October 9, 2012 by Amy Ryall
Kate Gadsby-Mace is a first year PhD student in the School of English. She researches literature, looking specifically at the transition from foreign settings to domestic ones in the British Isles in Gothic fiction written between 1800 and 1820. Here, Kate responds to the first seminar in the Practical Public Engagement series, picking up on some of the points made by Brendan Stone in his talk.
During my studies at the University of Sheffield over the past four years, I have been privileged to be involved with several Public Engagement projects, either through the English Department, with my local church, or in collaboration with our excellent Students’ Union. Brendan Stone’s talk last Thursday highlighted several key issues in dealing with the public, as Ruth Littlewood’s great blog has reminded us, but one in particular that I feel is the most important.
That is, the significance of altruistic engagement. Whilst Public Engagement has become the new hot-topic at universities and is now an essential addition to any PhD student or early career researcher’s cv, it is vital that it does not become an exploitative pursuit. Although it is useful (and sometimes necessary) to have an ultimate goal in mind for the project and its participants, this should not be allowed to overshadow the activity itself and the good that it can do.
For example, last year I helped to run a creative writing workshop for local secondary school children from underprivileged backgrounds. These students were from a school with low college attendance rates and many of them had never considered university as an option which was open to them. The official aim of the day was to encourage them to contemplate higher education, and to give them an opportunity to see what the university was like and what further study might entail for them. Whilst this seemed to me a noble goal, and one which would benefit both the students and the university, in my mind it came in second to the ‘real’ aim of the day, which was to provide them with a space within which to exercise their creativity. They had an opportunity to break free from the bonds of the curriculum and expand their artistic horizons in a relaxed, fun environment. I was delighted by their enthusiasm and imagination, and, judging from the feedback we received, they all enjoyed themselves immensely.
As Brendan so rightly said, the ultimate goal of a Public Engagement project should not be to marshal the participants into certain activities to produce the require results. Nor should it be for the positive publicity that it can produce, or the boost it can give to your CV. It should ultimately be about the participants themselves, about their experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas, and about providing them with a space and time in which to express those things and share them with you and, more importantly, with one another.