Dissemination, Guest blog

Public Engagement and Academia – Some Things to Consider

Blog by Dr Stephen Gordon

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by Stephen Gordon* *completed PhD in 2013 and has held numerous postdoctoral positions and student support roles; worked as an Advisor in the University of Manchester Careers Service since 2016

The term ‘public engagement’ can seem like an anathema to some aspiring academics. As a medievalist – and, it should be said, not the most extraverted of people – my natural instinct is to find an out-of-the-way seat in an old, preferably historic library and surround myself with stacks of books. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding something new and exciting in a musty, half-forgotten manuscript. And yet in this increasingly interconnected – and, dare I say it, ‘commercialised’ – academic world, there is a definite pressure on researchers to demonstrate the public utility of their work.  For newly-minted postdocs who are perhaps juggling two or three part-time jobs, spending time on ‘engagement’ activities leaves no time for research, writing, and job/funding applications, and can sometimes be seen as detrimental to attaining a full-time academic position. As read on the Times Higher Education Supplement a few years ago, the belief that public-focused projects can have a negative impact on one’s career path is not a new argument. Paradoxically, job adverts are now insisting that applicants demonstrate their ability to disseminate their research to wider audiences. To use a Star Trek analogy, it’s like taking part in the Kobayashi Maru test; a no-win situation.  Fear not, however, for there are certain things ECRSs can do to engage with the general public that doesn’t involve completely overextending one’s work/life/research balance.

Blogs and Social Media

The easiest method for disseminating your research to a wider audience is the creation of a social media account. Twitter is an especially useful platform. Whilst admittedly it can sometimes resemble Obi-Wan Kanobi’s description of Mos Eisley, there is no better tool to get your name (and, more importantly, your research) out there in the wider world. Flagrant self-promotion is the name of the game: have a nice photo of a primary source you’re working on? Published something recently? Attending a conference? Tweet it.  Follow the relevant institutions, funding bodies, and movers and shakers in your field. Retweet subject-specific posts and comment on relevant links. Piggybacking on theme day hashtags (e.g. #folklorethursday) is a further way of getting your posts seen by a wider audience. For professional accounts it’s best not to engage with some of the more emotive political discussions that usually populate Twitter. This is especially true for ECRs – contentious online activity is a turn off for any potential recruiter.

Another important method of dissemination is the creation of a professional blogsite, ideally linked to your Twitter account. WordPress and Squarespace are two of the most popular and widely-used examples of website-building software. Writing for public audiences requires a totally different skillset than writing for a PhD supervisor or conference attendees. Brevity and clarity of expression is paramount. Say in 500-1,000 words what would usually take 3,000-plus words in a conference paper. Intersperse your paragraphs with images to entice the reader. An ability to engage the sensibilities of non-specialists, to sell your work in a clear, easy-to-under-stand manner, is something that can really enhance an academic job application. Admittedly I haven’t updated my own blog, Supernatural Histories, in a while, but it’s also important to get into the habit of making regular posts to build up a following. Who knows, one of your readers could be a potential future employer.

Discover Day Workshops at the University of Manchester

Discover Days are intended for A-Level students interested in applying to the University of Manchester and usually take place throughout the year. They incorporate talks, workshops, and question-and-answer sessions delivered by departmental staff and postgraduate students. Running a Discover Day workshop based on your research is a great opportunity to develop skills in curriculum design and project management, as well as working with different age groups. Of course, contact your department first to see if your services are required!

Public Talks and Lectures

Public lectures are a perfect opportunity to utilise the communication skills you’ve accrued as a seminar leader and/or conference speaker. But where to start? Local history groups represent the most obvious arena for advertising your research beyond the confines of academia. For example, last year I gave a talk to a local archaeology society, the South Manchester Archaeology Research Team (SMART), on the topic of medieval death rituals. Wary of overloading the audience with subject-specific jargon (the bane of all conference papers) I actually found it quite liberating to simply talk about some of the more interesting aspects of my research – medieval walking corpses! – without being beholden to the occasionally tedious minutiae of academic presentations.

As a cultural hub, Manchester is a city that has lot to offer. Consequently there may be opportunities to organise talks or workshops in association with local heritage partners. Although the deadline for the 2018 programme has passed, the annual Manchester Histories Festival is a prime example of the type of event that is always on the lookout for contributors. Of course, your engagement activity – whether a lecture, walking tour, or a more labour-intensive pursuit such as a pop-up exhibition – must accord with the aims and intentions of the event organisers.

These are just some of the ways to consolidate your public engagement experiences. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but a sample of the things to consider. The liminal stage between finishing a PhD and finding an academic position is admittedly a fraught one. Maintaining a balance between research, working, *and* consolidating the skills demanded by an increasingly public-facing role is tricky, but by no means impossible.

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