWO, 2011. [$file/NWOSocialeInfrastructuurAgenda.pdf, accessed 28 March 2011].

About the author:

Ineke Sluiter


VU University Amsterdam, PhD 1990; dissertation: Ancient Grammar in Context

Prior Work:

Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania

Full Professor, Chair  of Greek language and literature at Leiden University

Academic director of OIKOS, National Research School in Classical Studies, Netherlands    

Current Employment:

Professor of Greek, Leiden University

Areas of Research Interest:

Ancient ideas on language; public debates and the use of value discourse; connection between classics and the modern world


Member of Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences; Winner of Spinoza Prize (highest research award in the Netherlands).