October 6, 2012 by Amy Ryall
Ruth Littlewood responds to the first seminar, which used a talk by Brendan Stone of the School of English, to begin discussions about what public engagement is and how to approach it. Ruth is a first year PhD student in the Department of Hispanic Studies and her research looks particularly at autobiographical writing and testimony by female political prisoners under the Franco dictatorship in Spain.
As a start, I should admit that I approached the Public Engagement course with a certain degree of cynicism and suspicion. Something inside me bristles at the first hint of vaguely positive management-speak that projects a vision of something current and important whilst failing to specify what it really means. The projects discussed by Brendan Stone from the School of English in a seminar yesterday, however, lifted the misty veil surrounding this terminology, expounding on the very real effects of collaboration between researchers and members of the public.
To paraphrase the talk, Brendan spoke about the work involved in building up relationships with people from outside of the university environment, in order to create a flow of ideas not only out of the university but also back into it from the surrounding community. Higher education in Britain remains worryingly intangible for many people but a point of emphasis in the discussion was that Public Engagement should encourage any form and any level of participation, not just as a member of staff or as a fee-paying student. That many of Brendan’s projects involved working with vulnerable people and even psychiatric patients demonstrates the unlimited possibilities for sharing ideas and the breadth of people who are interested and willing to engage with the university when given the opportunity.
The very nature of Public Engagement is that it is collaborative, meaning that problems are likely to arise along the way. Brendan suggested that many of the initial leads can be fruitless and that some ideas can come to nothing through a lack of interest or funding. As the collaboration is voluntary, people can also have a change of heart or disagree over the basic direction of a project. Rather than becoming disheartened, however, these setbacks can often help you to develop as a person, highlighting shortcomings in your approach or in the fundamental elements of an idea.
Ethically, there are also stumbling blocks. Projects that are insincere or exploitative can leave participants feeling used. However, one of the messages from the seminar that particularly resounded with me was that successful Public Engagement projects do not need to be subject to funding, particularly ambitious or prominent: the real aim is to connect with people who have different sources of knowledge and experience.
The element of academia that I hear criticised most often from outside of the university is that, through developing expertise in one specific area, researchers can become isolated and lose sight of the world around them. Public Engagement represents an opportunity for people in academia to change this belief and to counteract the measures that make universities ever more impenetrable and elitist.